What’s Ailing the Arsenal: The Board & Ownership view
There used to be a football club over there.'(Keith Burkinshaw 1984)
The above quote may be attributable to a former manager of our North London rivals and uttered more than 30 years ago, but it feels so incredibly relevant to the ownership and governance of Arsenal ever since the decision was made to abandon our spiritual home of Highbury in search of the huge income streams that could be realised at a new state of the art stadium. As fans, we have constantly been fed the line that the move was motivated by a strategic aim to establish the club on a similar financial footing to domestic rivals Manchester United and the elite of European football; yet the approach over recent years, since the stadium debt was cleared, suggests that may have been pure lip service, simply telling the fans what they wanted to hear in order to keep them handing over their cash season after season.
At the very time that Arsenal were building Emirates Stadium, Roman Abramovich rocked up in West London and ‘parked his Russian tanks on the lawn and started firing £50 notes’, as David Dein so famously put it. It was always going to be difficult to compete with clubs bankrolled by owners with seemingly limitless funds as Chelsea and later Manchester City became; yet ever since the day that Dein was ousted from the Board, ironically for backing a takeover bid by the very man who was later to become the majority shareholder of the club, the focus of those in charge of the club seems less about using all available resources to compete and more about increasing the value of the asset.
A cursory glance at the sporting franchises that Stan Kroenke owns or has a controlling interest in in the States, in no way suggests an owner on a driven path to sporting glory; at best it is a portfolio of mediocrity, at worst a horde of sporting nest eggs that will be cashed in once it is felt that they have attained their maximum value. Although, admittedly it is very difficult to gauge Kroenke’s intentions for our football club as the man hardly communicates with us mere ‘customers'(sic), let alone sets out his vision for the future.
No matter how ruthless Abramovich’s behaviour is in firing managers based on short-term drops in performance or an unpalatable style of football; it could never be levelled at the Russian billionaire that he doesn’t care about the fortunes of the team, nor have a clear picture of what he is trying to achieve. The same can be said of Manchester City and their drive to create the world’s biggest football club funded by Abu Dhabi’s petro-megabucks… and of Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United; hell even Everton, who apparently offer sufficiently more ambition as a club to convince Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri to switch his ambitions from Arsenal to the Merseyside club when he invested £87.5m last summer.
The Arsenal Board, operating underneath Kroenke, can be regarded as little more than a collection of historical stakeholders devoid of any real challenge or influence to the majority shareholder or indeed upon the chief executive and manager; it could be questioned whether anyone would notice if they weren’t in fact there at all?
Recent reports emanating from those reportedly ‘in-the-know’ with regard to an alleged power struggle inside the club, suggest that Ivan Gazidis is ready for change and that at long last he is apparently prepared to act upon the statement he gave back in the summer of 2011, that ‘Arsène is ultimately accountable to the fans – they ultimately make judgment. If you are seeing the relationship between the fans and the manager break down over time that is unsustainable’.
However, remembering that Wenger was the key decision-maker in Gazidis’s appointment, alongside the message that seems to be coming out of the club that it is up to the manager to decide whether he will take the alleged contract extension; it begs the question of who is ultimately accountable to whom? In actual fact is the manager accountable to anyone, or is he simply allowed to do as he sees fit and he will be the one to decide when he goes?
If we accept that as long as the money continues to roll in and the asset that is Arsenal Football Club continues to grow in value; then we can assume that Kroenke will be happy with the way things are; it is likely only to be when the value plateaus and begins to fall that he may be motivated to act. The Arsenal business model is founded on the illusion of being competitive; as long as the fans can be made to believe that the club is doing everything in its power to compete at the very top of the game, then season tickets will continue to sell out and Kroenke’s precious financial bottom line is safe. In all likelihood this, barring some late miraculous surge, could be the first season in which Wenger fails to deliver Champions League football and the associated massive revenues; thereby puncturing the illusion once and for all. If the Gunners are to miss out this year, you would be hard pushed to find any supporter who believes the current management structure is capable of seeing us bounce back any time soon. While it may feel somewhat counterintuitive, it may well take repeated failure to qualify for UEFA’s gravy train to convince the majority shareholder to either bring in a manager capable of pushing us back up to the very top of the League or to cash in on his investment and focus on his other sporting investments.
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