Jim White

‘Local’ policy is not Arsenal’s solution


Arsene Wenger is struggling to hold on to Theo WalcottFor a moment you had to wonder if you had heard him properly. Had Arsene Wenger really just said that?

After victory at Reading on Monday night, the Arsenal manager was asked – for perhaps the 318th time this season – about the progress of Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations. His answer went a bit further than anyone expected.

Unprompted, he revealed that his club’s new strategy when it came to long-term team building was to base the construction around a core of British players. Brought up in the culture of the club, the implication was, they would be more likely to understand its purpose and point, less likely to seek out greener financial grass elsewhere when the time came to sign on the dotted line.

What he was effectively saying was this: British players are more loyal than foreign mercenaries.

After scratching their heads for a moment, the reporters gathered in the Madjeski press room agreed that was exactly what Wenger had said.

The man who – more than any other – opened up the Premier League to overseas talent, the man who first fielded an all-foreign side in the competition (Chelsea’s earlier non-British eleven had been in the Cup), the man who seemed for years to mistrust British players, believing them to be less well educated in the game, had apparently suddenly had a Damascene conversion to the merits of the British player.

Now that was news.

The first thing to be said is that Wenger is an arch pragmatist. He has never been shy of development within the game, embracing change whenever he feels it might assist him.

If he reckons an all-British core is the way forward, then it will surely benefit the game in this country. Building a side around Wilshire, Gibbs, Jenkinson and Oxlade-Chamberlain - while promoting the graduates of the academy - will make Roy Hodgson sleep much easier.

But you have to wonder, is he right in his assumptions? After all, the last time anyone looked, Theo Walcott, the player threatening to be the next to follow the exit route taken by Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Alex Song and – gulp – Robin van Persie, is British.

Yet his local ancestry is not stopping him sniffing out a bigger pay cheque. And wasn’t Ashley Cole one of the first out of Arsenal in pursuit of the folding stuff? You know, Ashley Cole that sneaky, greedy foreigner with 99 England caps.

Now there might be something to be said about youngsters brought through the system remaining loyal to the badge they have worn from the age of eight.

But Wenger didn’t say that he just wanted academy graduates. He said he wanted British players at the heart of his team. And of his six first team regulars who are British, only Wilshire and Gibbs fall into the entirely home grown category.

Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Walcott were all bought in as older players. And presumably, the reason they left previous clubs like Charlton, Cardiff and Southampton was because Arsenal offered them greater prominence, greater opportunity of international recognition and more money than they could have got had they stayed loyal to their origins.

Precisely the same temptations, you imagine, that are being dangled in front of Walcott and his advisers by Chelsea and Manchester City.

Indeed, the more you thought about what Wenger was saying the more you got the feeling it was mere distraction. A good headline, a good way of appealing to the fraught sense of loyalty that is at the heart of the fan experience, a good debating point. But not a way forward.

The truth is Arsenal are in a bizarre position. They run their club properly, to robust financial boundaries. This is an organisation which adheres to Dickensian economic values: spend a penny more than you earn and that way misery lies; spend a penny less and that way can be found happiness.

It is a perfectly legitimate approach in any other business than the modern Premier League, where the unreal economics of Chelsea and Manchester City have completely warped the market.

The distressing fact is, In order to compete with them, Arsenal need to start behaving in a way which totally goes against their prudent instincts.

This is not to do with the nationality of the players, it is not a matter of comparison between the attitudes of the British and the rest (a comparison that in any case does not stand up to close analysis).

It is a simple case of paying what the market now demands. Even if you fundamentally disagree with the way the market conducts itself. And that, as Rafa Benitez would no doubt tell Wenger, is the fact.