These are not normal times for Arsenal Football Club, it’s supporters, and as we found out yesterday, its shareholders as well. As the Premier League season heads toward November, and Arsenal face a slate of challenging games, the league table is starting to gain clarity. Manchester City sit clear of all challengers, 5 points ahead of second place Manchester United and the Gunners’ hated North London rivals, Tottenham, themselves enjoying a 4 point gap over fourth place. With the exception of last place Crystal Palace, every other club in the league falls within a 9 point spread, already trailing the Citizens by a significant margin. Despite now sitting in a tie with Chelsea in fourth place, the Gunners are already 9 points off the pace set by Pep Guardiola’s men, and the divisions that have harmed the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium and split a fan base into rival factions are proving to run deeper than ever.
It was with this backdrop that the club held their annual Arsenal General Meeting with shareholders. Given the unique structure of the club, in which the club is divided into a limited number of shares, fans are given annual voice at these meetings, their interests represented largely by the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST). As might have been expected, considering the turmoil amongst fans that has only intensified in the last calendar year, the meeting was anything but a formality. Buoyed on by the perceived insincerity of the answers to their questions, fans decided, despite being well aware that it would make little difference in the end, to oppose the reelection of Chairman (and of course, old Etonian) Sir Chips Keswick and our little nepotism project, non-executive Director Josh Kroenke. Proxy votes, courtesy of both major shareholders, ensured that the protest would do little more than make noise, but it was slightly revealing in that Alisher Usmanov, the club’s second largest shareholder, did not choose to oppose the votes.
The supporters were most agitated by the performance of the re-elected Keswick, who by most accounts refused to answer difficult questions (including one about the lack of diversity on the Board, an issue that has persisted for years) and treated the supporters present with casual disdain. Though the vocal opposition in the room made it difficult for the meeting to proceed punctually, the supporters were simply making use of the one opportunity they receive to make their feelings heard directly to the board. For the man named after a sliced and fried potato, his unwillingness to answer questions directly, followed by his decision to end the meeting prematurely and leave his CEO and manager to face the music as he beat a hasty retreat, displayed just how out of touch he has become with the common fan. The director’s stuffy insistence that the re-election opposition was simply the “same lot” that always opposed such things further highlights the disconnect.
As has been the case for far too long, the job of facing the noise fell to the embattled manager and the CEO, Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis to clean up the mess their chairman left behind in the hall. Gazidis, himself a vastly unpopular figure at the club these days, was tasked with giving the financial numbers context and meaning during the presentation and leapt to the defence of the club’s chairman as his re-election came under fire. The executive, for all the flak he is receiving for his presentation, attempted to use objective metrics to try and explain how the club has been successful in recent years, a move met with derision by fans.
The fact remains however, Gazidis is not wrong. Supporters like to look back at statements made when the club was uprooting from Highbury, claiming success would soon follow once the stadium was paid for, but so much has happened since then to change the outlook for the club. The mega money didn’t exist at Manchester City and Chelsea, and Manchester United was still a club guided by principles and a strong, homegrown identity. Television money has minimised the importance of match day revenue, the major advantage that the Emirates initially provided. The football landscape of today was completely unforeseen back then, and the fans, in their infinitely short-sighted passion, are unwilling to account for that when criticising the club. Gazidis’ metric of league position relative to transfer expenditure does indeed show that the club are successful relative to their financial outlay, but the fans continue to want more.
What many seem to not understand (through no fault of the club, as people from Wenger to Kroenke to Gazidis have been very clear they expect and want better for the team and its fans) is that the club is not about making money for its owner. In fact, Kroenke has barely benefitted financially from his ownership of the club at all, with profits all reinvested in the club, and a much-panned “consultation fee” being waived repeatedly due to fan pressure. For a man that spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a club, that is not exactly using it for self-enrichment, is it?
Leave it to the presence of the board of directors and one of the Kroenke brood to make Arsene Wenger the most liked member of the club in a room. The Frenchman was passionate throughout, making a case for the importance of the club’s values and stressing the need in modern times to resist the urge to focus on the present exclusively, at the expense of honouring the past and making decisions to benefit the future. If there is any fan that doubts a Wenger’s love for the club, his stoic commitment to connect with the supporters and shareholders after the club’s own chairman condescendingly ended the meeting with the taunt “Write us if you have a problem” should challenge that notion.
The annual Arsenal General Meeting proved that while the board and the fans want the same thing, their opinions on how best to achieve success are as divided as ever. Was 2017 a harbinger for things to come? At this point it is hard to say, but the club cannot let their position in the league slip further, as they must prove to their fans that missing out on the Champions League is simply a temporary setback for the team that charges the most expensive ticket prices in the country. The Arsenal Supporters Trust, as noble as their intentions are, have now become beholden to the negative narrative that exists in the media about the club. There is no denying that Arsenal are not where they might wish to have been today, a decade removed from their Emirates move, but to question that the club, including its board, its executives and its manager, do not want to be better is simply missing the plot.