Given the propensity for the game’s club owners and managers to routinely pursue change in the name of progression, it is not uncommon for the fans of any football club to wave goodbye to a clutch of familiar faces over the course of any given summer. Still, it would be reasonable to say that throughout this past year, Arsenal fans have been made to bid adieu to more than their fair share of stalwarts.
Since August 2017, the Gunners have seen a small army of long-standing servants march far beyond the bounds of north London, including Wojciech Szczęsny, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere; all of whom boasted various associations with the club that ranged from six years to as many as 17.
As heart-wrenching as the farewells said to each of them were, as they themselves would surely confess, they paled in comparison to the agonising goodbye reserved for the boss, Arsène Wenger, who vacated his post as Arsenal manager after a record 21 seasons at the helm. The defining emotion of the occasion may not have been as unanimous among fans as it once would have, nonetheless, it was through tear-blurred eyes that thousands saw him say au revoir to the club.
Remarkably, though the Frenchman’s extended tenure may have dwarfed those of his decamping squad members, Wenger was far from the club’s longest-serving departee. That particular honour belonged to Vic Akers, history’s most cherished and decorated kit man, for whom circumstances sadly conspired to overshadow his own untimely resignation and cost him the kind of leaving ceremony his three decades of unbound passion for Arsenal Football Club, unwavering professionalism, pursuit of gender equality, and immense longevity deserved.
Born in Islington in August 1946, it was perhaps predestined that Victor David Akers would spend much of his professional life at Arsenal, aiding the efforts and ambitions of the club he supported as a boy. But before joining the Gunners in 1985, Akers had his own football career to craft.
After exiting the Fulham developmental academy short of a professional contract, it was in the humble surroundings of Tonbridge in Kent, a county to the south-east of the English capital, that Akers began his senior career. Quickly establishing himself as a fine defence-minded left-back, from Tonbridge Akers would move to Bexley United before finding his services requested by Fourth Division Cambridge United and subsequently acquired for the princely sum of £5,000.
During his four year spell with The Us, Akers made himself a regular in the squad that secured the club’s first football league promotion, when they made the leap from fourth tier to third in 1973, and went on to appear 129 times for the club before journeying south once more to join Watford. Beyond Watford, Akers would also don the colours of Dartford, Hayes, Slough Town and Carshalton Athletic after which he elected to draw his increasingly nomadic non-league adventure to a close.
It was in the mid-1980s, just a short while after calling time on his playing days, that Akers would join Arsenal. Hired initially to assist in the club’s fledgeling community schemes, he soon made his various ambitions known and willingly became something of an in-house yes man, agreeing to aid the Arsenal cause in any and all capacities.
At the time, Arsenal were without a women’s team, though, as part of their community outreach initiatives, the club’s staff had been aiding in the operations at local women’s team in Aylesbury on account of one of their employees playing for the club.
In 1987, Arsenal assumed control of Aylesbury, as the team headed towards an otherwise uncertain future, and Akers willingly took on the role of coaching and managing the squad. This was not in opposition to his prior responsibilities, however. While leading the newly rebranded Arsenal ladies, Akers continued to assist with the club’s youth players as well as performing his voluntary duties as kit man.
Following George Graham’s appointment as Arsenal manager, a restructuring of personnel saw Akers rehomed from his place at Arsenal In The Community to the first team staff. This promotion and acknowledgement of relative seniority did nothing to deter his aforementioned commitments, though, and the first request Akers asked of Graham was to allow him to continue to work with Arsenal’s ladies.
Such was the enormous imbalance of interest in football played by women, and consequently the scarcity of funds made available to the ladies’ side, for many years the team operated without a budget; run by volunteers from top to bottom. Much like the average work day, this began and ended with Vic Akers.
Being paid only part-time playing salaries, many, if not all, female footballers required additional forms of employment. In this regard, Akers proved invaluable to his players as he took it upon himself to find jobs in and around the club wherever possible. As a result, many of his players were taken on work experience, handed roles in administration, found work in the club’s box office or the laundry department to which Akers himself was highly familiar.
Far less demeaning than it sounds, this was simply the reality facing female athletes throughout the 1980s and 90s who wished to commit to a career in sport with far greater vigour than those around the country wished to spend their money watching them do so, and Akers did all he could to accommodate their nascent dreams.
By the early-90s, Akers’ determination and professionalism had proved vital in moulding his Arsenal ladies team into one of the most highly rated outfits in the country. He would spend the following decade chiselling that fact into stone, all the while their achievements etched his own name into the game’s history books.
In 1992, Akers held in his hands a first hard-earned piece of silverware, the FA Women’s League Cup. With that, the floodgates swung open. The following year came a league and cup double, before 1994 brought another League Cup, and a second league and cup double followed shortly after. The events of the 90s proved a watershed moment for Arsenal ladies, during which time they amassed as many as 13 trophies, laying the foundations for an even more dominant and defining decade to follow.
Between 2000 and 2010, Arsenal won nine of an available 10 FA Women’s Premier League trophies – just one title surrendered to Fulham in 2003, the solitary blot on an otherwise impeccable decade – in addition to five FA Women’s Cups and five FA Women’s League Cups. What’s more, Akers conspired to elevate Arsenal’s domestic domination to a continental level.
The squad and Akers’ crowning glory came on the form of the 2006/07 season when Arsenal ladies captured an unprecedented quadruple, consisting of the FA Women’s Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Women’s Cup, the latter being the principal trophy in the European game. Not only was this the first and to date only occasion a women’s team from England has lifted the most notable trophy in club football, but Arsenal achieved the feat unbeaten. They lost not a single game in any competition.
This was Akers’ demand for the highest of standards played out in real time. These were the spoils afforded to a team wholly devoted to the energies of a man who longed for perfection, whether that be in the form of laying out kit before a game or orchestrating a perfect season.
The scorer of the UEFA Women’s Cup-winning goal, full-back Alex Scott, had been with the club since the age of nine after being scouted by none other than Akers himself. Tipped off to the promising young female footballer playing in an under-10’s cage tournament in Tower Hamlet, it was Akers who took it upon himself to travel to see Scott play and to subsequently bring Scott aboard.
In speaking to the player herself about Vic Akers, Scott told Arseblog columnist Tim Stillman: “[Akers] had his ear to the ground on so many things and he was so determined to find the next big player. He was always on his phone, 24/7. I often couldn’t get through to him until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, but he always answered. He never switched off. He was so well respected in women’s football that people would tip him off. So it was rarely a coincidence for him to uncover a young player.”
Due to the declining health of his mother, Akers stepped down from his position as head coach of the Arsenal ladies team in 2009 following the climax of yet another double-winning season. He left his position having garnered an astounding 32 major honours. Having sparked a revolution in the female game, he was awarded an OBE for his services to sport, shortly before his mother’s death in 2010. He resumed his role as Arsenal’s first team kit man, alongside his son, until this very summer.
Of Akers’ life’s work, Wenger reflected in May 2018: “It is absolutely unbelievable what he did. Unfortunately, he did it at a time where women’s football was not popular or rated so much. I am convinced he is a real football connoisseur, who has the instinct of managing, and I think with time he will get the recognition he deserves. The women’s game would be nowhere near where it is today if it was not for him.”
Another vocal advocate of his, former vice-chairman of the club David Dein, said: “Vic has always been like Arsène – extremely loyal and very committed and modest, never looking for publicity for himself despite all his amazing achievements. The club owe him a lot because he is always the unsung hero.” He added: “As kit man, the players trusted him, he was like their confidante. They knew they could go to him with their problems, he would always be their first port of call.”
It was this level of trust and familiarity, as well as his commitment to the values by which all of Arsenal prides itself, that allowed Akers to form so many meaningful relationships with many of Arsenal’s most treasured figures, and few got along with Akers as well as Dennis Bergkamp. “My best pal was Dennis,” Akers told the club’s media in filming for a 2014 video detailing his various Arsenal duties. “I used to travel and drive with him when he wasn’t flying; the boys would fly and we would always go in the vehicle and I would be his buddy in the car. We used to play golf together, along with Ray Parlour and people like that.”
Akers recalled one particular occasion when Bergkamp showed his affections for his friend and kit man in a somewhat compromising fashion. “We had this lounge at the training ground where people would come in and show their wares. These three girls from Clarins, wearing white coats, were showing off some beauty products to the lads. I was standing there talking to them, with one hand on the side on the wall, when Dennis came up behind me and pulled down my shorts. Luckily, I was not going commando that day and had a top on that was quite long! When I turned round, there was Dennis, Patrick [Vieira] and Coley [Ashley Cole] rolling around on the floor laughing.”
Bergkamp even detailed the success of that particular prank, along with many others, in his book Stillness and Speed. “The reaction! Vic lurches forward to cover himself, and all the guys are still having lunch and they’re all in tears because it took Vic ages to lean down to pull up his shorts. The girls are all laughing, too. People were laughing about it for weeks afterwards. You know, I’ve won some trophies. And I’ve scored some nice goals. But this may be the highlight of my career.”
Though others may have spent a far greater time basking in the spotlight during their time at Arsenal, no man or woman spent longer at Arsenal, committing to caring for, coaching, educating and inspiring others in the manner performed by Vic Akers. “Vic was that second father figure to me. He fought for and drove women’s football in this country at a time when not many people did. He pushed me and motivated me to want to be the best every single day. I wouldn’t be the player and person I am without Vic,” Alex Scott told Arseblog. “We’re saying goodbye to a true legend, not just of Arsenal, but for women’s football.”
“To be part of the club is wonderful for me and I feel that I’ve been able to offer, since coming in way back there in ‘85, we’ve had so many highs in the period I’ve been here that just picking one out wouldn’t be enough,” Akers reflected in 2014. “I’ve just enjoyed the whole episode of what we’ve achieved and what we’ve done together.”
Football fans of every creed and culture, those in and out of Arsenal red, with their attentions demanded by the game played by men, women or both, will do well to honour the work of Vic Akers. There were few quite like him belonging to the game’s illustrious past and, without a great deal of fortune, there may never be another quite like him in its future.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp