Arsenal has played a big part in Brian Glanville’s life. They were the team his father supported, they were the first club side he ever watched and, as a child in the 1930s and ’40s, he was obsessed by the team, particularly their star player Eddie Hapgood, to whom he wrote regular fan letters.
Glanville, arguably Britain’s greatest football writer, has written two histories of the club — the latest of which, The Real Arsenal, was published at the end of last year. But he is not an Arsenal supporter. “I stopped being a fan in 1953. I decided that it was a childish thing. Many other journalists have retained their allegiances but I didn’t think it was right. I still have soft spot for them though.”
Glanville saw his first Arsenal game as a child in 1942, ironically at White Hart Lane, home of their arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur as Highbury was shut during the War.
Although he finds it hard to compare decades, Glanville feels that Arsenal’s finest era has been under present manager, Arsene Wenger. “That team with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp was the best I have ever seen,” he says.
He is often asked whether Wenger is the most important figure in Arsenal’s history and puts him at number three. “The most important was Sir Henry Norris. He took Arsenal across the Thames from Woolwich. He gave them a new home in north London, conned his way into the First Division and brought Herbert Chapman to the club.”
Chapman, who ranks number two on Glanville’s list, managed the club to three championships in the 1930s and revolutionised football tactics. “He was the main man. Arsene Wenger has done extraordinarily well, but without Norris and Chapman there wouldn’t have been any sort of club to do it with.”
More recently, there has been a considerable Jewish involvement at boardroom level. Former club vice president David Dein is given the credit for hiring Wenger. Although Glanville is convinced that in previous generations antisemitism existed in the Arsenal boardroom, he does not see it much in the stands of the Emirates Stadium, even when Tottenham play. “I don’t hear antisemitic chanting that much now at Arsenal, but a few years ago at Chelsea, it was like being at a Nuremberg rally.”
He has had personal relationships with many Arsenal managers over the years, although he does not claim to be close to Wenger. “I was always very pally with George Graham, which as I always say to my wife, is the kiss of death for a manager.”
Graham, who won two Championships, was sacked for taking illegal payments from an agent. But Glanville feels the club was negligent. “Not only did they do nothing but they kept Graham in the job long enough for him to spend a further £6 million on players.”
He had a less cosy relationship with former manager Bertie Mee, who led the club to the double in 1971. “I couldn’t stand him. He was lost without his assistant, Don Howe, and Howe was lost without Mee. Howe blamed former chairman Denis Hill-Wood for his departure because at a banquet for the double-winning team he thanked everyone except Howe.
“Howe was perfect as a coach but lousy as a manager. Mee was authoritarian and humourless. He treated Charlie George terribly. George was a bit of a roughneck but he had a divine talent — there was nothing he couldn’t do. George loved Arsenal, he shlepped all over the country supporting them as a kid and now he works in the Arsenal museum. But Mee couldn’t keep him. That says everything you need to know about him.”
He is similarly scathing about England managers. He rates Sir Alf Ramsey as the greatest but does not have the same respect for Sir Bobby Robson or current boss Fabio Capello. “I have always admired him as a player and a manager but I don’t think he’s done a terribly good job. I think he’s been very lucky. I don’t see how he can keep picking Beckham and he has not resolved the whole dualism of Lampard and Gerrard in the England midfield.”
So who is going to win the World Cup this summer? Glanville does not think there is an outstanding team though he is glad he will not be going as he views host nations South Africa as “dangerous and ridden with crime”. It will be the first he has missed since his first World Cup in Sweden, 1958. “I’ve been to 13 and I’ve got a certificate from Fifa to prove it. This time I’ll be watching on TV, thank God.”