Ahead of the visit of Arsenal to St James’ Park this coming Sunday, we caught up with Layth, long-standing contributor to the fanzine institution that is The Gooner, one of the longest-running, most widely read and respected fanzines in the country. A true heavy-weight of the fanzine scene and we’d recommend you pick up a copy the next time you have the chance.
Anyway, eyes down, here’s the craic from the London Borough of Islington.
TF: Arsenal has looked as impressive as anyone this season. What has Wenger done differently if at all?
Layth, The Gooner: To me all he’s done is buy a world class player who gave everyone at the club, the players and the fans a huge lift, almost on par with signing Bergkamp. That and putting his huge reserves of loyalty into players that ultimately deserve it. It’s ok lauding players like Song and Hleb, but they’ve realised themselves it was Wenger who made them into better players than they really were. The grass isn’t always greener. With players like Nasir it was the money and with RvP it was a combination of frustration and money. Fabregas was different as we knew he would go home one day.
But the fact is they all left. With home grown youngsters like Ramsey, Wilshere, Gibbs, and youngsters signed to the club at an early age like Szczesny and Jenkinson there’s a real team ethic and understanding of what Arsenal is about. If you throw in Giroud and Metersacker finding their feet in their second season, not to mention Sagna showing the consistency of his first season, Kos blossoming into a genuine international class centre half, Arteta showing (sending offs aside) real tactical discipline in his deeper role, and Ramsey in the form of his life, with the prospect of a fit again Theo, Podolski and the Ox to come, then despite the vitriol of the Villa game it might be a return to Arsene knows. We still need to sign a world class centre forward mind, as Bendtner looks (and plays) like a fat gap year student, and perhaps more defensive cover…
TF: How much effect do you think the 3-6 reversal to Man City will have? Can you read too much into that game?
Layth, The Gooner: We’ll know by the time our game comes around. It was a tough week losing in Naples and then Manchester and hopefully there’s no psychological scars. I’m writing this ahead of our vital home game against Chelsea so to answer your question I would say I hope we can’t read too much into being humbled at City. Otherwise the world and his wife will be back talking about Arsenal’s soft centre, and brittle mentality which annoys me no end.
To be fair City were immense on the day, yet the pleasing thing was we kept attacking them and putting them under real pressure at times – in a strange way the defeat emphasised our potential title challenge rather than dismiss it. However, in my view it’s City’s title to lose if they can start to win away, as their home form is simply frightening – as is the depth of their squad.
TF: At what point does Wenger call or has time called if he hasn’t tasted honours again. Would a failure this season mean the club finally changes tack?
Layth, The Gooner: How long do you have for me to answer that? I’ve always been and always will be a Wenger man. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made some strange decisions, some stubborn decisions and some downright incorrect decisions, certainly over the second part of his tenure. I think it’s more down to whether he wants to sign the new contract the club so willingly put in front of him. He hasn’t so far. But I just can’t see him walking away just yet. He’s still got that desire and hunger that all true football men possess. Even if he is bloody stubborn at times.
And anyway who would we get to replace him? It was popular for some misguided souls to shout loudly for David Moyes a year ago. Do me a favour. There’s not many big enough for the club Arsenal has become in the Wenger era. If pushed I would say Jurgen Klopp, but that’s only if Wenger left of his free will, not to replace him for the sake of it. As for a lack of trophies, well, I grew up watching constant mediocrity at Highbury which instilled in me the fact that no-one has a divine right to silverware – what you do want to see as a fan is your team making some sort of consistent progress. Which we have done since August. And more so than at any time since 2007/08.
TF: Ozil, Carzola, Ramsey, Wilshere. How do you rate them compared with the Arsenal midfield of the Anelka/Pires era?
Layth, The Gooner: For me the best Arsenal midfield I’ve ever seen was the 97/98 axis of Petit and Viera. Power, tenacity, technique, vision and passion. Football has changed significantly over the last 15/20 years. The buzzword these days, certainly by hirsute ex-Spurs managers is transition. Back then we called it the ability to break up an attack and launch a counter. Which was something these two could do all day long. God I miss that team.
If you’re talking attacking footballers then Pires between 2001-2003 was one of the best in the world. France would not have exited at the group stages of the 2002 World Cup had Pires not suffered that knee ligament damage in the Newcastle United game in March 2002. He was unstoppable. So was Freddie during those years, in fact he probably peaked in the run in to the double of 2002.
So our midfield nowadays has a lot to live up to and until they win a trophy or two will always come off unfavourably to the great players of the first half of Wenger’s reign. People have started to criticise Ozil for fading in and out of games, but if you look at his figures – 5 goals and six assists, he is dominant in decisive areas. Yes he could do more, and it would be great if he could track back more and simply be more influential throughout a game, but if you’re asking me whether I would prefer him to tackle consistently or be able to provide vital goals and assists then you know what my answer would be. It would be great if he could do both but that’s just not going to happen in my opinion.
For me Cazorla is the most genuinely two footed Arsenal player since Bergkamp. We’ve all played football, watch him for two minutes and without previously knowing, tell me which is his stronger foot? You can’t. Again it would be nicer if he could track back but it’s not in his game. Aaron Ramsey has spent the last five months in the form of his life, although he is showing signs of tiredness after such a phenomenal start.
It was also great to see him get such a good reception at his previous club Cardiff. He also puts to shame wankers like Piers Morgan who spent the last 18 months slagging him off only to turn around and say they always supported him. Incidentally who chose Morgan to be the mouthpiece of Arsenal fans? I certainly didn’t. I cringe whenever he has got something to say – I’ve been going to Arsenal for over three decades and I’ve never once seen him at a game. The man is a complete and utter embarrassment. It was clear to many Arsenal fans that Ramsey was suffering a crisis of confidence after returning from his injury. Some chose to criticise him during games, some didn’t. For Morgan to rewrite history is pathetic.
Jack Wilshere is another fantastic talent who needs a clean bill of health and a run of games. I am worried about his ankles, Bergkamp said in his biography that he was wary of using strapping as it would distort his ball skills, hinder his running, force him to overcompensate if only one was strapped and generally lessen his touch. If a bloke like him is saying that, what happens to Wilshere when he heavily straps both ankles? I hope to god a good rest is the only thing he needs, as opposed to yet another operation – for if he was 100% he could be Arsenal’s and England’s most influential player week in week out for the next decade. The thing is – bans for giving the finger aside – when will he get a good rest over the next 18 months?
TF: Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker cut impressive figures at Centre Half. Are there comparisons to be made with Tony Adams and Steve Bould?
Layth, The Gooner: Having read all your questions I must say I’ve been impressed with your knowledge of Arsenal so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say Vermaelen must have been a typo. For me and I dare say the majority of Arsenal fans the best centre half pairing by far that has emerged over the last 15/18 months is Koscielny and Mertesacker rather than Vermaelen and Mertesacker. Vermaelen had a superb first season after joining us from Ajax in the summer of 2009.
However he has arguably never been the same player since he suffered an Achilles injury early in the next season that kept him out for a substantial period of time – he has certainly failed to be as consistent or commanding at any rate. To be fair he has shown great dignity in what must be a difficult situation for him – a club captain who currently isn’t worth his place in the team – but the fact is Kos and the BFG have not only played extremely well, but like you infer in your question have become a real defensive partnership as they complement each other so effectively.
They both read the game extremely well, Kos has got great anticipation, is great at tidying up second balls or covering the BFG’s lack of pace. He also distributes the ball effectively through his good technique – take a look at the number of goals we have scored where we have built from the back involving Kos. Whereas the BFG is not afraid of being a little more agricultural – which is praise for an Arsenal centre half these days as we have suffered in the past from our defenders being far too tentative in simply clearing their lines for fear of losing possession. There were a few questions asked of the BFG in his first season – I remember being at Carrow Road and shaking my head ruefully as a certain Steve Morrison gave him the runaround – but the BFG is turning into a hugely influential player for Arsenal, both as a footballer and a leader.
As for comparisons with Tony Adams – who for me was the greatest player to ever pull on the Red and White for his bravery, his leadership, his sheer will-to-win and his mastery in the air and solidity and positional skills on the ground, along with his able sidekick, the vastly underrated Steve Bould – well, we need to win a trophy or two first before they’re spoken about as true Arsenal legends – having said that they’re not making a bad fist of it so far this season, City away excepted. Long may it continue.
TF: Arsenal as a club has always had this classy, timeless image and touch. Where do you think this is derived from? Is there a distinct AFC ethos?
Layth, The Gooner: There is a line uttered by the late great David Rocastle handed down to him by one of his youth coaches: “Remember who you are, what you are and what you represent.” For me that is the line that sums up the club’s ethos. It wasn’t so much the Marble Halls, the uniformed commissionaires and their immaculate peaked hats and silver buttons, the small touches like the boardroom always having flowers in the colours of the opposition, and offering free tickets to any ex-player who wants to watch a game – although they all contributed in a small way to the reputation, it is more the fact that the club has generally always treated people with respect – and has the confidence to respect itself.
When the boxer and big Arsenal fan Michael Watson was maimed fighting Chris Eubank the club offered him rehab and gave him a boost by giving fans updates of his progress and his charity walks. When Ray Kennedy was found to have had Parkinson’s the club put on a testimonial for him. Islington might be seen a posh area and large parts of it have certainly moved away from their more humble working class origins, but like a lot of boroughs in London there is a massive disparity between wards with council estates as poor as any in the country five minutes walk from ridiculously overpriced properties – yet the Arsenal community and education schemes in the poorer parts of Islington are the envy of many a club, especially when you consider the myriad problems, issues and pressures a multi-cultural borough experiences. You walk around the Holloway Road on non-match days and you will see Arsenal shirts again, something that you couldn’t say a few years ago. Quite simply the club is – for the most part – a dignified institution.
TF: Arsenal’s support has traditionally had a noticeable Irish and Afro-Caribbean following. Is this still reflected in the supports make up?
Layth, The Gooner: One of the things I am most proud about is the fact that Arsenal always had time for immigrants to London who wanted to watch football. There was never any of the virulent far right hatred the National Front propagated in the 1970s that you used to get at certain other clubs in the capital, even if Arsenal weren’t alone in not being perfect. Yet my Dad who has brown skin said he never felt threatened when he used to go to Highbury in the early 70s – which is saying something. (This is a piece I wrote for The Inside Left http://theinsideleft.com/one-love-arsenal/ ) My mum is Irish and I used to take my Irish cousins when they were over to games so I like to think I am trying in my small way to keep up the links to the old Irish support. Arsenal in the late 70s was known as an Irish club due to an impressive number of our players hailing from the North and South of Ireland – and this certainly contributed to us having a large Irish following.
Likewise the wave of Gunners players with Afro-Carribbean antecedents in the mid to late 80s helped to attract a black following which started in the late 60s and early 70s and is again, something Arsenal Football Club should be immensely proud of attracting, certainly during times when you simply wouldn’t see a black face at places like the old Stamford Bridge. Even now we still have one of the most diverse supporter bases in the country – however if you ask me whether we are generally pricing out kids of all races and nationalities through high ticket prices in general, well that’s another matter entirely.
TF: Why have Arsenal fans adopted the moniker of “Gooner” which is the name of your more excitable “lad” contingent in the 80s?
Layth, The Gooner: My first Arsenal game was in the early 80s and I used to travel away from home for most games from the mid 80s, through all the 90s and well into the noughties until my kids came along, European aways too. In all that time we have been known as Gooners, so it’s not something that has been recently adopted. Maybe that’s why we adopted it – because it was a reflection of the ‘lad contingent’ as you put it. You don’t want to be known as soft when you travel up North do you, certainly not back in the day? I can remember going up to places like Ayresome Park and thinking everyone was a genuine nutter – which to be fair they were! As for nowadays the name is far more benign and simply means a proper Arsenal fan. And anyway the Arsenal ‘element’ isn’t known as Gooners and hasn’t been for a long time.
TF: £63 a ticket for Man City fans? Is Arsenal taking the rise? What are your thoughts on this and the scheme for clubs to match each other’s reduced prices for away fans?
Layth, The Gooner: The thing is, yes I completely agree £62 is an absolute disgrace – but the way it was covered in the media by people who should know better, and the way it was picked up by fans of other clubs with their own agenda was laughable. We have paid upwards of £50 at Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham and even places like QPR for donkeys years now – why wasn’t that a scandal?
I remember paying a shocking £45 at Birmingham City more than ten years ago –but to listen to certain people you’d think every other club in the land charged three shillings and sixpence whilst these wicked North Londoners were the only ones ripping fans off.
How much is Newcastle United charging non Arsenal member adults for our game? £45 I believe – do you think that is a reasonable price to charge for a game on television during the Christmas period 300 miles outside London? It’s all relative, yes ticket prices are far too high – I’m a member of the FSF and 100% agree with their twenty’s plenty scheme and completely agree with the idea of cheap matching prices throughout the league – it’s the only way to reclaim the game as a working man’s sport and to encourage the next generation of fans to come through. Especially looking at the new TV revenue figures, as clubs can actually afford to lower the prices for their most loyal fans because so much of their income is not dependent on turnstile clicks anymore.
But for us to get stick from Manchester City fans, and everyone else it seemed, for the infamous £62 quid game, well hang on a minute – why am I paying nearly £50 to go to Eastlands which is owned by billionaire oil rich Sheiks, or £59 quid when I go to Stamford Bridge to watch us play a team owned by a Russian billionaire, or £59 quid when I go the Lane which is owned in part by a Bahamas based billionaire – who could all easily subsidise tickets? Arsenal bore the brunt of fans complaints – which while genuine and heartfelt saw supporters of other teams conveniently forget their clubs were charging vastly inflated prices too. It’s the system that’s completely and utterly wrong not just Arsenal’s pricing structure – which incidentally sees us charge a measly £25 for lower category league games and a tenner for all league cup ties.
TF: The Gooner is arguably the best and most established London fanzine. I’ve always thought Northern fanzines are more eclectic with a greater focus on Popular and general football culture. Do you detect a different tone from yours and other London fanzines than Northern publications like true faith and When Skies are Grey?
Layth, The Gooner: Good question. I went to Newcastle University in the early 90s and what I used to love about living in Newcastle was the sense that it was a unified city, obviously not in a social sense at the time because I still remember the riots of 1991 – but unified in the sense that everyone supported one team, everyone shopped in a relatively small area (small compared to London anyway) and generally everyone socialised in a relatively small area around the Quayside and Bigg Market. I used to love going to the record shops and clothes shops of High/Low Bridge Street and what have you, you’d see the same faces to have a chat with, there was a real sense of community, of a genuine passion for fashion and music culture. I still recall the legendary Resurrection club nights! Newcastle was/is a staunchly working class town just like Liverpool and Glasgow and a fanzine produced in those areas can afford to be more eclectic as you say in terms of covering and promoting local popular culture and football culture.
A lot of clubs in London draw support from the counties immediately around London, whether it be Londoners who have moved out or just in respect of having a wider catchment area – but I remember buying Mark Jensen’s The Mag in its heyday and it would cover all manner of local things and make local references to record stores and pubs and nights out – if The Gooner was to do that what would it mention? Music stalls in Camden High Street? Bars in Covent Garden? Shopping in Greenwich? Oxford Street? Lakeside? The geography is too broad and the subject matter too disparate. That is one of the strengths of provincial fanzines – the fact that it is provincial and local. With a London based club the catchment area is just too large for the content to be eclectic. Saying that I would love it if The Gooner started writing about trainers and new music, though I’m not sure many others would agree.
Alas, like most things associated with the Premier League, football culture in England has been massively dumbed down and sanitised – though there are admirable exceptions like the Northern fanzines you mention who still give fashion and music the recognition they deserve in acknowledging the part they play in football culture – even if that football culture is not as strong and vibrant as it once was. But yes you’re right, The Gooner is certainly the best and most established fanzine in London!!
TF: Arsenal bid £10 million for Yohan Cabaye in the summer but was unsuccessful. How highly do you rate Cabaye and would he have added sufficiently to Arsenals title challenge?
Layth, The Gooner: Any player that helps unfashionable Lille to their first double since 1946 and who shone consistently in a team that featured Eden Hazard has got to be a class act. (I won’t spoil it by mentioning Gervinho played in the same team…) He has impressed me immensely for Newcastle United. He has vision, a great technique, takes a mean free kick and is a reliable penalty taker, and at times he even shows a capacity to be a lung busting box-to-box midfielder – what’s not to like? He would have been a great addition.
I seem to recall him scoring against Manchester United with a 30 yarder in his first season, not to mention a brilliant half volley against Villa last year and for him to hit the winner in your first win at Old Trafford in 41 years is never going to go down badly with anyone. Despite Arsene’s preference for creative midfielders – or perhaps because of it – he thought nothing of wanting another attacking option in the summer. I would have loved to have got him, not at the expense of signing Ozil though, but to complement him and support the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Carzorla, Arteta, and to tee up Theo or a fit Ox with perfectly timed through balls.
It was a shame the powers that be didn’t do their job properly by offering a decent fee for him, although in my view as an Arsenal fan Pardew was far too disingenuous in slagging us off, probably because we do have history with him, far too much for either side to concede ground. Saying that, he was trying to do what he thought was best for his club and so were we. The fact is Cabaye is once again proving he is worth far more than £10m so good luck to him – just not on the 29th December.
TF: What’s your view on Ashley’s leadership of NUFC? Has anything actually impressed you there?
Layth, The Gooner: As a businessman or a football club Chairman? I’ve got an MBA and I can see where he is going with some of the things he’s trying to achieve off the field. But that type of aggressive strategy only works if you’re running a Sports Retailer – it simply doesn’t work long term in football because football is unique. If you piss off your customers in one sports shop you can walk two minutes down the street to shop somewhere else. If you piss off a football fan by riding roughshod over more than a century of tradition, for example by unilaterally renaming your stadium then, although you won’t lose any supporters because the difference between football fans and say High Street shoppers is that football supporters are inherently loyal; the fact is football fans have long memories – and will never ever forgive you for turning their club into a laughing stock.
They can also see through things like you wearing a replica kit and boozing with supporters at games, so although you can say we made x amount of profit, or made x amount of savings or brought in x amount of revenue the fact is you will be hated forever if you don’t respect the club you are a custodian of. It’s not an accident your chairman doesn’t drink with fans anymore – despite the fact that you had a great season two years ago and are shaping up for another, he would still be abused if he had a drink in The Strawberry, or in the away at Arsenal which he did a few years back. I don’t know your view but in general supporters don’t like owners taking the piss out of their club traditions, which to all intents and purposes is what he’s done.
TF: What NUFC players are big threats to Arsenal?
Layth, The Gooner: As a Londoner, having lived in Newcastle for three years, I have a massive respect for the city of Newcastle, the region and Geordies in general and it’s always good to see a decent Newcastle team.
With 19 points out of the last 24 Newcastle United is one of the form teams in the country. If someone had offered you that after Joe Kinnear had been appointed on the back of your 16th place finish last season I dare say you would have taken it. Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa are the two obvious candidates for praise since Sunderland beat you to launch you on that run that’s seen you record impressive triumphs over Chelsea, Man United and Spurs.
Haven’t Debuchy, Remy and Gouffran played their part too? I think Tim Krul is an excellent keeper, but I really rate Davide Santon. Inter Milan must have a very good selection of defenders if they can let players of the calibre of Santon go for such a low fee. If you throw in the guile and commitment of Collochini and an improving Anitia and the solid Tiote in midfield, as well as the evergreen Ameobi as back up further forward Newcastle United actually has a very decent team.
As ever with the Geordies you do wonder when the next time will be that the board shoots the club in the foot, but if they can keep that team together with maybe one or two other additions and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that you could challenge for a top four spot, certainly a UEFA Cup place at any rate. And it must be fun watching the Mackems implode too.
TF: Score prediction please?
Layth, The Gooner: My first game at St James’s was a 1-0 win via a last minute Steve Bould header in the late 80s. My first child was born on 29 December 2004 and we also won 1-0 at St James’s that day too through a Viera shot so I’ll have to say 1-0 to the Arsenal for old times sake. Mind you I also went to the 7-3 last year when neither side could defend to save their lives, not to mention still waking up in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the 4-4 so who bl**dy knows with our two teams!