Arsenal’s Brentford Stadium Mystery
On the 6th May 1939, Arsenal and Brentford took to the pitch for a First Division match that has come to live long in the memory. It was the last game of the season, and neither team had a great deal to play for. Arsenal were in the top half of the table, but already some distance removed from the championship race. Brentford, who’d spent the previous couple of seasons in the top six, were at the wrong end of the table but in no danger of being relegated. A crowd of 30,928 people saw Arsenal win 2-0, to finish in fifth place in the table. Brentford finished eighteenth.
Under normal circumstances, this would have been no more than a routine end of season fixture, but this particular match would come to be remembered for something else altogether. The match was being committed to celluloid for The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a hokey thriller in which a player is poisoned at half-time which has come to be considered one of the finest documents of the game in this country at that particular time. The Football League was suspended three games into the following season and didn’t return for seven years. When it did, Brentford were relegated from the First Division, and they didn’t to the top flight until the end of last season.
Much has changed in the intervening 74 years. Both Highbury and Griffin Park have gone forever, and every match is now covered by the same number of cameras that turned up at Highbury in May 1939. And football has become stratified in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible then. At the end of last night, though, the Premier League table told its own story. At the end of their first match in the top division since 1947, Brentford sit at the summit of the Premier League.
They may well not be by the time you read this, but as things stand they are where they are on merit, having comprehensively beaten an Arsenal team that looked as though it hasn’t quite left its pre-season headspace yet, last night. Brentford were the better team, and by a substantial margin. They were better set up. Their passing and movement were both crisper. They created the better chances, and they took the best of them.
Any direct comparison between the two teams last night reflects pretty badly upon Mikel Arteta and Arsenal. Playing their first home match in the top flight in 74 years at a new, purpose-built home turned out to be all the motivation that Brentford needed to put in an accomplished performance last night, but where was, and what is, Arsenal’s? It feels almost too obvious to talk about the soft, vulnerable underbelly at the centre of their defence, or their attack with the incisive cutting edge of a butter knife. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were both missing, but few would argue that they would have made a particularly decisive difference last night.
It’s becoming a bit of a cliché, this “Community Stadium” lark, but at least Brentford’s does at least seem to be properly-named. The modern football stadium can be a tricky beast to build, and far too many end up – usually for cost reasons – as anonymous tangles of steel and plate glass, seemingly built for the benefit of everybody bar the fans. SA cursory inspection indicates that this isn’t the case at Brentford. There are no blocked views, and low roofs around the whole stadium seemed to trap the noise inside. A community stadium that’s actually built for its community? Shorely shome mishtake.
But herein lays the most fundamental difference that was on display last night. This wasn’t just two different teams, playing last night. This was two different clubs, with two very different visions of what the game of football should be. On the one hand, there’s Brentford, owned by a wealthy fan who brought the club from the supporters trust, who in turn rescued it from one of its periodic brushes with football’s financial cliff-face. It would be patronising nonsense to say that they’re just in the Premier League to make up the numbers or that they’re ‘just happy to be here’, but the team played without constraint and with the carefree air of a team not weighed down by burdens of expectation.
You know what’s coming next.
Arsenal represent something different. The club has different expectations to Brentford, but these come with attendant tensions that have now been rather too evident for definitely too long. Whereas their opponents are owned by a fan, Arsenal are owned by a wild west capitalist with little apparent love for the club or desire to improve it. While Brentford were celebrating a return to the top flight after more than seven decades away earlier this year, Arsenal’s senior management were plotting to join a European Super League to which they were invited for their commericial pull rather than anything they’ve achieved on the pitch in recent times.
That particular plot now lays in the gutter, but its memory will – many will argue should – be used to beat the clubs who accepted its pieces of silver over the head for years to come. Many of you will remember that one of the key features of this brave new world was insulation from the concept of ‘relegation’. Based on last night’s performance, you could see the appeal of this to Arsenal. This is a club that expects ‘elite’ status, but on the basis of the evidence of last night’s performance they couldn’t be much further from that if they tried – on the pitch, at least.
These two clubs represent two different philosophies of what a football club should be, but we shouldn’t try to fool ourselves over this. The blunt instrument of money usually wins this argument by force alone, and we will see this plenty of times over the next nine months. In 2021, though, Arsenal represent a curdling of this philosophy. Fifteen years ago, it was very different. They’d just reached the Champions League final and moved into a 60,000 capacity enormo-dome. With a successful team – it had only been two years since they won the Premier League without losing a match – and the prospect of filling one of the biggest grounds in the country with holders of the most expensive season tickets, it looked as though the future would belong to Arsenal.
Somewhere along the line, though, this hope has all but disappeared. The owners of the club, self-styled “custodians”, sold up to a speculator who didn’t – and apparently still doesn’t – care about the team’s performance, so long as the money kept rolling in. The replacement of the longest-serving manager in the Premier League was bungled in several different ways. Any goodwill on the part of supporters was quickly frittered away, to the extent that if Arsenal are renouned for anything in 2021, it’s for being such a deeply unhappy club. No-one ever seems to be enjoying it, and in no way could this be made clearer than their gilded team making a short visit across London to a club which they should, by any reasonable metric, be able to swat aside with relative ease, only to perform as though the players were drugged as they tumbled from a clown car.
And perhaps, for Arsenal supporters waking up this morning with sore heads yet again, this will be the most hurtful thing of all. Hope has been in short supply among their support this summer, but at the start of this of all seasons, they might reasonably have expected it to last a little more than 15 or 20 minutes into the first match of the season. They’d already lost pre-season matches to both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Results like those can be written off because of their pre-season friendliness. Getting gubbed by Brentford, however, cannot.
What happens next isn’t likely to fill them with much optimism, either. Chelsea and Manchester City are their next opponents, after all. And, while there are already calls for Arteta’s head – we’re all trigger-happy, these days – that this suggestion is even being made is a further sign of the club’s dysfunction. If Mikel Arteta isn’t the man to lead the club back to where they need to be, after the first league match of the season isn’t the best time of year to be arriving at this realisation. If he’s not the right man for the job, then that should have been realised months ago. If he is and the club’s problems are more structural than anything else, then there won’t be any quick fixes and the likelihood is that supporters are in for more of the same as they’ve been treated to for the last few seasons. It’s fair to ask, “What’s the plan?”, but his is a question to which there doesn’t appear to be a ready answer.
There’s no mystery to the question of why Brentford supporters will have awoken with a spring in their step, this morning. Theirs is a club with a brand new stadium, a clear and defined set of objectives, and a plan for how to get there. Their expectations are realistic and all concerned are pulling in the same direction to achieve them. It is a happy place to be. Perhaps the real Arsenal mystery is why a club which has so many built-in advantages over most others should have ended up in a position in which their vast support base is feeling the grim inevitability of recent history repeating itself yet again after the first match of the season. Stan Kroenke probably knows the answer, but it doesn’t seem like he wants to do much about it, at the moment.