I had a few minutes of down time at my regular job yesterday so I spent that time looking through The Times online archives. It was a simple search, I wanted to find the first usage of the term “Gunners” to describe The Arsenal in The Times. In terms of a headline search, there was just one article in the entire history of The Times (until 1985) with the terms “Gunners” and “Arsenal”. It was a report on a Halloween match, October 31st 1964. Arsenal beat Everton 3-1 at Highbury courtesy of their twinkle-toed new signing, George Eastham.
The article is a wonderful snapshot into the past. A time when unnamed correspondents for broadsheet papers like the Times were real writers and not just muck-raking click whores. A time when a newspaper report might be the only glimpse that thousands of Arsenal fans had of a game and so it had to be well written and take the reader to the game, possibly transporting them hundreds of miles to stand shoulder to shoulder with delirious fellow Gooners as they slosh beer about and sing the praises of their heroes for the day: George Eastham and Frank McLintock.
1964 was a year of turmoil and revolution all over the world and as with many other things in life, sport reflected that revolution. Arsenal were in the midst of what would turn out to be one of their longest stretches as a club without a trophy: 1953-1970. We modern Arsenal supporters could use a healthy reminder of that 16 season drought – it was a time when Arsenal finishing 10th was a more likely occurrence than a third place finish and the notion that Arsenal should be “challenging for trophies” was laughable.
As the writer shows us, it was also a time of chaos in terms of Arsenal’s direction as a football team and a club. The club seemed to lack a clear identity and vision of the future and like a ship with no one at the helm, were subjected to the buffets of the winds as they drifted in football’s vast sea. In 2012 it’s a tenant of the club’s faithful to say that “the Board” has no ambition and is happy with fourth place finishes every year. Which may or may not be true but what is certain for Arsenal is that in those 16 dry years the board seemed happy with escaping relegation.
Not that the club never tried in terms of player acquisitions, buying players like George Eastham and Frank McLintock. McLintock was an Arsenal transfer record at £80,000 and fitted directly into the Arsenal first team after signing, just a few days before the match against Everton reported here. It took seven years and a lot of hard work, but McLintock was an integral part of an Arsenal side that would eventually win the double in 1971.
But as I said, it was a time of rebellion and that year, the club were actually at the forefront of a player’s rebellion, led by none other than the aforementioned George Eastham. Despite the transfer to Arsenal in 1960, in 1963, Eastham sued Newcastle for back pay and in order to end what the players called “slavery contracts.” Basically, these were contracts which allowed the club to own the registration of a player and refuse to pay him or allow that registration to be transferred when he was out of contract. “Balanced on frail looking match sticks that passed for legs” this “wisp” of a man stood up to the establishment and the chutzpah it took to do so cannot be overstated. In the English cast system the owners of football clubs were upper crust and they put out entertainment to the working class, using players who earned less than the people watching them and who had less freedom to change jobs. It was, in essence, a gladiatorial system with the ruling class enslaving the entertainers in order to keep the working class entertained.
Eastham kicked a hole in that system and in the forty years since, player power has utterly decimated the old ways. Clearing a path for Nasri, Adebayor, and van Persie to be trained at one club, have that club bring them through the ranks, coddle them through injury, and then simply waive good bye on the way out the door to Juventus for a shocking £190k/week NET.
Certainly Arsenal couldn’t have seen that coming.
Regardless, it’s a fascinating bit of writing and I encourage all of you to take a little while to and read this article.