A few days ahead of Arsenal v SAFC, 5-0 against Orient has an ominous ring to it. Has life picked up again for the Gunners at just the wrong time for us? Our Arsenal previewer, the infuriatingly prolific writer, actor and broadcaster Tom Watt* certainly sounds like an optimist.
When it comes to soaps, I’m more Coronation Street – absurd storylines and all – than EastEnders. So I’d forgotten that Tom played Lofty Holloway for three years. I did recall, however, that he was a likeable phone-in host in earlier days of TalkSport – and a committed G*****. Read on – and his replies do make for an excellent, provocative read – to see why he’ll be pleased with that spot of censorship. And don’t call him a fan either …
Oh dear. If you need a fillip after the bitter disappointment of Wembley, you have to look no further than the fixture list showing Sunderland as next up in the Premier. Home banker?
I don’t know about that. It is far more important than a fillip to be honest. The disappointment of Wembley means the next fixture becomes probably the single most important game of the season. If we beat Sunderland we are still in with a fantastic chance of winning the league whereas anything less than a win could make that unachievable.
Was the Carling Cup defeat indicative of good but not great season; strong in all competitions but perhaps not strong enough to win any of them?
That remains to be seen. We have the FA Cup replay on Wednesday (and made light enough work of that – ed), Sunderland at home on Saturday and then it’s off to Barcelona for the second leg next Tuesday. Win these three games and we might just be looking at the greatest season in Arsenal history. Lose them and it will look a little different. But it is absolutely impossible to tell at this stage and we will find out a lot between now and next Tuesday.
What is your overall assessment of Arsène Wenger’s long reign at the club?
We are just privileged to have the fella around the place. This guy has completely changed expectations, everything has changed with him. We have the best stadium in Britain, we are the most attractive team in Britain and have had the highest achievements for the longest period in history. There’s a fantastic training ground, the only business model in English football that makes sense – everyone else is just making it up as they go along – and for someone who has been watching them as long as I have, talk of not winning a major trophy for five years is just a bit wearing. When we won the Inter City Fairs Cup in 1970, it was the first trophy they had won since 1953. I take a longer term view that a lot of supporters and certainly longer than the 24 hour news services.
You are very lucky if you have one great manager who has given your club an identity and seen it take a massive step forward, so we are very lucky indeed to have had not one but two: Herbert Chapman in the late 20s and early 30s and now Arsène Wenger.
To be honest, anyone who is not a fan of Wenger’s is an idiot. Just take a deep breath and look at is achievements, how many trophies we have won even if you don’t think we are going to win any this season, next season or the one after. Anyone not completely swept up in the 24 hour news cycle would look at what he has done as absolutely unbelievable. Anyone who does not see him as an incredibly significant figure not just in our history but in English football is either an idiot or knows nothing about football. Go ahead and not like him for this reason or that, but not to respect and admire his achievements is sheer foolishness. Anyone would be happy to pay £1,500 for a season ticket to watch that sort of football and it is down to Arsène as well as others that we have this the unique business model that makes us the only sustainable football club in this country.
Arsenal have a wonderful history and tradition and, now, a phenomenal world fan base. Does it bother you that some see this as making you less a proper football club, more a global brand?
No. I think, funnily enough, that the one area where Arsenal are behind Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea is on that basis. If you look at the commercial income which takes in that whole global branding business, we are behind them all. I don’t that in any respect Arsenal’s tradition has been compromised by looking to appeal to a global supporter base. I do a phone-in show for Arsenal’s online TV channel and get calls and e-mails from all over the world. I have no issue with and think it’s great.
The Emirates is widely acclaimed as a fabulous stadium, but how much do you miss Highbury?
You have to appreciate that Highbury was my back garden for 40 years. I still miss it today. I grew up at that stadium and it had an undoubted special place in Arsenal and English football history. But I am absolutely convinced by the argument for the Emirates.
Amazingly, the single greatest achievement is not that it is this fabulous stadium that earns Arsenal massive matchday income, enabling 20,000 more people to see each game, but that it is only 500 yards away from Highbury. There is no other club that has upgraded in such a way yet stayed within its traditional footprint.
Sunderland, maybe? Closer to the town but also so near to Roker Park that people still park where they used to or have their pre-match drinks where they used to.
I imagine land values on Wearside are not what they are in Islington! But you know in that case exactly what I am talking about. Although you have a new stadium, nothing else has changed in terms of where you park, meet your mates, have a drink beforehand and a meal afterwards. We are looking back on our own personal family history in our part of north London and all that has remained intact.
Who will finish top four, in order, this season and who will go down?
1) Arsenal 2) Manchester United 3) Manchester City 4) Chelsea (I need them to be fourth as it means them picking up points from Man Utd which we need if we are going to win the league (a wish granted by Tuesday’s result from Stamford Bridge – ed)
Going down: West Brom, Wigan and one from, maybe, Blackburn and Blackpool.
And who will win the cups that remain?
I have not got a clue. Honest.
Who are the best players you’ve seen in Arsenal colours, and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
Dennis Bergkamp is the greatest player I have ever seen play for Arsenal, with right up behind him, in terms of out and out quality, Liam Brady and Thierry Henry. In terms of favourite players, you can talk of the double side – Charlie George, John Radford, Frank McLintock, Bob Wilson, that whole 1970-71 team has a place for ever in my heart. There have probably been few (who should never have been allowed near the shirt) but I would say, not necessarily through any fault of their own and in no way to criticise them as players, Alan Ball and Jeff Blockley who came in, precipitating the break-up of the double team. A huge mistake.
What have been the highs and lows of your history as a Gooner?
First of all, I never call myself a Gooner. I am an Arsenal supporter. Gooner is a modernism that I just don’t use at all. It is just a word that really winds me up; the same with fans, which I don’t use either.
But very few days go by when I don’t thank my lucky stars that I grew up around the corner from Arsenal and not anywhere else. I have unbelievable memories: the second leg of the Inter City Fairs Cup final in 1970 when we beat Anderlecht 3-0 at Highbury, winning the league at Tottenham in 1971, at Anfield in 1989 and at Old Trafford in 2002. The invincibles season, the first Champions’ League final in Paris. All unforgettable highs.
Lows? Well Sunday was pretty low, but the lowest would probably be losing the League Cup final to Swindon, who were then in the third tier, in 1969. Also that semi final against Sunderland at Hillsborough – you ought to remember Jeff Blockley as it was his two mistakes that put you through to the final. That one sticks in the memory because for some reason we didn’t start to play until we were 2-0 down, Charlie George got one back but it was not enough, a devastating afternoon.
Any memories – good, bad or amusing – of past Arsenal v Sunderland encounters home or away?
I remember one game at Roker Park in 1991 when we were on our way to title and scoring goals for fun, but it was 0-0. There there was something that is absolutely about the game at its best: the abuse between the twos sets of fans was memorable, both sets slaughtering the other, but at the end of the game Sunderland supporters applauded Arsenal’s and Arsenal’s applauded them.
It was the Eduardo question – which really annoyed Arsenal supporters – and is now the Walcott question. Was Theo brave or naive to admit publicly and apologetically that he dived in a match, and is it time anyway to abandon high-minded principles about cheating and accept it as part of the modern game?
I don’t see it in those terms. For Walcott to admit to diving was to say “yes, I dived but I won’t be doing it again”. He was admitting it was wrong and making himself a marked man on that front. I don’t know that it’s to be applauded. All it involves is Theo Walcott, not a general point. I have to say that one of the chants that really, really winds me up, and there is not much opposing supporters can do to get me going, is “Same old Arsenal, always cheating” because I look at Arsenal as probably the most honest football team, and as honest now as they’ve ever been. It does seem that Arsenal play the game to different set of rules than everyone else. You only need to watch when we play, say, Birmingham City or Stoke City, the whole thing of getting in Arsenal’s faces, and I am not getting at Tony Pulis who is a good mate for whom I have a lot of time. Their players sometimes seem to be judged on a different form of refereeing so that a foul by an Arsenal player is not the same as a foul by one of theirs. Because they are Stoke it’s considered “all right”; how else can they play against Arsenal without being murdered? But Arsenal are judged in a different way.
Arsenal supporters certainly seem to have remembered the name Dan Smith long after Sunderland supporters have all but forgotten him.
You say Dan Smith. Then there’s Martin Taylor and Ryan Shawcross (who did his best to break another Arsenal player’s leg the other night) and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence. OK, if it was just Dan Smith, you might say that’s one unfortunate event, Then you get Martin Taylor and Shawcross and it looks different. I don’t just blame the players, but the whole attitude on what is acceptable as a way of stopping Arsenal playing. It is not really a conversation worth having with supporters of other clubs but there is something very English and very regrettable about the way that within five minutes, the perpetrators of these assaults become the victims – “he’s not that kind of player”, “he didn’t mean it”. Yet the lad who had had his leg broken suffers in his long term career. Abou Diaby has never really recovered, physically yes but not psychologically, from his injury. Look at the recent game at Newcastle: people would stick up for Joey Barton and not him.
How disappointed were you that the 2018 World Cup went to Russia, or is the memory of South Africa too vivid and grim to care that much?
My memory of South Africa was not troubled by England’s performances. I was there for four months writing the text for the local organising committee’s book on the tournament, in terms of the impact on the country rather than the football itself. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, professionally and personally. The only people I met who were not absolutely delighted about the whole tournament were England supporters who were utterly disappojnted by what they had been watching. But on the venue, you almost get the impression that our powers-that-be would rather stage a World Cup than win it. I was disappointed with the Fifa decision but I cannot say I was surprised. The Russian bid was a long way ahead for at least two-and-a-half to three years during which time it was always the strong favourite.
Will you be at our game and what do you think will be the score?
I will definitely be at the game, and urging Mr Deary – (Sunderland-supporting Terry Deary, the bestselling children’s author with whom he is working on the Shelby Town project** – ed) to sit on his hands. But I never do score predictions.
Tom Watt is …
… probably best known in the UK as an actor after starring in BBC TV’s EastEnders for the first three years of the popular soap opera’s run. Since the late 1980s, he has appeared in West End hits, national tours – including an acclaimed one-man show based on Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch – and several television series. Film credits include And A Nightingale Sang , Patriot Games, Lost Dogs, Flirting With Flamenco, Sherlock Holmes and Small Island.
Tom has also written and broadcast on football for the past 15 years. His first three books were The End<, an oral history of Arsenal’s famous North Bank terrace; A Passion For The Game, 90 first-person accounts of life behind the scenes in the professional game; and The Greatest Stage, the official history of Wembley Stadium. More recently, he ghost-wrote David Beckham’s million-selling autobiography My Side. Tom has written extensively for newspapers on sport, books and television for. As a broadcaster, he presented and helped create Row Z for the BBC and co-produced the innovative children’s sports series, Rookies, for Channel 4. He has presented the country’s most popular football phone-in, 606, for BBC Radio 5 Live, for whom he also wrote and presented Watt In The World, a Sony-nominated documentary series on world football. Between 1998 and 2001, he presented seven shows a week for TalkSport, creating the successful drive-time Season Ticket and later hosted BBC London’s weekend football coverage for eight years. He currently hosts a weekly worldwide phone-in show for Arsenal TV online and is a regular member of BBC Radio 5’s Fighting Talk panel.
Tom’s series of football-themed books for schools, The Shelby Town Story, written to tie in with literacy and numeracy projects around the UK, was published in 2008 and a new series, The Jags, was released in 2009. A Beautiful Game: Football Through The Eyes Of The World’s Greatest Players – about football and childhood, undertaken in co-operation with UNICEF and 40 of the world’s leading footballers – was published worldwide in 2009 and in the US last year, winning the Sportel award for Best Illustrated Book of 2010
Tom recently completed a sell-out run in London’s West End, starring in a production of Lope de Vega’s comedy, Madness in Valencia. The book mentioned, about the World Cup’s impact on South Africa – 2010: When The World Cup Came To South Africa was published before Christmas. He is currently compiling a collection of short stories for teenagers, based on the exploits of Shelby Town and written by leading UK children’s authors and Premier League players.
If any of Tom Watt’s books grab you – everything shown, except Charlie George’s autobiog, is his – buy them at the usual knockdown prices by clicking here
Interview: Colin Randall