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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Commons Confidential: Smith, selfies and pushy sons

All the best gossip from party conference, including why Dennis Skinner is now the MP for Selfie Central.

Owen Smith discovered the hard way at the Labour party conference in Liverpool that one moment you’re a contender and the next you’re a nobody. The party booked a luxurious suite at the plush Pullman Hotel for Candidate Smith before the leadership result. He was required to return the key card the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s second coming. On the upside, Smith no longer had to watch his defeat replayed endlessly on the apartment’s giant  flat-screen TV.

The Labour back-room boffin Patrick Heneghan, the party’s executive director of elections, had good cause to be startled when a TV crew pounced on him to demand an interview. The human submarine rarely surfaces in public and anonymity is his calling card. It turns out that the bespectacled Heneghan was mistaken for Owen Smith – a risky likeness when vengeful Corbynistas are on rampage. There’s no evidence of Smith being mistaken for Heneghan, though. Yet.

Members of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee are discovering new passions to pass the time during interminable meetings, as the Mods and the Corbs battle over each line of every decision. The shadow cabinet attack dog Jon “Sparkle” Ashworth, son of a casino croupier and a bunny girl, whiles away the hours by reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and W B Yeats on his iPad. Sparkle has learned that, to echo Whitman, to be with those he likes is enough.

I discovered Theresa May’s bit of rough – the grizzled Tory chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, a former Derbyshire coal miner – does his gardening in steel-toecapped wellies stamped “NCB” from his time down the pit thirty years ago. He’ll need his industrial footwear in Birmingham to kick around Tories revolting over grammar schools and Brexit.

Another ex-miner, Dennis Skinner, was the MP for Selfie Central in Liverpool, where a snap with the Beast of Bolsover was a popular memento. Alas, no cameras captured him in the Commons library demonstrating the contorted technique of speed-walkers. His father once inquired, “Why tha’ waddling tha’ bloody arse?” in Skinner’s younger days, when he’d top 7mph. Observers didn’t dare.

The Northern Poorhouse minister Andrew Percy moans that he’s been allocated a broom cupboard masquerading as an office in the old part of parliament. My snout claims that Precious Percy grumbled: “It’s so small, my human rights are violated.” Funny how the only “rights” many Tories shout about are their own.

The son of a very prominent Labour figure was caught trying to smuggle friends without passes into the secure conference zone in Liverpool. “Don’t you know who I am?” The cop didn’t, but he does now.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories