London’s football landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the course of the last 127 years but there has remained one constant: Arsenal’s undisputed position as kings of the capital.
From their humble beginnings as a munitions factory team based in Woolwich to the global behemoth they have become, constant innovation as well as strict adherence to the morals and values instilled by Herbert Chapman in the 1930s have seen the club maintain and grow its stature.
Despite the majesty and splendour of their art deco Highbury home, complete with marble halls, it wasn’t until Chapman’s appointment in 1925 that the club began to enjoy success on the pitch. Under his guidance Arsenal would dominate the game in the 1930s, winning seven major honours of which Chapman was responsible for three before his untimely death aged just 55.
The constant stream of silverware helped in terms of putting the club on the map but it was Chapman’s visionary ideas and innovations that helped spread the gospel and truly set the club on the path to greatness.
He ensured Highbury was to become one of the most iconic stadiums in world football, with his attention to detail key to the instillation of electronic turnstiles, a PA system and, of course, the famous clock that sat proudly atop the south stand for decades.
Chapman helped forge links with the local community by lobbying for the Gillespie Road underground station to be renamed Arsenal (the only stop on the entire underground network to be named after a football club) but also had the foresight to ensure the club’s name was known and revered far beyond their north London home.
Long before the advent of organised Uefa competitions, Arsenal embarked on European tours – Chapman responsible for an ongoing series of home-and-away friendlies against the likes of Racing Club Paris.
The War years curtailed Arsenal’s dominance of the English game, allowing others to catch up, but the club remained synonymous with success. In 1970 they became only the second London club to win a major European trophy, lifting the Uefa Cup in front of over 50,000 fans packed in at Highbury.
They were to follow that success a year later by becoming only the third team in the history of English football to complete a league and FA Cup double – Charlie George providing one of the most iconic Wembley images of all-time with his celebration that followed the winning goal against Liverpool.
The club had to wait a further 18 years to win another league title but the circumstances of their last-gasp success made it worth the wait. Needing to beat Liverpool at Anfield by two clear goals, Michael Thomas provided, in legendary commentator Brian Moore’s words “an unbelievable climax to the league season” by scoring the decisive goal with practically the last kick of the entire campaign.
That success is part of a trophy collection unrivalled by any London club. The Gunners have won a total of 40 major honours – only Manchester United and Liverpool have won more in England – nearly double that of Chelsea and Tottenham despite the nine-year wait for silverware that ended at Wembley in May thanks to Aaron Ramsey’s dramatic FA Cup winning goal.
Roman Abramovich’s billions have represented the biggest threat to Arsenal’s position as London’s finest but although Chelsea have enjoyed an enviable period of success, they simply cannot match Arsenal for consistency or sheer size.
The Gunners have won 13 First Division and Premier League titles, compared to Chelsea’s four, and a joint record 11 FA Cups. The club has accumulated the second most points in English top-flight football and holds the ongoing record for the longest uninterrupted period in the highest division.
Under Arsene Wenger, the club completed the 2003-04 league season unbeaten with a side that contained some of the finest players in Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp that English football has ever seen.
The club have also remained omnipresent in the Champions League and have qualified for the competition a record 17 seasons in succession, despite the financial constraints placed upon them by the move to the magnificent 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium – the second largest club stadium in England.
To gain a measure of Arsenal’s size and following, for the first two years back in Europe’s elite competition the club elected to play their games at Wembley Stadium where crowds of 90,000 flocked to see them play the likes of Barcelona and Dynamo Kiev – a remarkable turnout when you consider Chelsea regularly struggle to fill their Stamford Bridge home for Champions League matches.
Arsenal’s global reach has increased significantly as a result of their continued presence in the Champions League and commitment to fast, free-flowing football under Wenger. They are the only Premier League club to boast over four million followers on Twitter and 25 million likes on Facebook.
Home, as the 250,000 fans who greeted Arsenal’s FA Cup heroes by lining the streets of Islington, is very much where the heart of this great club remains.
Why Arsenal remain London"s biggest club