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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.