You’ve probably seen this picture on twitter or discussed the article on some other social media outlet but if not, the photo above is a copy of article from the back page of the Daily Mirror dated Thursday, August 31, 1995 in which Stuart Pearce shocked the world with his pronouncement that Arsenal’s record signing, Dennis Bergkamp (and £4.5m David Platt), was a waste of money.
Much merriment has been had by Arsenal supporters at Stuart Pearce’s expense over this interview. And if the essence of comedy is the exaggeration then I suppose the wide berth by which Pearce was off the mark is kinda funny. But if you look past the headline and dig into the meat of the interview, Pearce was right about some things. For example, despite spending record amounts of money on Bergkamp (£7.5-8.5m) and Platt (£4.5m), Arsenal didn’t win the Premier League that year. Ok, that was about the only thing Pearce was right about as Bergkamp made quite the impression in an Arsenal shirt. In fact, I have a shirt with his name on it.
I was curious, though, about the context of the article. What was going on in the League that would prompt such a visceral reaction from the Forrest fullback? So, I visited my local library (online) and dug up the transcript of the actual article and had a look around at what some of the other papers were saying and I’m here to report that in the almost 20 years since that article was published, not much has changed in football journalism: there were puns like “NICE BERG” and claims that the deal meant the end of football as we know it. Or knew it. You know what I mean.
As it turns out, in the summer of 1995, everyone in England was shocked at the level of spending that Arsenal and other clubs were laying out. The deal for Bergkamp was widely reported as a £7.5m transfer fee*, which was a record until Liverpool bested it with £8.5m for Stan Collymore later that summer. Not widely reported is that Bergkamp’s deal broke Arsenal’s “hitherto rigid wage structure” and made Bergy the highest paid player in England at £5m**, over three years. If you don’t want to do the math, that’s £32,000 a week.
That same summer Chelsea bought Ruud Gullit who was the highest paid player until Bergkamp signed for Arsenal, Liverpool bought Stan Collymore for more in transfer fees but less in salary making his total package less than Bergkamp’s, Arsenal signed David Platt for £4.5m, Warren Barton*** became the most expensive English defender when he signed for Newcastle at £4m, and even Tottenham got into the act and spent £4.5m on Chris Armstrong (who?). Spending was in vogue and Arsenal were one of the top spenders.
It was a situation that Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood**** called “crazy”:
Yes, it’s absolutely mad. Other people are doing it and we’ll finance it. The transfer market has gone crazy , but I’ve been saying that for the last 20 years I thought it was crazy when we were asked £5m for Chris Sutton a year ago. I thought it was crazy when we paid £ 2.5m for Ian Wright.
Peter Wold wasn’t alone in thinking all this spending was spiraling out of control, in 1995. Tottenham’s chairman at the time, Lord Sugar, was so outraged that Arsenal had financed the purchase of Dennis Bergkamp that he called for the FA to step in and institute a transfer fee cap. Venting his spleen the Lord Sugar said:
It’s difficult for our club to compete when irrational amounts of money are being paid that don’t make sense in respect to the balance sheets of the clubs in question. Clubs like Arsenal , Tottenham or Newcastle can’t afford to pay pounds 10m for players – it’s a fact of life because the gate receipts and TV money is just enough for them to keep their heads above water, let alone make profit – forget about profit. It’s definitely not on. I won’t be intimidated into plugging a gap to solve a problem – and if the chairman of Arsenal is saying he had to do it to appease people, it’s a sorry world. Especially if he openly admitted he had to go into the red to do it, to get himself into financial trouble.
So, let’s get this straight. Arsenal broke the transfer record for Bergkamp. Arsenal broke their salary structure for Bergkamp. Arsenal borrowed money to buy players. And Arsenal didn’t win trophies that season (they finished 5th) but with the solid foundation of the best defense in the Premier League and Dennis Bergkamp in the attack they went on to win two doubles. Meanwhile, in the summer of ’95 Tottenham were the ones talking about teams needing to be financially self-sustaining and asking for the FA to impose a Financiaal Fair Play-esque Transfer Fee Cap.
18 years later, it’s Arsenal moaning about transfer fees. Makes me wish I was in 1995 again. I’d invest in Microsoft, get a high-top fade, and watch Arsenal’s golden years unfold.
I guess the good news is that Arsenal look like they might have found a path out of the Wold. Unlike the last five years, Arsenal offered van Persie a wage-structure-busting salary and are no longer looking exclusively at youth. Meanwhile, buying Podolski and Giroud before van Persie had a chance to shoot his mouth off was a good bit of business and certainly helps the Gunners both on and off the pitch. The last two pieces of the puzzle would be to sign Santi Cazorla and an experienced backup keeper.
If Arsenal manage all that, I might get that high-top fade after all, because it will be like 1995 all over again.
*With a guarantee of four matches between Arsenal and Inter to help sweeten the deal, this arguably brought the transfer fee to over £8.5m
**Includes amortization of a £1.5m signing on fee
***For those who have to watch him here in America on Fox Sports you’ll be interested in this quote: “I’m an Arsenal fan but I had no hesitation in saying yes when Kevin Keegan came in. Everyone sings the praises of the club and the city. I feel sure I can handle the situation of being a Pounds 4 million player.” I guess he was/is a Gooner!
****Isn’t a Hill-Wood actually a wold?