In my hometown of Wrexham, north Wales UK, the term `little Gunner` was traditionally reserved for a favourite footballing son, Arfon Griffiths. Griffiths was an elegant midfielder for Wrexham FC and he excelled for Wales under 23s international team during the early 1960s.
It was perhaps inevitable that bigger clubs would want to sign him and although courted by Liverpool, Griffiths choose to sign for Arsenal for a fee of £15000 – considerable for its day. It would be a long time until a player gained the mantle of `the little Gunner` and he would not be from the UK.
Fast forward four decades and a different Arsenal football club, renowned for their modern European style of play, state-of-the-art stadium and admired throughout the world, signed a new `little Gunner,` Andrey Arshavin in 2008. This time not an established midfield player but a visionary – no less talented than Griffiths, operating from the left wing or midfield and for a fee of considerably more – £15 million.
Zenit FC and Andrey Arshavin
Arshavin, a native of Saint Petersburg, began his career at his home club Zenit in 2000, quickly establishing himself as a first-team player and winning numerous trophies with the club such as the Russian Premier League, the League Cup along with the Russian Super Cup, UEFA Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup.
Such was his ascendancy and progress with Zenit, Arshavin was also named as the Russian Footballer of the Year – establishing himself as one of Saint Petersburg’s favourite footballing sons.
Early life and influences in Saint Petersburg
Andrey Arshavin, nonetheless, had a troubled early life. His father was a goalkeeper but failed to make the grade professionally. Following his parents’ divorce, Arshavin lived with his mother in often difficult conditions. He also survived a serious car accident and so another form of trauma for the young and developing Andrey to deal with.
It was his father who encouraged his football career and so it might be argued that his football talents were predicated on his father’s sense of failure and need for vicarious success – a potent mix that arguably shaped his future football career.
Arshavin played junior football in Saint Petersburg. Yet it was noted that he had a tendency to both excel and quickly fade. He also displayed early signs of troubled behaviours at school and was expelled at an early age. Intellectually nonetheless, he excelled – graduating in in fashion design, writing several books and gaining a reputation playing draughts and chess.
These are traits, which perhaps form aspects of his sometimes unique playing abilities – rebelliousness, intellectual control and hypervigilance, galvanised to creative and lateral thought and so bi-products of his upbringing and education. Following his parents’ divorce, Arshavin lost his father to a heart attack and this would undoubtedly impact on his already troubled childhood development along with any future sense of security and consistency in adult life.
`A guileless little boy`
During his time at Arsenal, Magee (2017), notes moments of brilliance, particularly his four goals against Liverpool, suggesting that there were times when his thinking was `on another plane to other players.` Yet somehow he would lose his ability to express his talents.
Magee offers an example of his mixed performances along with insights into his emotional life:
`In that sense, it seemed as if there was some sort of psychological dissonance on show with Arshavin. He was the class clown while at the same time looking fundamentally isolated from those around him, and this discomforting state of affairs gradually began to corrode his game.`… Speaking in 2013 soon after he had returned to Zenit, he claimed that he had “nearly suffered depression” owing to his inevitable slide… in his last two seasons at Arsenal, but managed to stave it off [he stated]“because I’m mentally strong.”
Magee goes on to describe many of Arshavin’s behaviours, and perhaps most notably, following an outstanding goal against Barcelona where he celebrated by pulling his shirt over his face commenting that he was like a `guileless little boy.`
Contradictions and transcending: fear of success
This description of Andrey Arshavin, together with his need to view himself as emotionally strong, provide potential glimpses into the mindset of an emotionally conflicted football player. Arshavin was player, and a young man, of sometimes strong views along with contradictions – carrying a long-held reputation for psychological sensitivity. It seems likely that critical events in early life concerning his mother and father influenced his ability to achieve his potential – a part of him, forever a lost little boy.
In Freudian terms, such phenomenon might be interpreted as a fear of overcoming his father together with a need to be close to his mother – a fear and need he attempted to combat through `mental strength.` It seems that at times he was locked in an emotional struggle, which compelled him to act in contradictory ways. Even his goal celebrations, forefinger to pursed lips, suggested `hush, celebrate quietly ` no one should know`- a defeat of his symbolic father perhaps and a guilt-laden message to himself.
Arshavin’s leaving Arsenal and returning to Zenit was, perhaps not surprisingly, a mixed affair achievement wise. He did, however, experience a renaissance when signing for Kazakh side Kairat Almaty, described by sports journalists as his`second youth.`
This may not be as surprising as it at first seems, in that the pressures and abilities to succeed his father as a footballer, now had a smaller audience as witnesses to his abilities and the emotional pressures relieved to some extent. There was even speculation of a return to the Russian national team at the age of thirty-six.
Magee concludes his analysis of Andrey Arshavin by stating that:
`He lost the ability to express his genius. How exactly that happened, [at Arsenal]nobody seems to know.`
Cultural changes, language barriers, and expectations may have played their part. However, as with anyone, psychological dysfunction, originating from childhood trauma could well have been a major contributing factor.
This article is not meant to diminish the genius of Andrey Arshavin, which was and is without question, but to throw a light on ways early childhood circumstances can influence adult life. Arshavin is undoubtedly one of the most talented of Russian football players, still highly regarded in both Saint Petersburg and North London.
Yet, many hold the view that he has failed to realise his full potential – psychological circumstances perhaps rendered him unable to do so. While vastly different circumstances – much the same could be said for Arfon Griffiths.
Much like Griffiths – the original `little gunner,` Andrey Arshavin left Arsenal without fulfilling his considerable potential – each returning to his home club. While Arfon Griffiths continued to develop his career, at club and international level, although not to the extent some thought him capable, Arshavin’s life continued on a less certain trajectory.