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WLYA Exclusive: James Benge on Summer Signings, Reporting From an Empty Stadium and Bread

By Max Mishcon

If you’re reading this, then you will most likely remember the 5th of October 2020, alternatively known as deadline day. As Arsenal edged closer to Thomas Partey’s signature, ‘Arsenal Twitter’ evolved - or devolved - into more and more of a cesspit. Amongst the flight-tracking and weather atomisation, there was an outcry for information on the Ghanian’s potential deal - and last week, on a brisk Friday afternoon, I was lucky enough to interview one of the heroes of deadline day, a man who provided said information: London-based, international soccer correspondent for CBS and Arsenal fan: James Benge.

Hearing him on Arsecast earlier that morning, he spoke quite highly of Arteta. I first asked him how optimistic he was of the infamous ‘process’, and was handed back a really nice assessment of the current landscape of the club:

“It’s a really tough one. The kind of time I've covered Arsenal has been a steady degrading of standards. You see things that are being set in stone years beforehand, that kind of come home to roost in the final few years, you know? The players weren't under pressure on the pitch to deliver, the executives weren't under pressure off the pitch to deliver, everything was a little bit easy, the standards were slipping away, but on the pitch there was still a really talented group of players. There was no one demanding a high enough minimum level and I think that has begun to change with Arteta.

"I see everyone that has asked how being in ninth is progress, you know? I think that that period around Christmas was really disastrous, but managers learn from it and I think you have to accept that Arteta is learning on the job.

"But it's really hard to nail it down. Whether you're a supporter, whether you cover the club, whether you work for the club, none of us think it's acceptable for a team like Arsenal to be this far off the Champions League.

"But it doesn't all happen in one season. You don't fix the underlying issues off the pitch and the footballing issues in one season, in one transfer window, especially when you've got no money to spend because of COVID. But we’re heading in the right direction, albeit in fits and spurts.

"It's not perfect: six out of ten confident. It's okay, it's not great, it's okay.”

James then gave me the low down on incomings and outgoings this summer, starting with a target who’s on everyone's wish list at the moment:

“There are spots that have been looked at central midfield. The hope is that you sell Torreira and Guendouzi or Elneny and use that money to buy someone that can compliment Partey, who will obviously be the foundation piece. I don't know who that name is, but there's been long term interest in Bissouma at Brighton.

"Arsenal also have the likes of Manor Solomon as a player that they would look to bring in with from what I've heard… there haven't been any talks with Lacazette, they’ll assess the market, I think they'd be very happy to accept a good offer.

"Right back will depend on Bellerin and what fees and interest comes there. I mean, obviously, as I reported last month, he's ready to move on. I think, to be honest, Arsenal are probably ready to part ways for him for the right money.

“One of the things I've heard is that Arsenal believe that they can get a good homegrown player there [right-back], there's such a depth of talent there.”

This was evident in James’ recent piece in which he vocalised England’s strength in depth at right-back. So much so, he formulated a quite brilliant XI consisting only of England right-backs.

“Lamptey’s on the radar, Aarons as well. Potentially, there's interest in Jayden Bogle. I think he's slightly lower down the list, but he's someone that they've scouted.

"There's so many moving parts, but this summer money is going to be tight. I don't know if there's a budget per se beyond sales, but if Arsenal don't sell well, it will be really hard to strengthen this squad. Players like Guendouzi are being made available, Nelson is certainly available for transfer, Nketiah is another that I believe they will consider offers for, the young English players that that we thought maybe a year ago were going to form the core of a squad but haven't quite; and that's great development, that's great work by the academy, great work by Arteta.”

Benge then reflected on Martin Ødegaard’s tenure thus far and our chances of signing him permanently:

“The joy of this is that from a professional side and personal side: Sign this guy! I love him! He’s great!

"I know that Arsenal would love to keep him around. Beyond that, Real Madrid really admire him, but they're also going to hand in a new contract to Luka Modric, Toni Kroos doesn't look like he's going anywhere either. And you've got Casemiro and Valverde too. My suspicion is that in the coming season, it'll be a loan and I think that suits all parties. But, you know, he obviously said that he likes playing for Arsenal, he's found somewhere with a bit of stability.”

Things were going almost too well. I didn’t care that it was a Friday and that James was most likely knackered, I had to get Benge’s big brain working! With all the pressure of WLYA’s worldwide audience reading, I asked him for one player he would sign and one player he would sell.

He paused.

I was witnessing James in a state of deep cognition. It’s moments like these that define a man.

“I mean... I have to pick him... At the moment he’s my favourite player to watch. I will buy Tomáš Souček.”

“REALLY?!” I exclaimed.

“I know there are better players out there, I don't care! We all have players that we really like watching, But also I think he'd compliment Partey really well. Obviously he catches the eye for his goals but defensively he is superb. He's got strength, he can sit and shield a back four if need be. Part of me also thinks maybe it's too ‘box too boxy’, but fuck it.”

The more I sat there, the wider my smile became at the thought of the potato salad enthusiast at the carpet, legging leisurely into the box, leathering the ball into the back of the net.

“[Regarding the player James would sell] That's difficult. I would probably be quite aggressive in testing the market for Lacazette. He's a very divisive figure; I think when fans come to look back on the good moments, he was a player that consistently turned up in big games. But he's not it, he was never it, he wasn't the superstar striker. But right now, I'd be looking at selling him and putting the money towards a good young forward from somewhere out of Europe, I'm thinking either of the two at Salzburg: Daka or Berisha”

I knew I wouldn’t do this interview justice if I didn’t bring up ‘Arsenal Twitter.’

“Do you keep up with it? Do you have a favourite account? What is it to you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I definitely do keep up with probably more than I should.” chuckled James. “Particularly because people always say to me: “don't get involved...” It's fun!

"Favourite accounts... This can only get me in trouble! I think there's different things for different needs. I think in terms of keeping me up to date with Arsenal I would say guys like Dan Critchlow (@afcDW) do an amazing job of just being on top of everything going on, you know? LTArsenal (@ltarsenal) as well, right the way down to the younger players, it's really incredibly interesting, detailed stuff. And I think in terms of one I could scroll through their feed for hours would be Simpsons Arsenal (@SimpsonsArsenal), because they will have the right tweet for the right moment.

"When we're in the press box, I mean, obviously, not as much nowadays, but you know, after the game, we'd be scrolling through the funny memes and all that after a tough game when you're stood in the zone it can make time fly. But yeah, I really love it. I think obviously there's some challenging individuals there but for the most part I think it's a really fun community. You just have to spend a lot of time blocking.”

James is one of very few people currently attending football matches on a regular basis, I asked him to describe the euphoria - or lack thereof - of reporting from an empty stadium:

“It kind of varies based on the moment. The last Europa League game: it was kind of dead rubber. To an extent, myself and some of my colleagues tend to romanticise the absence of fans, when secretly there's parts of us that are like, you know, there's some good.

"I find it has been really interesting and thought provoking, just being able to hear the players and obviously I wouldn't swap that for the fans and all the great things that come from being around having supporters at the ground, but it is really interesting hearing Mikel Arteta and you hear him constantly; I haven't heard many managers that are quite as vocal. It's really interesting because the players hardly say anything. When you go to somewhere like Wolves, you realise just how quiet Arsenal’s players are.

"But I think in every way you feel the loss of camaraderie with your colleagues because you know, from a professional point of view, and no one's expecting sympathy for us missing out on this, but you know, you don't get to the ground a few hours beforehand and have a chat with your friends, talk things through, work out what you know, and from your own perspective work out what are the big talking points, what's come out of from the team, what's the the big issue there and post match, what do we need to be asking the players or asking Arteta?

"In the second half in particular, you just use the crowd a bit when you're, you know, working, typing away, you haven't always got your eye on the game, you can just use the crowd to let you know: “Okay, you better pay attention!” Honestly, now there are times I’m just like: “Gosh, what happened?”

"Yeah, I miss hearing 60,000 people celebrating, it was great fun.”

For any aspiring writers out there, here is the James Benge guide to football journalism success:

“I mean, the facetious thing to say is, like, don't. It's not always as fun as it looks, it's hard work. It's a lot harder work than people might think.

"Equally, it's an incredible opportunity and for people that want to give it a go, what you need to be looking out for at an early age is a niche that you can own, something that you’re talking about that no one else is; and I think especially around Arsenal, this is getting harder and harder by the day - Arsenal’s youth teams probably get more coverage than half the teams in the Premier League, it's a really competitive field.

"And just to be honest I think the other most important thing. I got a kicking the other day for saying Rob Holding was quite good and I kind of worry about that because I think that it's really easy to just follow the consensus, I don't know why the consensus isn't that Rob Holding is quite good, because it should be.

"But I think having confidence in your own eye, from a football perspective and in what you're hearing from other people, and then just being honest, saying: “This is what I believe, this is what I'm seeing, this is what I'm hearing. This is what I can report because this is what I know. That's all you can do.”

Now I had to ask the question on everybody’s lips. We all know of James’ admiration for Burna Boy, but what the heck is he listening to right now?

“So, at the moment I'm listening to an awful lot of a soft rock 70s band called Bread, who I'd never heard of and was only dimly aware of until quite recently. Someone bought me ‘The Best of Bread’ on vinyl and I looked at it and thought: “This looks so shit.” But it was really quite good!

"It’s possibly the most uncool music you can imagine. Like shit Fleetwood Mac, but I love it.”

James and I said our goodbyes, but my job was not nearly finished. I immediately grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and scribbled: “listen… to… Bread”

And listen to Bread I did! And lore and behold, it was like shit Fleetwood Mac.

But one song particularly resonated with me: ‘Guitar Man’. It’s a haunting song with simple, but telling lyrics about the life of a musician and his relationship with the fans… Or is it?

Did Bread travel 49 years into the future and illustrate Mikel Arteta and his frustratingly inconsistent Arsenal side through the medium of music? I’ll leave you with the lyrics, you come to your own conclusion:

He can make you love,

He can make you cry,

He will bring you down,

Then he'll get you high.

He can make you love,

He can get you high,

He will bring you down,

Then he'll make you cry.

It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to interview James Benge. From the 45 minutes I spent talking to him, I can confidently say that it is possible to be both a respected and accomplished journalist and an intelligent, interesting, welcoming and warm person.

Thank you, James, from everyone at WLYA.

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