Graham Dougan was a youth prospect at Arsenal in the 1970s but never quite made the grade, making his career in the upper echelons of the old division two. He was also a Scottish U25 international. He is a regular pundit on TV in Malta and Luxembourg, and an after-dinner speaker of some repute.
He writes exclusively for the site and we sure you continue to enjoy his keen and unique insight into the game. In this column, he urges Mikel Arteta to embrace youth for his summer rebuild.
Like many of you, I watched in admiration as Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka put in man of the match performance in England’s scintillating 1-0 win over the Czech Republic at Wembley on Tuesday evening.
The 19 year old ran the show, taking the kind of responsibility that should have come from more senior colleagues like Harry Maguire, John Stones and Deacon Rice, but not Harry Kane because he’s only in it for himself as his ridiculous boots demonstrated. It was a showcase of Saka’s immeasurable talent, and on the sideline, England boss Gareth Southface looked on like a proud dad who has seen his adopted foster-son stand up to his wicked step-mother. I think that’s a feeling we can all resonate with.
It also made it very clear that as Mikel Arteta and Arsenal look to reshape the team ahead of the new season, the focus has to be on the young up-and-comers, rather than the so-called experienced players. Football, as an industry, is very much like the construction sector. If you’re brought in to do up a house which has become ramshackle and dilapidated, you don’t build new foundations with crumbling bricks. You use young, supple cinder blocks, with their glistening thighs and lithe bodies who can form the sensual bedrock of the new home.
In the past, coaches have been too conservative, preferring to stick with players of a certain age, rather than trusting talent. It happened during my time as a player too. After I left Arsenal, a decision I have no complaints over by the way (especially after that unfortunate Christmas party misunderstanding with Wilf Rostron’s wife), I found myself playing my trade in Division 4 with Lincoln City.
We were a team of honest, deceitful professionals. Reasonably good players but none of us would ever be held up in the same kind of category as your Johan Cruyffs, your Bobby Moores, Frank Benzenbauers, or your Oleg Blokhins. We knew our job though. Play hard but unfair, win games, destroy the ankles of the opposition, and then share a communal bath after which we’d drink countless pints of bitter before driving home. That was the very essence of football back then.
Every so often though, a young player comes along who bucks the trend, and at Lincoln we had one in the form of exciting winger Ted Brimwell. What a player he was. He could murder the opposition full-back with a wiggle of his buxom hips, and the pace he had was literally frightening. He used to give me goosebumps in training as he flew past me like Conkercord taking off for a TransAntarctic flight.
Even us old grizzled pros, not particularly keen on anything new that might put our own places at risk, couldn’t help but admire the way he played and we urged the manager, Fred Swaddle, to put him in the team. We wanted those win bonuses to spend down the pub (and to bring in a plumber to unclog the bathtub due to a years-long pube build-up in the pipes). He was reluctant though, as he was afraid of the impetuousness of youth, in part because at his previous club a young player had made a mistake which cost them promotion.
It was a very frustrating situation for all of us, not least for Ted himself who just didn’t get the chances his talent deserved. In the end, he grew disillusioned with the game, turned to drink, and sadly passed away in the early 1980s when, on a trip to Las Vegas, he was mauled to death by a tiger who had escaped from one of the casino’s entertainers.
That is literally the scenario facing Mikel Arteta this summer. Does he embrace the young talent and let them flourish, or does he drive them to a grisly death, their tender heads ripped apart by the jaws of a big cat who has been caged by two flamboyant men and has basically lost his mind?
When you look at the Arsenal squad, with Saka, Emily Smith Rowe, my fellow Scotch Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Martini, and his fellow Brazalian William, you can see what the future might hold for the Gunners. It’s time for Project Youth Part 2: Eclectic Boogaloo, while the old ‘reliables’, your Xhakas, your Lacazettes, your Cedrics, and your Melnenys, need to make like cows and find pastures new.
It’s a risk to go all in on youth, but after a disappointing season, Arsenal fans will be hoping that the club can see conservatism in all its forms is no way to make progress. Arteta, along with Technical Director Doodoo, and new executive Tricky Dicky Garlic, can shape the future, and I hope it’s so bright that I’ve gotta wear shades.
PS: Thanks to all of you who sent correspondence asking about my whereabouts. It’s been a while since my last column, but it turns out when you insult the great leader live on Maltese television, there’s a price to pay, and that price is solitary confinement with only two cell-mates to keep you company.
Till next time, your pal. GD.