The Iceman Cometh
For those who do not admire it, football must seem like American popular culture does to those who do not admire America: something whose spread is both inexorable and destructive. Football is not just the ‘beautiful game’, it is the ‘world game’; something not simply to be played or watched, but an activity powered by all the resources of global wealth and technology. It is, for example, obvious in this country that football is slowly eliminating alternative sports, even ones deeply grounded in British society. Both rugby codes are gradually decaying; not really because football is a ‘better’ game than they (although it might be) but because they have lost their character as class ‘badges’ – activities which affirm and legitimate ‘middle classness’ (Rugby Union) or ‘working classness’ (Rugby League). The decay of cricket has, no doubt, many causes, but one is competition from football. As the football season is extended, cricket is losing its monopoly as the nation’s (or at least England’s) major summer sport. And it has long been known – since before the First World War – that people would play and watch football regardless of the season, as long as they were given the opportunity. It has also long been known that football has a unique status among Britain’s sports. It was always, however reluctantly, conceded to be the ‘national’ game. But this concession is now much less reluctant. Hardly anyone would deny that football is today central to the public culture of British life: not merely something for Saturday afternoon or Match of the Day but a culture which represents much of the reality of British life itself. Every time (say) Alan Hansen makes a general comment on the nature of British football he is in part making a general comment on Britain – a fact of which he is probably aware. Yet in one important respect it is still not universal. Although the huge numbers of people who play recreational football represent a cross-section of British male society (and even to some extent of female society), those who play professional football do not: they are still overwhelmingly young workingclass men.
Which brings us to Arsenal. To the extent that any individual club historically stands for this culture (for better and worse) it is Arsenal: no other club has had such continuous membership of whatever has been at the time the senior division of English football. In the last few years, like most other Premiership sides, it has of course much changed its character. It has a French manager and is now an Anglo-French-Dutch-African side. Yet its ‘spirit’, for those who believe in these things, has changed less. It remains a side capable of heroic deeds; but it does nothing easily and lives on its own and its supporters’ nerves. Furthermore, its ‘foreign’ players absorb this spirit even as they modify it. And as long as they play the game (in both senses) they are simply assimilated by supporters into the club’s traditions – ‘Bergkamp, 100 per cent Arsenal’. But if they do not play the game they are forgotten. And in one important respect Arsenal remains almost bulldog British: in its ageing but still formidable defence. Which brings us to Tony Adams. Of those bulldogs Adams is the most redoubtable; a man of immense pertinacity and skill who has saved both Arsenal and England on many occasions. And he has been in the game long enough to see it transformed within his own playing lifetime. He was, for instance, a long-time player for the club before he even acquired an agent and until then seems to have relied for advice on his dad (to whom he is obviously very attached) or just signed the contracts the club prepared for him.