And then there was war …
If you thought that yesterday the dust might settle a bit in the wake of Robin van Persie’s statement you couldn’t have been more wrong.
There were whispers of a forthcoming statement from Red and White (Alisher Usmanov and that other bloke nobody really cares about) and when it emerged it was really quite extraordinary. It was a piece of PR and propaganda that was well written, well timed (from their point of view) and carefully designed, like van Persie’s statement, to tug on the heartstrings of the disenchanted and the reservations people have of the current owner, Stan Kroenke.
It spoke of ‘concerns’ about how the club was being run and quite pointedly, like Robin van Persie’s missive, fingered Ivan Gazidis as a problem, citing recent comments he made and how a ‘cold call’ regarding sponsorship to a Russian telephone company was made without the knowledge that Usmanov owned 50% of it.
There was criticism of how shares were sold, how directors cashed in, how Kroenke’s loans hadn’t been clarified, how R&W should not be viewed as the ‘enemy’ and the general business model of the club. They also wanted to know where were the ‘safeguards’ to stop our best players leaving every summer. And this, I guess, is what will resonate with people most.
I have spoken before about how much I hate the way our fanbase is being polarised. The idea that you have be one thing or another is stupid to me. You can have concerns with the way the club is being run without wanting full scale revolution, you can want change without clearing the decks entirely. You can be critical of the manager and want him to continue, you can want a new manager without wishing for the current one to be burnt at the stake.
Yet surely whatever side you lean the issue of our best players leaving every summer is one that is of concern, regardless of how sanguine you are about the departures. Of course we’re not the only club this happens to but since Stan Kroenke took over, and it is only just over 12 months ago remember, we’ve lost Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and now it looks as if Robin van Persie is on his way out.
Leaving everything else aside, and looking at it from a footballing point of view, it’s a real worry. Let’s not kid ourselves it’s a new phenomenon, when Vieira tried to go almost every summer, we were able to keep him because a) we had a team that was competitive and could win things and b) the difference between our wages and the top wages at places like Real Madrid is nowhere near as marked as it is now with the cash on offer from City.
But at this moment in time Arsenal look like a soft touch. If we have a player one of the cash laden clubs want (and by that I mean Man City), it seems there’s little we can do to stop them wanting to leave. No amount of affection for the club, love for the fans, respect for the manager, or anything else, can make a difference. So what on earth can we do? I think most fans would agree that the kind of money City throw at players’ wages and transfer fees is bad for the game. It inflates costs across football and the knock-on effects of that are felt at every club, in every division, sometimes with fatal consequences for certain clubs.
So to talk of ‘safeguards’ is a bit nonsensical, there’s no sure fire way to make players stay but we can certainly make it easier – and the the only way to do that is to invest properly in the team to make sure players actually think long and hard about their futures. Bar personal reason nobody can do anything about, players won’t want to leave a successful side. There’s more than one way to build a team too, the idea that throwing massive amounts of cash around is the only way to operate is thoroughly depressing, and surely that has to be our focus.
Yet while there are legitimate and genuine concerns about the direction in which the club is going and why every summer turns into a saga, let’s not be blind to the fact that Usmanov’s letter is a piece of PR which aims to get people on his side and certain elements of it just do not stand up to much scrutiny. They talk of their vision:
So what is Red & White’s vision for the Club? It is simple. A debt free Club, with a big enough war chest to buy top talent players who can hit the ground running and who can complement the Club’s long tradition of developing young players and homegrown talent.
Which sounds great but isn’t that also the ‘vision’ the club have themselves? They have built a new stadium, financed it, managed it, and everybody knew there would be financial implications for some years. Ultimately though, the long-term plan is to have the stadium paid off and to reap the financial benefits of that. I’m always dubious of the ‘quick fix’ and I don’t claim to know the ins and outs of a rights issue, but I’m sure if the positions were reversed Usmanov would be about as keen as Kroenke to make it happen. That’s the nature of business.
We have sought and been refused any meetings with Mr Kroenke despite the fact that we own almost 30% of the Club or to put another way almost 1 in every 3 seats in the stadium.
Now, I’m not a season ticket holder but if I were I think this would bother me. Does anyone who pays for their ticket or their membership really consider their seat ‘owned’ by either Kroenke or Usmanov? Red and White own 30%, more or less, of the equity in Arsenal, they don’t ‘own’ seats. An ill-judged line which hints at how they really view things.
We are loyal supporters and will never do anything that would destabilize or “create conflict” at the Club.
For me this is the part which people really ought to pay attention to. Loyal supporters they may be – you can decide for yourselves how much truth there is in that (and it’d sound as fake coming from Kroenke too) – but you simply cannot say you’re not trying to create conflict when you know exactly that’s what an open letter like this will do. Of course it creates conflict. It has sparked countless arguments between fans and furthers the already deep division between the board and Usmanov. There is no hope of them working together and Usmanov knows this as well as Kroenke, but it’s easy for him to appear moderate and reasonable from the sidelines.
And you cannot look at the timing of this and believe for one second that it isn’t linked to the van Persie statement. To me this is something that was planned and prepared with the full knowledge of what was coming from the captain. You don’t need to be a genius to work out how Usmanov would have been informed of what was going on, the links are obvious, and was able to prepare accordingly. Thus, when van Persie dropped his bombshell, Usmanov’s second wave was primed and ready to go.
Some might say it’s a good thing, that it’s necessary to have this debate to bring change, but the whole thing is rather unseemly. This public airing of dirty laundry is not the Arsenal way and let’s remember we finished third, not last. We are in the Champions League next season and remain at the top table of European football. I think we can all look at our team and see how we can improve it without having to sell our soul one way or the other.
However, the ball has been well and truly smashed into Kroenke’s court. He has to give serious consideration, and provide a response, to what Usmanov has said. Silent Stan cannot stay as silent as he has. The best reaction, from my point of view at least, would not be a statement or a rebuttal. Words schmords. We are great at talking a lot and saying little, but a clear demonstration of our desire to improve and compete next season, by bringing in more quality players, would suffice. Isn’t that what all of us want at the end of the day? A better team. There’s a feeling that we under-invest, that we look for cheap options, and look, we do have to spend our money carefully, but the owner has to show that this club is serious about what it’s trying do and, as the owner, provide some of the leadership which feels missing at this moment in time.
Unfortunately, Arsenal is now 96% owned by two men with no relationship whatsoever, neither of whom are Arsenal fans in any real sense of the word. Our club is an investment vehicle, Usmanov’s letter might claim concern for the way the club is being run but ultimately it’s about increasing his chances of owning the club outright. That’s his endgame, which he’s fully entitled to, but all the while we’re the ones in the middle and you have to worry about what the fall-out will be as this continues.
Perhaps it’s overstating it but Arsenal is on the brink of civil war. It’s sad that a summer which seemed to be going in the right direction has now been derailed for the sake of politics and a power struggle for control of the football club we all support. The best case scenario is that it focuses us on doing our very best this summer, the worst is that it causes the kind of disruption and difficulty that affects us negatively on the pitch. Worrying times.