Arsenal’s perceived lack of ability to ‘do the business’ in the transfer market in recent seasons has produced a crescendo of calls for the return of David Dein to the club. From effectively running the boardroom for between the mid-80s and the mid-1990s, a decade on, Dein was unceremoniously dumped from the club in the spring of 2007, having failed in an attempted coup d’etat that would have returned him to power with the backing of – ironically – Stan Kroenke. Since then, he has been in the wilderness, attending home matches on a regular basis, and maintaining constant contact with manager Arsène Wenger, but for the most part, powerless.
That is not to say that he has not played any part, with whispers that he may have informally intervened to help smooth the passage of a couple of the late August signings the club made last year, perhaps without the knowledge of his more vehement opponents on the board. Even if Arsène Wenger was in Switzerland while the deals were being done, in the age of the mobile phone, Dein could have been in constant contact with his ally and at his behest given whatever assistance he could in dealing with the selling clubs. After all, his loyalty to Arsenal and Arsène is greater than his negative feelings about those that ejected him almost five years ago. He would have felt the pain of the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford as much as anyone and been anxious to aide his friend in digging himself out of a relegation zone shaped hole.
Still, there is no question Dein could play a greater part if he returned to the club in an official capacity, and the recent appointment of Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith to the position of honorary vice-president is a smoke signal that changes may be afoot at the club. Admittedly, what Lady Nina has been granted are privileges rather than power, the opportunity to return to her role as Queen Bee in the directors’ lounge on matchdays, but it should not be forgotten that her own exit from the board was as dramatic as Dein’s. In the hours following her re-election as a director at the 2008 Arsenal Annual General Meeting, she received a phone call from chairman Peter Hill-Wood informing her she was to step down. Her sin? To have associations of any sort with those who were close to Farhad Moshiri, Alisher Usmanov’s partner in Red and White Holdings, the buyers of David Dein’s shares in the autumn of 2007, who in turn appointed Dein as their chairman for a year until it became obvious he was a barrier to their having any influence at the club.
So the atmosphere in the directors’ box on matchdays is going to be interesting from this point on. There seems little doubt that the reason Lady Nina has been invited back in is part of the deal that saw her sell her shares to Kroenke almost a year ago, when Danny Fiszman’s failing health and the knowledge he did not have long to resolve who would control the club after his passing forced negotiations. The other shareholding board members sold up to Kroenke, part of that deal being that they would remain as directors for a minimum of 12 months. However, with Peter Hill-Wood, Ken Friar, Sir Chips Keswick and Lord Harris all being over the age of 70, there is a strong possibility that the first year of Kroenke’s tenure as Arsenal’s controlling shareholder (having bought 67% of the club) has seen a holding pattern in the boardroom. The key decisions – away from the playing side, currently the manager’s preserve – are being taken by CEO Ivan Gazidis and his expensively recruited executive team. But their focus has been very much on the commercial side of the business, and although Gazidis claims great experience of handling transfer and wage negotiations in his previous role as deputy commissioner of the MLS, the reality is that the quality of signings required by the club, and the ability to hold onto their best players in their peak years, is not what it was since Dein’s departure.
Dein’s role has been filled by Dick Law, whose reputation in the murky world of wheeler dealing that is the modern day transfer market is not strong, and certainly hampered by the club’s refusal – on principle – to deal with particular agents, such as Pini Zahavi.
What is ultimately preventing the return of Dein – who would be back tomorrow if not later today were he invited – is the geriatrics in the boardroom. Dein and Danny Fiszman fell out big time in the late 1990s, around the time that Fiszman was acting as a virtual cash machine for Dein (via dealings related to their mutually owned shares) when he needed to fund a costly legal case after the collapse of his sugar trading company. Fiszman installed Keith Edelman as Managing Director to run Arsenal as more of a business and less of a hobby and Dein was marginalized to concentrate on helping the manager with playing affairs.
When Dein held clandestine meetings with Stan Kroenke to buy ITV’s 9.9% holding in 2007, he offered him a deal that would see Kroenke and himself take control of Arsenal, with Lady Nina’s 16% shareholding being sold to the American. Combined with Dein’s shares, it would have meant that Fiszman and the other shareholders on the board could have easily been ousted. However, Lady Nina informed her fellow directors (including her in-laws the Carr brothers) of the offer to her, and was persuaded to remain in the fold. Dein did not last long, his failed revolution understandably making enemies of any remaining director who did not already struggle to see eye to eye with him. And four of them are still in situ.
But after April, those four could be asked to step down themselves, ridding the issue of the personal animosity felt towards Dein at a stroke. Granted, were Dein to be installed as chairman in place of Peter Hill-Wood, Ivan Gazidis might feel that some of his own power might be eroded, but where playing matters are concerned, he has not proved the success that was hoped, looking at the decline in the strength of the squad, in spite of the ever spiraling wage bill.
So there is no obvious impediment to the return of David Dein, if Kroenke can live without a boardroom in the fashion of an old style gentlemen’s club. Indeed, reputedly, meetings took place between the club and Dein towards the end of 2011 to sound him out. How ironic. Years after the failed revolution, here we are today speculating that Kroenke, Dein and Lady Nina might be cosying up in the directors’ box after all.