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Why can't other Premier League clubs behave like Arsenal and Chelsea?

Thursday 12th March 2020
For bitter rivals, Arsenal and Chelsea do a surprising amount of business.
For bitter rivals, Arsenal and Chelsea do a surprising amount of business.

Background image: Peter H

John Cena could be the only WWE superstar not to commit a heel turn at any point in his career. Virtually every famous professional wrestler turns his back on partners and fans to play the bad guy for a while. Even Hulk Hogan did. Why not Cena? His commitment to charity prevents it. As a blackhearted villain, he wouldn’t be able to continue the charity work for which he is so passionate, visiting children in hospitals and adding to his record number of fulfilled Make-A-Wish requests. In English football, that isn’t an issue. Not that footballers don’t do charity work. No, it’s simply because signing for a direct rival isn’t interpreted as an unforgivable act by young children so much as full-grown adults.

Tribalism rules the English game. In other countries, especially Italy, players can sign for rivals without creating a great stir. Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for Milan, Inter and Juventus in Serie A. No one set fire to their former kit when the moves were announced. In Germany, Mats Hummels began his career with Bayern Munich, switched to Borussia Dortmund, then back to die Roten and finally [we think] back again to die Borussen. No one showed up at either club chairman’s mansion and launched flares onto his beautifully manicured lawn in protest.

Players across the entire talent spectrum move between big rivals all the time in European leagues and no one considers it beyond the pale but Wayne Rooney’s unfortunately named agent, Paul Stretford, only hinted at a potential transfer to City during contract negotiations and United ‘supporters’ in balaclavas gathered to protest outside Rooney's palatial digs. A large swathe of United fans continued to abuse Wazza until he finally left the club seven years later.

Yet, one Premier League rivalry takes a [slightly] more cosmopolitan view when it comes to doing business with each other. In the 108 years since Jimmy Sharp signed for Chelsea for the 1911/12 season, 17 players followed him either directly or indirectly from Arsenal. Beginning with Tommy Lawton in 1953, another nine headed in the opposite direction. Factor in Jimmy Paton and Stewart Houston, who each played for the Gunners before becoming Blues’ coaches, and that’s roughly one defection every four years. Someone should contact Tom Hanks about doing Stamford Bridge of Spies.

Admittedly, Chelsea and Arsenal only developed a fierce enmity in the Premier League era despite the Blues defeating then-Woolwich Arsenal 2-1 in the first top-flight London Derby in 1907. The Gunners still reserve their chief hatred for North London neighbours Tottenham while, for the longest time, the other major London Derby was West Ham/Millwall. West Londoners Chelsea contented themselves with sticking out their tongues at Brentford, Fulham or Queens Park Rangers depending on where everyone stood in the pyramid.

Yet, transfers between the two big London clubs didn’t cease and desist when Chelsea began their latest top-flight run in 1989/90. In fact, business became even brisker. A dozen players went over to the other side between Colin Pates arrival at Highbury in 1990, two years after leaving Chelsea for Charlton Athletic, and David Luiz’s direct switch this past summer. Most were high-profile names as well.

Giroud swapped a Gunners kit for Chelsea Blue in a heartbeat but Anelka put some distance between his London turns.
Giroud swapped a Gunners kit for Chelsea Blue in a heartbeat but Anelka put some distance between his London turns.

Checkpoint Charlie photo: Mar Gan

As Arsene Wenger’s powers waned in North London, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas and Olivier Giroud all made their way to Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Lassana Diarra, William Gallas, Yossi Benayoun, Petr Cech and the aforementioned Sideshow Bob crawled under the wire to the Emirates. Nor does it look like either side intends to adopt a shoot-on-sight policy for anyone crossing the de-militarised zone. Chelsea winger Willian is a reported target for Arsenal in the coming window.

Among the Arsenal defectors, only Ashley Cole and Olivier Giroud displayed the courage to make a direct transfer but we all know Cheryl’s ex didn’t go unarmed. The day the former England left-back accidentally shot a Chelsea staffer with his air rifle in the Stamford Bridge dressing room ranks number two globally among notorious hunting accidents, right behind the time US Vice-President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a close friend in the face during a Texas quail hunt.

French World Cup midfielder Petit required a season at Barcelona to be certain the coast to West London was clear. Cesc needed four. Anelka wandered for a decade through a footballing desert comprising Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Fenerbahce and Bolton Wanderers. But the most notable oasis on his meandering journey was Liverpool. The Anfield mob claim heated rivalries with both Arsenal and Chelsea. Benayoun also represented all three clubs. The Israeli stands out as the only first-team player to feature for the Gunners on loan from the Blues [or vice-versa].

Petr Cech manned the sticks in European finals at both clubs and, when he stashed his gloves in the drawer [you can’t really hang them up], returned to Stamford Bridge in an executive capacity. His duties as a technical and performance advisor for Chelsea remain classified but he finds the time to start in goal for fourth-division hockey side Guildford Phoenix.

While English fans are passionate about football and more so regarding their clubs, most footballers simply want to play. It’s good for the game when one or two remind us football is entertainment rather than war. At the very least, a club legend signing for a direct rival [cough] Spurs his old club to step up their game.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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