Sunday, April 21, 2024

KSE run a business, but we support a football club

Given everything that has gone on in the last 4 or 5 months, I think most of us can understand the pressures that exist for business owners. In some cases revenue streams have been massively diminished; in others, there is literally nothing coming in. There has been government assistance for many to help pay staff, but unquestionably it has been a trying time.

Yesterday, Arsenal released a statement announcing that 55 staff members were to be made redundant. It was co-signed by Head of Football Raul Sanllehi and Managing Director Vinai Venktatesham, but clearly this is a decision made from higher up. This is on the owners, Stan and Josh Kroenke, an edict from KSE.

I realise this is a complicated situation. Football clubs have obviously been impacted by Covid-19, they’re not somehow immune to the financial pressures of games being played behind closed doors, the lack of season ticket/membership revenue (even if certain memberships were taken in full by Arsenal over the last few weeks), commercial, match-day income and so on. You only had to look at the stark reality of empty stadia since the restart to understand the world has changed and how football has been affected.

On the face of it, 55 people losing their jobs in an organisation the size of Arsenal shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet it felt like a sucker punch reading the statement yesterday. The first consideration ought to be the people in the firing line, who are now worried about whether they’ll have a job or not. We’ve come to learn that certain people have already been informed they’re going to be made redundant (more on that anon), but I’m told that everyone else is being made wait until Friday to find out. Days of sitting, worrying, fretting, being anxious, hoping that the phone call or the email to tell them they’re also included doesn’t come.

The second thing that hit me was the timing of it. Just three days after the most difficult season many Arsenal fans have ever experienced finished on a genuine high with the FA Cup win against Chelsea, it felt like all the good feeling had been instantly evaporated. Like a pin pricking a balloon, POP. It was gone. Who, at this football club, made the executive decision that this was the right time? Only somebody who couldn’t care less about people,  how fans might feel, or what this means for the club’s employees – and I include the playing squad in that by the way.

If some of them are feeling bemused this morning, would you blame them? They were the only group of players in the Premier League to take a pay cut because of the pandemic, assured by those on high that it was necessary in order to save jobs. Now, just days after the monumental effort given to win the cup they find out that’s not the case and those jobs are going anyway. Were they sold a pack of lies? What about the manager, Mikel Arteta, who had to go some way to convince a squad which had trust issues with the ownership when these cuts were first mooted? How does he feel now? Does that affect his relationship with his squad, or those at executive level?

For me though, the most egregious part of this statement was the way it tried to play emotional tricks on fans. This was an update from ‘your club’. Job losses were framed as necessary for us to improve our squad during this transfer period. It is there in black and white:

It is now clear that we must reduce our costs further to ensure we are operating in a sustainable and responsible way, and to enable us to continue to invest in the team.

Operating in a ‘sustainable and responsible’ way sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? Who could argue with such an outlook? Yet it doesn’t tally with the way we’ve been operating in recent times. Is, for example, spending close to £5m to sign an injured player on loan before signing him for free a few months later ‘sustainable and responsible’? Is it sustainable and responsible’ when your Head of Football and a former colleague at another club require the intervention of a highly paid super-agent to complete a transfer in which said agent represented neither club nor the player in question? Is it ‘sustainable and responsible’ to pay over £20m for the services of a veteran player for one year? And for those who choose to believe the denials of certain agents, I have some magic beans for sale, just drop me an email.

As fans we want the best for our club and for our team, but it’s hard to square the circle of 55 job losses with the idea that we’re about to drop a big signing on fee for a soon to be 32 year old player from Chelsea, as well as paying him north of £6m a year for three years. I know it’s back of a match-book stuff, but if the average salary of those 55 people was £50,000 per year, the saving to KSE over the year is £2.75m. We want to give Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a new contract of £300,000 a week, we can find the money to pay him £15.6m a year but 55 hard working people have to lose their jobs in a pandemic in order to do so? Does that sit right with everyone? It doesn’t with me.

Which isn’t to ignore the financial realities of our situation, one which will be shared by many clubs and we won’t be the first to lay off staff, but don’t insult our intelligence by telling us the ‘ordinary’ people have to be laid off so we can invest in the team. It’s the worst kind of corporate double-speak there is, and trying to play that particular card – knowing how much fans want their team to improve through recruitment and retention of key players – is frankly pathetic.

I’ve seen people ask ‘Well, what should the club do, just pay people? It’s not how businesses work’. Some of the jobs – just some I should say – may not be viable given the lack of fans next season, and so on. However, there’s this weird thing about football clubs. When they choose to be, they are institutions which represent their local areas, that are pillars of the community, and Arsenal do a lot of good work in that sense. I don’t wish to downplay that one bit. During this pandemic the Arsenal Foundation has been hugely important in North London and beyond, adding to the incredible work it does anyway. There are brilliant people there doing fantastic, selfless work which is vital. Arsenal can be rightly proud of its standing within the community, and they’re right to let people know how much good they do.

Football clubs are something more than a set of ledgers. Something more consequential. A football club is not just a business, but the heartbeat of a community – now more than ever one that beats not just in the area around the stadium, but around the world due to the global nature of the sport.

Yet, when it suits them, they are all business. All balance sheet. Those responsibilities to the people involved in it, to its perception, to the goodwill it generates by virtue of its very existence, are cast aside because the numbers purportedly don’t add up. And for me that’s difficult to take in the case of Arsenal because of our owners. If we weren’t solely owned by one of America’s richest people, I’d find some rationalisation of the work force easier to take.

But Stan Kroenke is worth in excess of $8bn. It would cost a relative pittance to keep people in their jobs for another year. If you reassess the situation then and decide cuts have to be made, that’s another thing, but within weeks of Covid-19 taking hold he’d taken the chance to trim the wage bill via the playing squad, and now a couple of months down the line he’s doing it again with day to day employees. You might say I’m being an idiot, that’s not how business works, and doing stuff like this is why billionaires are billionaires, and that’s probably true.

I don’t have to like it though. I refuse to accept that a man worth billions, an obscenity in itself, is getting rid of 55 employees during a worldwide pandemic to save himself what is essentially pocket change. I don’t like that he and his executives have tried to tell fans that for the good of the football team we support this has to be done, when he has sanctioned spending and mismanagement of funds that could cover these people’s salaries for years. Have we become so inured to corporate ruthlessness that we simply accept situations like this as ‘that’s just the way it is?’. Maybe it SHOULD be another way.

I’ve seen people bring Mesut Ozil’s salary into it, and while I think his wages are a burden and we haven’t had value for money from him since he signed his new deal, it would suit KSE very well for people to be angry at a player rather than them. Ultimately, they had to sign off on that contract in 2018, they did so, and while there are all kinds of reasons to be frustrated with Ozil, this is not one of them – much as the owners would like that to be the case as it’s something they can hide behind.

I can’t tell anyone else what to think, but if your position is to defend a billionaire’s decision to lay off staff at this time, right now, with everything that’s going on, and to piss on the celebrations we were all enjoying after the FA Cup win, then all I can do is ask you to please have a think about it. If you’re still on the side of that kind of man, there’s not much I can do about it.

Arsenal Football Club is a business to them, but it’s something more than that to me, and to all of you, I’m sure. It’s a precious institution, something which has been part of our lives for years and which represents something more to us that a small piece of a rich man’s sporting franchise collection. We need to think about how we protect that and its reputation which, however you want to dress it up, has taken a hammering since that statement was released. All the business justifications aside, the optics of this are absolutely dreadful, it makes me sad and upset to have to sit here and write about it this morning because what Stan has done makes Arsenal look bad. He might not care, but I do.

Maybe I’m a fool. Maybe I’m some kind of idealist, or ‘lefty’, but my first reaction is to think about Arsenal, to think about the football club, and to think about the people who might lose their jobs, and not what’s best for Stan and Josh Kroenke. All over the world there are businesses run by ordinary people who are doing everything they can for their staff, making huge sacrifices to ensure that the people they employ are protected, and it’s a crying shame Arsenal are not one of them.

Finally, that our redundancies are to see our Head of Recruitment Francis Cagigao lose his job, as well as our Head of UK Scouting Brian McDermott, and further cuts to our scouting department are particularly worrying. Which football club does that just as the transfer window opens? Over the last while, changes and departures from this area of the club have seen us eschew the use of data, information, scouting, and planning – the most modern way of running your recruitment – to a much more agent-influenced model.

That it seems to strengthen the personal fiefdom of certain people in this process should be of genuine concern to Arsenal fans. It should be of genuine concern to KSE if they’re truly interested in a ‘sustainable and responsible’ way of doing business, but it doesn’t seem to be. It is important to have relationships with people who can make deals happen, but if almost all your deals involve just a few people, it means you’re fishing in a much smaller, much more expensive pool.

There’s a lot of talent out there, and a club like Arsenal – which clearly has financial issues – needs to be really smart about how it spends. I think there’s a good case to be made for saying we could improve our scouting, but making your Head of Recruitment and your top UK scout redundant is something very different indeed. At best this approach is convenient, at worst, something much more sinister.

If you’re not worried, fair enough. I am. If you saw this happening at another club, where one agent had such an apparent influence on a club’s business, I doubt there’d be any doubt in your mind as to what’s going on. There is something increasingly rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not Nicklas Bendtner’s betting company underpants.

Thoughts are with the Arsenal staff who are going through this dreadful process, not knowing what the future holds and where they might be in a few weeks time. No doubt it will be scant comfort when we spend vast multiples of your salary on a player we bring in because there are wheels being greased and favours being done.

Till tomorrow.

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