Inside Arsenal’s football factory

A visit to Arsenal’s training facilities reveal how football clubs are now run like modern corporations

An Arsenal training session at London Colney. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
An Arsenal training session at London Colney. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Think of a top-flight football club anywhere in the world and you probably think of football matches, stadia, sports clothing, scores, great players and imperious managers. What you don’t think of are postboxes, footwear policies, motivational posters, science experiments and facilities managers. But, in fact, modern football teams are not too far separated from the mannerisms and accoutrements of the modern corporation.

On a recent Saturday, several hours before Arsenal hosted Chelsea for a English Premier League football match at the Emirates Stadium, a small group of Indian journalists, Indian Arsenal fans and two Indian Test cricketers were taken on a tour of Arsenal’s training facilities at London Colney, around 30km from the Emirates Stadium in north London. Arranged by Puma India, the Indian arm of the global sportswear brand that is Arsenal’s official clothing partners, it was a rare chance to get a sense of what clubs like Arsenal do, as it were, from “Monday to Friday”.

As you drive into the campus, the sense you get is of stepping into a prosperous business park or the perfectly manicured lawns that welcome visitors to many modern manufacturing facilities. Instead, this is the heart and soul of the Arsenal Football Club, one of the world’s great sporting teams and brands (though, admittedly, this writer is biased). The organization has 500-600 employees, though this excludes the 1,000 or so stewards who are hired on match days to maintain order at the stadium.

It was not always like this. In an interview, Glenn Hoddle once recalled the dire state of affairs at the Chelsea Football Club when he took over as player-manager in 1993. At one point, Hoddle had to spend his own money to buy a washing machine so the players could get their kits ready each weekend. Things weren’t all that much better at many of the other clubs in England. When Arsène Wenger took over as Arsenal manager in 1996, the club didn’t even actually own a training facility. Instead, it shared the grounds nearby that belonged to University College London (UCL). One day early on in Wenger’s tenure, an Arsenal staffer told us, the manager tried to organize an extra training session but the UCL refused. Wenger was exasperated. Things, the Frenchman decided, had to change.

By the summer of 1999, the stars had aligned perfectly. A host of planning permissions were obtained, construction work had started, and then the club sold young superstar Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid for around £23 million (around Rs198 crore now). Half the proceeds went into paying for the new training facilities and the remainder went into the acquisition of a new player named Thierry Henry. There has, surely, rarely been a better bit of business in world football.

“We used to call it the Nicolas Anelka Training Centre!” joked Ray Parlour. Parlour is a club legend who played for Arsenal over 400 times from 1988-2004. Still fit, fragrant, and extremely articulate, Parlour was our tour guide for the campus-romp. He is also uniquely placed to talk about the transformational effect Wenger has had on the club. Parlour had already played for four years, first as a youth team member and then a senior, when the Frenchman was appointed. The changes were swift and institutionalized.

For instance, the club has a strict footwear policy. The first thing players do after driving in to “work”, so to speak, is to take off their shoes and place them into labelled and numbered cubbyholes. These cubbyholes are also where players will find their mail and any messages.

“This is something the boss brought from Japan,” Parlour explained. In Japan too, it is a custom to never wear “outdoor shoes” indoors. Later, another staffer showed me paper screens in the lobby that were reminiscent of Japanese Shoji rice-paper screens. If Wenger is the man who transformed Arsenal and, by general agreement, English football, then Japan is the culture that changed Arsène Wenger. Wenger’s last charge before he moved to the UK was Japan’s Nagoya Grampus. The 14 or so months he spent in Japan appear to have had a deep impact on Wenger.

Parlour pointed out that the dressing room lockers didn’t have doors, and that the entire space was designed without pillars or high tables. It was all designed so that players sitting or standing in front of their lockers could always see each other and the entire room. When it comes to football, Wenger demands, there should be no secrets between teammates.

It is remarkable how many posters and motivational messages there are on the wall. Some of these posters involve avoiding prohibited materials and never falling foul of anti-doping laws. Other messages remind them to stay fit and eat well. Simple. Mundane. Even boring. But these are the kinds of details involved in running a world-class football club. We progressed through rooms and hallways, offices and meeting rooms, showers and swimming pools and even the boot room, where dozens upon dozens of shoes hung from hooks. Low against one side of the wall is a pair of black and white Puma boots with the letters AW written on them with ballpoint pen. “The boss is old school,” Parlour says.

London Colney sits on around 150 acres of land, around half of which is currently used. This includes 10 football pitches outside and a few more indoors. The pitches are more or less similar to those at the Emirates Stadium; they are covered with a mixture of real grass and a small percentage—but still millions of fibres—of a material called Desso. These fibres, injected into the topsoil, bind the natural grass to the soil, giving it much greater durability and strength. The club may not have reaped trophies galore in the recent past. But it is hard, nay impossible, to argue that Wenger hasn’t left a significant legacy in terms of infrastructure, philosophy and mentality. One day Wenger will go. And another manager will come. One wonders what he will make of the cubbyholes and paper screens and the fountain outside with the koi carp.

Later that evening, Arsenal walloped Chelsea by three goals to nothing. It was one of the most exhilarating Arsenal performances anyone had seen in years. The match also marked 20 years of Wenger’s Arsenal. From the first goal to the final whistle, the stadium reverberated first with joy, then ecstasy, then swagger and then satisfaction. Ultimately, this is what all those millions of pounds of equipment and offices and managers and posters and appraisals and weighing machines and training pitches are all about: joyful football.

This is the first of a monthly column on European football.

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