Testimonial matches are strange affairs, perhaps nowadays entirely irrelevant. I am not sure if I would entertain the notion of attending one ever again. It would take someone special at the club now; Arsène certainly, Steve Bould as well. Chippy, definitely; I think I would if the club organised one for Ken Friar or Peter Hill-Wood. The latter’s case would be contentious given how people feel about the board but whilst we may be upset and angry with the current ownership, we should never forget the service that people have given the club and in the case of the Chairman, involvement in the club which has been pivotal in forming the Arsenal of today. This aspect is something which causes the blood to boil, when the game of yesteryear is dismissed as irrelevant. The same respect is due to Ken Friar whose service at the club might be classed as devotion.
These are men who deserve such accolades.
Of course testimonials have changed in the modern game. Born of an era when earnings by players and staff were considerably less generous. A time when the power in the game was firmly in the hands of the owners; when those who were Lords of the Manor appreciated that a football club was central to a community. There was no difference to the game of today beyond the abuse of power by one side to the detriment of the other; there has never been a middle ground, just a moment as the pendulum of inequality swung by. Inequality? Heh, the right time but never has it been such an iniquitous word to use.
During the decades of supporting to Arsenal, I’ve been to some cracking testimonials. Some which were enjoyed just as a celebration. One will always stand out for the wrong reasons, Tony Adams original testimonial against Crystal Palace. The organisation was so cack-handed that a Second Division team of no consequence to Arsenal or its supporters were chosen as the opposition. There was a flat atmosphere all day, particularly inside Highbury where 12,000 or so of us watched Arsenal slump to a 1 – 3 defeat. Adams was prickly on the subject in the immediate aftermath, his barbed comments afterwards made little attempt to disguise his disappointment in Arsenal supporters. His answer came when he admitted later when he confessed that Palace were chosen as a cost-saving exercise, both in their fee and the policing bill. In recognition of his career, Adams got a second bite at the cherry in 2002 and the 1 – 1 draw with Celtic was a more fitting end to his time at the club.
David O’Leary likewise had two testimonials, the first against a Celtic side captained by his brother Pierce, quite possibly the only time brothers will ever captain opposing teams in a match involving Arsenal. North London turned green and white for a night with one of the The second, against Manchester United saw the big defender lolloping through the defence to score in 4 – 4 draw. It was one of the last times that a match was entirely fun, something that I always thought separated the testimonial from the run of the mill friendly. The result was irrelevant, a fiesta for the fans to show respect to the hero.
Tottenham proved popular opposition during the 80s. In some cases, it was obvious. Pat Jennings had given great service to both clubs and having had a benefit match against Arsenal in the mid-70s, it was natural that the roles be reversed with Arsenal hosting. Liam Brady returned to Highbury in an Arsenal shirt and God Bless Him, didn’t let anyone down with a goal thrown in for good measure. Talk of him ‘coming home’ picked up pace in the next year or two, romanticism overtaking realism in supporters minds. Less than three months later, a trip to White Hart Lane saw Arsenal as late replacements for Aberdeen as Fifa’s ban on English clubs playing any foreign teams had yet to be overturned. Grudging admiration for the England international the reason we eventually stumbled upon for going to the game, a 1 – 1 draw as it happened that was anything but the Jennings knockabout.
The trip to Gloucester saw a pre-season stroll as the first team hit six but it also paints an unbalanced picture. Arsenal thought nothing of sending strong teams to Southend or Shrewsbury for midweek mid-season testimonial. Or even home games, Graham Rix’s testimonial saw a 2 – 5 defeat for Arsenal in 1990, Sansom, Brady and Petrovic turning out for Arsenal. This you remember, a title-winning season but some of the first XI played despite the infamous visit to Old Trafford the following Saturday. The 1990s saw two of my favourite occasions, the players rewarded Paul Davis and Ray Kennedy. The former an unsung hero, the latter tinged with sadness at his suffering. Kennedy’s a rare moment when a football match might tangibly seen to improving a life or at least making it more manageable.
The fun was ending though, the Premier League has seen a diminishing number of testimonials reflect the money earned by the players. Niall Quinn changed the landscape when he donated the proceeds to charity, recognition of his own wealth and also a social conscience. Use of these games as part of the pre-season preparations meant they started to be taken seriously. And when that happens, you have to make sure that the opposition are bloody good. Or better. There are exceptions to the rule though, Keown and Bergkamp highlighted that respect transcends the modern game. A new stadium opening has never been known to be a damaging factor on the crowd that day either…
Testimonials seem to have passed from the Arsenal footballing calendar. Maybe they have entirely from the footballing calendar. I don’t take any notice anymore and that seems to support Ken Friar’s view on service and salary, one is too short and the other considerably higher than it used to be. I guess the shock of seeing a testimonial now would be compounded if the money was not for a charitable cause. Clubs will argue they make their own contributions via foundations and trusts, the need for such matches are few and far between. Money has indeed changed the face of the game.