350 members of various Arsenal supporters’ organisations and shareholders will attend a Q&A evening with the club’s CEO Ivan Gazidis in the north end of the stadium’s Club Level next Wednesday evening, after Coldplay have packed up and moved on to their next venue. At this time of year, since before the move to the new stadium, such an event has been organised by the Arsenal Supporters Trust for their members. Whilst the AST will still enjoy a healthy representation on the evening, part of the reason it has been opened out to shareholders is that the annual Q&A event with Arsene Wenger has quietly disappeared off the agenda. First held in May 2008, the 2009 event a year on made headlines because of the manager’s fractious mood.
The questioning on that fateful evening was polite enough, and points were made, but Wenger was obviously in no mood to account for himself after suffering home defeats against Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final and Chelsea by a 4-1 scoreline. A politician like Gazidis – as he will next week – would have ridden out the questions without showing the distaste for his public that the manager did. When the following season also ended in disappointment, the session was postponed until September 2010 when a new season had begun and the mood was better. However, then, questions had to be pre-submitted, allowing greater control over proceedings. Now, it seems the manager’s diary is conveniently too full for him to make it to the stadium one evening after the season’s completion.
Yet the truth of the matter was in his dismissive opinion about the views of people who have “not worked half a day in football.” Ultimately, although he pays lip service to supporters in his ghosted weekly emails, his reality is that if a supporter has the temerity to point out faults in the team, by nature, they cannot call themselves supporters. Wenger is invariably polite when it comes to things like signing autographs for shareholders after the club’s October Annual General Meeting, although significantly, in October 2011, the customary questions from the floor for the manager after he had delivered his traditional address on playing matters were not invited, even if the team had picked up somewhat after a disastrous start.
It should be said that there is no compulsion for Wenger to have agreed to the idea of a Q&A session, nor attend the club’s AGM. The Q&A was devised as a carrot for small shareholders in the autumn of 2007 when the board were attempting to prevent them from selling their shares to predators – at a time when both Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov were buying, with neither inside the fold. However, the ownership of the club is now effectively resolved. It’s Kroenke’s baby unless he decides to sell up to Usmanov, who has indicated he is in it for the long haul. This summer will see more renovation work on the Uzbek’s super box at the Emirates – two hospitality boxes already knocked into one will see further upgrade with the bill footed by the oligarch himself. So the need to keep small shareholders sweet is a thing of the past. Kroenke might attend a couple of home matches a season, although tellingly, he makes it over to these shores more frequently to attend board meetings. This indicates his real focus where Arsenal is concerned – the club as a healthy and viable business (which it undoubtedly is) rather than a sporting concern.
It’s an approach that does not always go down well with the rank and file supporters – and most small shareholders (approximately 3% of shares are held by neither Kroenke nor Usmanov) are exactly that. Their shares are still worth a substantial amount of money (Usmanov’s representatives are getting in touch with them one by one to see if there is any interest in selling for circa £15,000 in his attempt to reach a 30% shareholding and access club information regarding the accounts that he currently cannot), but that they have not cashed in on them yet indicates that many have no wish to relinquish their small stake in the ownership of their football team.
And it is because they are fans that concerns will be voiced next Wednesday evening when Ivan Gazidis faces them, and supporters from the AST, the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, Arsenal Fanshare members and some from supporters clubs. Gazidis does come in for some flak from certain quarters, but ultimately the CEO is a highly-paid stooge for the two men controlling the club – Kroenke and Arsène Wenger. It should always be remembered that Gazidis was interviewed for his job by Wenger – the employee picking his own boss. It was because of this strange state of affairs that Celtic’s Peter Lawwell rejected the opportunity to take the job subsequently given to Gazidis back in the autumn of 2008, after Keith Edelman had been dismissed.
The CEO has put himself forward for a good number of Arsenal supporter Q&As in the past – at least four that I can recall – but this is the first time that questions have had to be pre-submitted. His approach is invariably one of empathy with fan concerns, a shared disappointment that things have not worked out as we all would have liked. Where questions get a bit tricky, he will fall back on the failsafe that there are things he cannot reveal because of confidentiality concerns, but that if we did know them, we would have a better understanding of why – for example – certain players were not signed. Whilst acknowledging overall failings, he will never be critical of an individual member of staff. So ultimately, the exercise is simply one of mental gymnastics. However, even when he is justifying the club’s hard-headed balance sheet rooted approach, he can unconsciously reveal something of the truth. Catch him one to one and have a normal conversation – which in fairness he is willing to do at such events after the formal business is done – and he is a little more forthcoming. In December last year he was very dismissive of then Serie A champions AC Milan, because of their business model. Milan were in turn quite dismissive of Arsenal when fate paired them in the Champions League a few weeks later.
Gazidis is running Arsenal a particular way, one highly reliant on Financial Fair Play coming in and levelling the playing field a bit. But he is acting on the orders of Kroenke with Wenger totally onside. He is there to be shot at, but is not the one deciding on the budget for the ammunition that the club utilise, nor how it is used. However, going forward, the reality is that Milan’s business model might actually be the one the Gunners have to consider emulating if they are to return to the days of winning trophies. Because as I will discuss next time, UEFA’s much vaunted FFP is already dead in the water…