Byline: Martin Samuel SPORTS JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR
IF A precise date is required, try August 31, 2006. Football moves so fast, it seems like another age now. Jose Mourinho had recently completed back-to-back title wins at Chelsea and Stuart Pearce was manager of Manchester City. Italy were world champions and Spain were still considered the great underachievers of the international game. Ronaldinho was the finest footballer in the world. And Arsenal sold Ashley Cole to Chelsea for [pounds sterling]5million plus William Gallas.
It was a big transfer, because it had been a big saga, but few believed Arsenal's destiny had been altered. The club had won the Premier League, unbeaten, in 2004, the FA Cup in 2005 and reached the Champions League final in 2006, losing to Barcelona.
This was also their first season at a 60,000-capacity stadium in Ashburton Grove, north London. Arsenal were thought to be entering a bold new era, not a depression. Losing Cole to Chelsea, after a bitter battle, was considered a blow but there was an impressive young French player called Gael Clichy coming through in his position, and some even felt Arsenal had got the better of the exchange with Gallas's arrival. But it all started from there.
Fast-forward five years and the lesson becomes ever clearer. You cannot lose your best players to your biggest rivals. Not if you are an elite club. There may be many contributing factors to Arsenal's present predicament, but if a bottom-line explanation for this lurch from crisis to crisis is needed, it can be traced back to the day Cole left for Stamford Bridge.
It set a pattern of behaviour that has continued ever since. Barely have Arsenal got over the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri this summer when speculation begins about Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen and captain Robin van Persie, who sounded decidedly non-committal on the subject of his long-term future at the weekend.
Arsenal have become a selling club; almost a top people's finishing school. These days, they solve every problem bar their own.
Manchester City established a reputation as the coming force on the back of buying Arsenal's players; expensive rejects at first, but now key members of the first team. Barcelona have discovered new impetus with Fabregas.
It will not stop there. Van Persie, who will have only a year to run on his contract at the end of this season, is on the radar at Manchester United and is the Arsenal player Sir Alex Ferguson most admires. United think they could get him, too, maybe next summer as an upgrade on Dimitar Berbatov.
These are still inner sanctum musings, not firm plans, but evidence would suggest United are correct in assuming vulnerability. Just as Arsenal blinked first over Nasri rather than lose him for nothing, the club may have to sell Van Persie if he refuses to sign a new contract. …