Recalibration

When Roman Abramovic bought Chelsea in 2003, I was one of those people that reacted with a mixture of mirth and disdain. I thought he would ultimately plunge the club into a financial black hole if anything and, well, I was watching the best Arsenal team since the 1930s. Chelsea hadn’t so much as beaten Arsenal in the league since 1995 at that point.

It was impossible for me to conceive of Chelsea, the club we always liked to laugh at when Spurs just felt like too easy a target, overtaking Arsenal’s supremacy, both on the national scale and the London scale. I thought something similar when ADUG bought Manchester City. On both occasions, I was some way off the mark.

Of course, not all well-heeled takeovers strike gold in quite the same way. Randy Lerner’s Aston Villa project drifted away after a promising start, Everton seemed to have spent tens of millions of pounds turning themselves into….Everton. Even Notts County had a plan to get into the Champions League until it emerged that their mega rich new owners were actually the product of bad hallucinogens.

The Newcastle takeover is more likely to head into Chelsea / Manchester City / PSG territory than Randy Lerner or Everton. When sovereign investment funds take over football clubs it tends to work out quite well for them. An interesting theme has emerged when it comes to Premier League takeovers in the last 15 years or so.

The “historic” clubs, shall we say, (Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool) have been taken over by American investment groups. These purchases have been all about buying into established brands who already create a lot of revenue and have large global fan bases to draw on.

Essentially, they have backed the sure thing- clubs that already guarantee revenue and market share without too much work needed to build them up. There are distinctions, of course. The Glazers buyout was heavily leveraged, Liverpool have been a little more forward thinking in terms of finding marginal gains in analysis, recruitment and generating revenue through player sales.

Arsenal, as we know, have just kind of sat there and have fallen into mild disrepair through ownership neglect. Meanwhile, the big-ticket takeovers have taken place at clubs with long histories of underperformance. Abramovic bought Chelsea at a time when they were struggling to muscle in on the Arsenal and United duopoly in the Premier League. Chelsea nearly bankrupted themselves trying to break that stranglehold before Abramovic entered the fray.

Manchester City fans had to tolerate a couple of decades of teasing from United fans, who were celebrating winning trebles while City celebrated promotion from League One. Newcastle have not won a major trophy since the 1950s and are 94 years away from their most recent top-flight title win.

It’s probably the case that these clubs were just easier (and cheaper, assuming that matters when you have all the money in the world) to buy in the strict business sense. Those clubs also had pliant supporters, hungry for success after years of watching teams around them hoover up the success and the acclaim.

I am not sure to what extent that really matters to these owners. When we use the term “sportswashing” I don’t think it’s really aimed at owners laundering their reputations with football supporters. I can’t imagine many of them really care much what the man or woman in the street or a football columnist thinks of how they got their money.

I think their sights are set a little higher as they seek to legitimise their profiles in more chandelier-laden corridors. The reaction of the supporters of Chelsea, Manchester City and Newcastle has, generally speaking, been very accepting of their new owners despite some of the well-reported moral and ethical issues surrounding all of them.

When Abramovic bought Chelsea, I was very judgemental of Chelsea and their supporters. It was another stick for me to beat a club that I have grown up disliking. I never really gave a fish’s tit about Manchester City and still don’t so that takeover did not produce a visceral reaction in me, save for the realisation that this was another club that Arsenal wouldn’t be able to compete with.

I am not surprised the fans of these clubs have been so welcoming. A Chelsea fan watching Arsenal win league titles and go through unbeaten seasons while Manchester United secure league titles and a European Cup will welcome the chance to gloat after a significant amount of time of being on the receiving end.

Being a Manchester City fan in the 90s and 2000s must have been pretty shit, all told, walking into work every Monday morning with your United supporting colleagues, knowing that, beyond jibes about a glory-hunting fan base, there’s not much else you can say in response. It must be bloody lovely to have the shoe on the other foot after all of this time.

Newcastle fans will be relishing a similar outcome, here. Though they had no need to fear the jibes of Sunderland fans anyway, they have watched their club become consciously and deliberately uncompetitive under the ownership of Mike Ashley. I don’t think any football supporter could really be described as “long suffering” unless the very existence of their club has been seriously threatened.

The vast majority of clubs win absolutely nothing and none of us has a divine right to see our clubs reign supreme. It is a statistical impossibility for more than a handful of clubs to be happy at the end of any given season, that’s just the deal. However, I do wonder how Arsenal fans who, like me, were probably a bit snooty about Abramovic and ADUG, would feel about a seriously wealthy investor willing to lose hundreds of millions to inscribe our name on the biggest trophies again.

Of course, only one team can win the Champions League and / or Premier League every season. In the domestic sense, at least two mega investors are going to be disappointed every season and adding to the pool of sovereign wealth funds will only extend the level of disappointment. I do wonder the point at which Arsenal and their fans fall into this pathos soaked definition of “long-suffering,” relative to the levels of success to which they have been accustomed.

Since Arsenal last won the Premier League, Chelsea have won two Champions Leagues and five league titles. Hurts, doesn’t it? (Thankfully, Spurs continue to win the square root of fuck all). Like it or not, we are where Chelsea fans were in the late 90s and early 2000s, looking up at behemoths above us wondering how we ever break that stranglehold.

The club has embarked on a project of scouting younger players and gambling on big upsides. That goes for the executive and coaching structures at the club too. The CEO, Academy lead, Manager and Technical Director are all between the ages of 36 and 42. It’s exciting, in one respect but, in another it feels a little futile too.

Because what is the ceiling of this project? “If things go really well this season, we could finish 5th!” It’s difficult to get excited about that but, unless there is a change in owners or a change in owner MO at Arsenal, qualifying for the Europa League is what success looks like for Arsenal.

I’m not asking for pity here, Arsenal are an enormously wealthy club and we have seen them lift trophies very recently too. Arsenal are poor relations in comparison to some of the clubs above them but they are far from living a gritty life on the never never. In short, I do wonder whether Arsenal are now ripe for a sovereign wealth fund shaped saviour to return us to the top.

I’m not sure how many sovereign wealth funds there are in the world but, if there is one that wants in on the Premier League’s ‘greed is good’ jamboree, Arsenal would probably be an attractive option- I think we have reached a stage where a lot of the supporters would accept and embrace it.

I don’t include myself in the “embrace” category but I honestly don’t know how my response would manifest itself, whether I would cut ties, drift away or steel myself and try to dull that little voice in my head that casts moral doubt. It’s difficult to know how to respond to a footballing structure where this is the only realistic means of competition.

In 1994-95 Arsenal finished 12th, then 5th in 1996, 3rd in 1997 and 1st in 1998. Building towards a title in that manner just seems impossible now unless it’s on the coattails of enormous investment. Football’s only other solution seems to be even more anti-competitive though, by pulling up the drawbridge, concocting a European Super League and entirely removing the possibility of anyone breaking into the top cadre by any means whatsoever.

Earlier I talked about Arsenal gambling on upside in their recruitment, both on and off the field. There is a kind of “nobility” to that, I guess. If you’re optimistic you could call it the Liverpool model but, really, it’s the Leicester model and that is the clutch of clubs that Arsenal have fallen into and the chances of breaking into the top four, or competing for the title are more remote than ever.

Some of us are old enough to remember the Invincibles and pine for that time again, as the memories (and our hairlines) recede. Plenty of adult Arsenal fans have never seen the club win the league and so the uncomfortable question of status presents itself. We might have to recalibrate where we find happiness as Arsenal fans and that needn’t be a torturous process of self-pity, even if it is one tinged with regret.

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