Pocket rocket: Santi Cazorla of Arsenal. Photo: Getty
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Does size matter? And where have all the Arsenal six-footers gone?

Hunter Davies’s The Fan column. 

At half-time in the Arsenal-Spurs game on 27 September, I had to rub my eyes when I saw Santi Cazorla getting ready to come on. He was standing beside the towering, 6ft 3in, besuited, headmasterly figure of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. At 5ft 6in, Cazorla looked like Wenger’s grandson or, perhaps, a child mascot who’d been allowed on to the pitch to amuse us.

Then, in the second half, the 5ft 7in Alexis Sánchez came on, replacing Jack Wilshere who, at 5ft 8in, isn’t the shortest of Arsenal’s midfielders. What is going on – with Arsenal and with football?

I remember being at an Arsenal game 14 or so years ago and noticing that practically the whole team was 6ft or taller: Patrick Vieira was 6ft 4in, Thierry Henry was 6ft 2in,
Dennis Bergkamp was 6ft 1in, Robert Pirès was 6ft 2in. Emmanuel Petit, despite his name, was 6ft 1in. As usual when you spot an interesting fact, you think up an interesting theory to explain it – often total bollocks, but that hasn’t stopped economists, sociologists and historians from making a decent living these past 200 years.

I decided to check the heights of Arsenal players from the pre-war years – easy to find, because when they played in Cup finals or for England or Scotland the programme always gave full details of each player’s height and weight. Often in the 1930s, not one Arsenal player was 6ft tall; even goalies rarely got above 5ft 10in. Their weight, though, was often 12 or 13 stone. Small and squat, that was the average professional footballer.

Clearly the changes reflected the world in general, as people have grown about two inches taller since the war. Football was simply mirroring ordinary life. It also reflected what was happening in football. Foreign managers were weaning our native players off their chips and booze-ups, producing leaner, taller players. And with better, faster pitches, free of mud, the bullet-headed, slow and lumpen cloggers had been evolutioned out, as had the small and weedy.

I had a subsidiary theory that Wenger preferred players built in his own image – stick-like six-footers, with or without a nice dark suit and woolly waistcoat. Wenger had become obsessed with signing himself. Turns out that was all total bollocks as well.

This season, Arsenal have come out two inches shorter than they used to be just ten years ago. The average for their first team is only 5ft 9in, not a huge reduction but noticeable, while their average weight is only 11 stone. There are still some big teams in the Premier, mostly the ones not doing so well, such as QPR, whose average weight is 12st 7lb.

If you look at world football, you’ll see that the marvellous midgets are doing well everywhere. Messi has the figure of a ten-year-old – well, ten-year-olds when I was growing up, living on rations, sucking dried eggs and eating sweets made out of cardboard. It’s a miracle that weedy little Messi, just 5ft 6in and 10st 8lb, has survived the slings and arrows and assaults of football’s brutes and has rarely been injured. Man City also has some small players, such as David Silva and Sergio Agüero, both 5ft 8in, though my favourite is Luca Modric of Real Madrid. Shame he left Spurs.

One of the many joys of football is that size and physique don’t really matter. It’s what you do with the ball that counts. Once on the pitch, all players are the same size. It’s only when they’re waiting to come on, or standing in a line-up, that it strikes you how small many of them are, especially if stuck beside the goalie. The captain of Germany’s World Cup-winning team, Philipp Lahm, looks quite big driving forward but if you see him in the line-up you realise how small he is.

Is it because being small and weedy makes them more determined, tougher, able to take life’s knocks ? So many remember being discriminated against when they were young, rejected by coaches who said they’d never make it: come back when you’re in long trousers. The big, well-built, naturally gifted people, as in many occupations, often think they can glide through life . . . until they come a cropper.

Right, this time next season, we will explain why every Arsenal player has suddenly become left-footed and Catholic.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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