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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.