Ivan the not so terrible

Tim Stillman column - Arseblog

Whilst there is doubtless a great deal of work going on behind the scenes at the club, we’re still waiting for the transfer scene for Arsenal to fulminate in the public domain. The whispers in the corridor suggest the next few days could see that change, but whilst the whispers have yet to echo their way into arsenal.com type confirmation, there is little concrete to report.

Arsenal have of course confirmed the signing of 19 year old Charlton full back Carl Jenkinson. I know little to nothing about the guy, but it could prove to be an astute signing if it moves Eboue closer to the exit door. As pointed out by @YoungGunsBlog, Jenkinson qualifies as home trained and therefore does not count towards our 25 man squad quota. His signing still keeps another space free within that parameter.

The futures of Clichy, Nasri and Fabregas remain pending, so in truth, there isn’t a great deal to expand on those issues since last week’s column. So from a journalistic point of view, it’s probably just as well that I was honoured enough to be one of the 200 or so in attendance at the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust’s Q & A session with Ivan Gazidis last night. Otherwise, I fear some Hemingway style padding might have been on the cards for this week’s entry!

It was my first opportunity to view one of these sessions in the flesh. It’s clear that Mr. Gazidis is a very smooth operator and completely at ease in the bear pit of supporter dialogue. I thought the atmosphere would be tinged with a good deal more poison than was present. But I think Gazidis was smart with his opening gambit. He confronted the ticket price rise straight away and probably disarmed possible hostility by describing the season as “a profound disappointment” and bemoaning a “familiar story over the last part of the season.”

Largely Gazidis said what one would expect him to say. That the season had ended disappointingly and that the club were working hard to rectify weaknesses in the squad, but that he backed the manager “100%” and emphasised the club’s style of play and fiscal stability as positives worthy of illumination. He pointed to the fact that most clubs see us as the model for how a football club should operate. “We do it appallingly badly, but better than everyone else” he quipped at one point regarding the club’s efficiency in the market.

I think most people understand that by now, the trouble is those were positives for the club five years ago too and we don’t seem to have been able to expand the ‘pros’ box too much since. That patois is beginning to wear thin with some.

Ivan Gazidis at the AST meeting

Gazidis had a very disarming manner in dealing with some of the more tempestuous questions; such as the assertion that players didn’t have any pride in the club. Rather than contest the points, when the temptation to say, “Oh, just fuck off” must’ve been chewing away at him like an angry badger, he acknowledged and accepted the criticisms and pledged to work on them. Politician’s prerogative or genuine promise? I suppose the proof will be in the pudding.

That said, for all his charm, some I spoke to over a shandy after the session suggested that a few of his more defensive comments on ticket pricing could easily have been misinterpreted. The contention that the club have the length of waiting list to have supported them in driving the prices up long before now could easily have been read as, “If you don’t like it, there’s plenty more cash cows grazing in the field.”

But amidst the quite understandable towing of the party line from the CEO there were some rather interesting tit-bits that I had not heard from any other organ of the club. For instance, the explanation for the rise in fees for Silver Membership had not been fully set out in any club literature I had seen. Gazidis explained that the high churn in Red Members suggested that membership was not bringing tangible enough benefits to people and therefore required revamping.

As a consequence the price of silver membership had to become commensurate with red. Gazidis also explained that the inflated fee acted as a kind of encouragement for Silver members to use their memberships as there were a great many that were either cherry picking fixtures or else just sitting on them.

This tied in neatly with a question from the floor around transparency – particularly in attendance figures – which are clearly a source of mirth and disgruntlement when they are announced in the stadium. It has become commonplace for ridiculously overcooked figures to be announced with scores of empty seats visible. Personally, I can’t see why people get in such a tizzy about this barely relevant issue. It’s perhaps symptomatic of the feeling of disillusionment at large that people really will piss their pants about any old thing.

But Ivan outlined that the criticism the club would receive from those that couldn’t secure tickets would far outweigh the disgruntled sniggers of those inside the stadium if the club were to announce the true “bums on seats” figure. “Every empty seat is a travesty” he gushed, whilst committing to redouble the effort to make the club’s ticket exchange policy bare more fruit.

I’m not sure I’ve seen an awful lot of reportage of Gazidis’ comments around the season ticket price rise. It was pointed out that utility bills for the stadium had increased by 100% in the last two years. Excuse me whilst I duck below the parapet when I say I think he also had a point when he said that the disgruntlement for the price rise was set against a backdrop of regular price freezes.

However, that’s slightly disingenuous because it doesn’t recognise that prices were hiked at inflation busting levels in the years building up to the stadium move as well as the contentious bond issue in 2003. In 2001, my season ticket rose by 23.5%. But hang on? Wasn’t David Dein our vice-Chairman then? Surely the great philanthropist of N5 did not but fart perfume?

Gazidis also had some interesting comments around UEFA’s Financial Fair Play legislation and, perhaps surprisingly, he did not sound supportive. Whilst he said he hoped that it would stabilise salary inflation, he worried that the trend would be for clubs to try to drive short term revenues straight from the supporters. That could quite possibly be considered a rather apposite point to make when you’ve just spent a large section of your evening defending a season ticket price rise, but it made for interesting listening all the same.

Perhaps the most contentious remarks of the evening arrived when Gazidis answered a flat question around whom exactly Wenger is accountable to with the retort, “Ultimately, the fans.” It was possibly his only answer of the night that was met with open derision and I have to say, I found it a confusing and worrying remark. Once he’d squirmed a little and recomposed himself, Gazidis did manage to mumble mealy mouthed that Arsene is accountable to the Board of Directors, but it didn’t strike you as the most resounding confirmation.

Arsene Wenger

There were two problems with the remark. Firstly, the flimsy pretext appeared to all but confirm the suspicion of many that the manager does have an autocratic role at the club. Secondly, it seemed to almost invite supporters that favour a change of management to become even more voluble in their acid tongued dissent. Listening to supporters and engaging a constructive dialogue is one thing, but to suggest they should be the gauge upon which professional, executive decisions are made is a little perplexing to me.

Gazidis was rather non committal on the issue of share dividends. He confirmed that Kroenke had not placed any debt on the club, but would only move so far as to say he had no reason to believe Silent Stan would re-trigger dividends for board members working on the assumption that past behaviour is an indicator of future performance. Ivan’s avowal that Kroenke would “remain in the background” suggests we’re unlikely to hear anything from the man himself any time soon. Which I think quite understandably concerns a lot of people.

All in all, it was a very interesting evening. I think Gazidis handled it incredibly well and, speaking from a personal standpoint, I happen to believe he has done a good job in the two and a half years he has been in situ. One must understand that he currently straddles an ugly power battle between the club’s two majority shareholders, whilst also trying to keep the third wheel spinning in the shape of an increasingly aggravated fan base. It’s quite an undertaking and one I think he manages well.

Whatever your opinion of him you have to extend full credit to him for facing the music and doing so on his lonesome. That said, I don’t think any of the questions from the floor (which were not pre-submitted or vetted) threw him any curve balls. I imagine he was thoroughly prepared for every question that came his way. There was certainly nothing that surprised me. Nevertheless, there aren’t many football clubs of our size that indulge such a forum.

A big thank you must go to the likes of Nigel Phillips, Tim Payton and everyone at the Arsenal Supporter’s Trust for making such a well organised and important event possible. It was a pleasure to speak and share a light ale or two with some you too. Until next week, Up the Arse. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

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