The name at the moment brings about visions of slick, fast paced, wonderful football for the eye. This has not always been their reputation. The whole point of Jon Spurling’s book Rebels For The Cause: The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club is to make that argument that there is more to Arsenal Football Club than trophies and plaudits over the years.
What I love about football are the stories that go into what makes them who they are. I enjoy views that go beyond the officially sanctioned perspective and offer something more to what we are lead to believe. Spurling is able to do that with journalistic zeal and good humour.
From the makings of Arsenal and the two men who were ruthless and unconventional in ensuring the club’s early success through to the executive power play of David Dein, the book explores how figures in the club’s history have had to do things near the wrong side of the tracks either legally or to the palates of those who want pleasant football.
Sometimes the historical elements can be boring to read and come across more like a recitation of the yellow pages. Spurling puts the story into the history in giving us glimpses of remarkable men and their remarkable deeds. A great example of that is the story of Sir Henry Norris and how his manipulation and use of key contacts allowed him to steamroller his plans for the establishment of Highbury despite opposition from the community and nearby London football teams. It is rendered as a gripping rise and fall story and even elicits in some places some sympathy for a man who evidently was better at making enemies than anything. His legacy, however, is directly related to the success that the club was to enjoy soon after his departure in the late 1920’s when Herbert Chapman in the early 1930’s made the team to be the dominant force of the era.
Spurling obviously loves the club – that is more than apparent, yet his love for the club does not blind him to the reality that it took a lot of seedy, uncompromising and questionable conduct to make the club what it is – which I’m sure can be stated about other clubs, it’s just that the truth has been sugar-coated by lovable or hugely successful characters or by some elements of tragedy.
What makes the book so enjoyable to read is the description of the characters over the 100 years that have done things either in line with their culture, or otherwise rebellious that has left the club in disrepute. Whether it’s a manager, a player or an executive, no one is spared an honest appraisal and the stories are not just glorifying the misdeed, it puts them in the context of the times in which they lived and the often tragic aftermath. So the failing teams of the mid 1970’s to mid 1980’s are typified by players who either drew controversy in their character (Charlie George, Malcolm MacDonald and Charlie Nicholas) or in their hard man image (Peter Storey and Willie Young).
Through the majority of the book, the tales are told in vivid and evocative style imprinting just what a fuss these issues caused at the time. As it gets to nearer to the situation at the time of the book being published, it becomes a lot more personal from the author. David Dein does not leave the book with a squeaky clean image, he’s almost made to be the successor to Sir Henry Norris in terms of being a political operator of the highest order.
It would be interesting to see how Spurling would have updated the book as it was written before Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium and their subsequent ownership shares situation.
For its humour, insight and quality story-telling I recommend this book highly. It’s not just a great read for Arsenal fans (I’m a Liverpool fan after all), it’s a good read and reminder to all lovers of football and sport in general that as in life, sometimes to write the story properly means appreciating the good, the bad and the downright ugly.