Why the Arsenal board must sell out gracefully

The Arsenal board lack the energy and vision to take the club to the next level.

The biggest shareholder, Danny Fiszman, lives in a village on Lake Geneva and flies in for games. He could have bought ITV’s 9.9 % but declined to do so. Instead, he sold his Hampstead house, flogged off 1% of his shares, and didn’t attend last week’s board meeting at which David Dein was kicked out of Arsenal.

Why did chairman Peter Hill-Wood say they will not consider selling for a year? There has to be a financial reason for him saying that. Is it because they will have raked in the profits from the apartments at Highbury Square by then? Or is it because Danny Fiszman has not yet qualified as a tax exile?

To understand the Upstairs, Downstairs attitude of the Arsenal aristocrats you have to know the real history of Arsenal rather than the sanitised official history

The cricket-loving City gentlemen who owned the club allowed Arsenal to stagnate for seventeen years, during which great players like Joe Baker and George Eastham never played in a side capable of winning honours.

They could have signed great players like Danny Blanchflower, Cliff Jones and Denis Law, who all wanted to play for Arsenal, but the board lacked the ambition to sign great players, so the club stagnated until Bertie Mee’s home-produced heroes won the Fairs Cup in 1970.The board allowed the 1971 Double team to break up too quickly, they didn’t build on Liam Brady, David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton by buying the experienced players that were needed, and they kept manager Terry Neill far too long because they enjoyed his blarney.

Then David Dein arrived in 1983 and filled the executive vacuum and came into conflict with cautious Ken Friar.

Since 1986, off the back of phenomenal work by David Dein, George Graham and Arsene Wenger, the club’s directors have enjoyed 20 happy years with thirteen major trophies, four European finals, and an unbeaten season by the Invincibles in 2004.

They’ve enjoyed the glory and kudos of owning a team that has, in the last ten years, won games with style and transformed the Arsenal brand.

The current situation, with David Dein kicked off the board, is messy and dangerous.

The latest comments from Hill-Wood, who is 71 and has made a few verbal gaffes over the years, suggest that he should not be Arsenal chairman.

You cannot announce a marketing partnership with Stan Kroenke’s Colorado Rapids in February and then say in April that, “We don’t want his sort over here.”

The Arsenal board have made themsleves look far too high-handed and snobbish. They have a duty to their shareholders to listen to offers which will improve their business. You have to explore the offers of possible investors, as the Financial Times pointed out last Friday.

Last Wednesday, April 18, we read that Hill-Wood  had said, of the board, ” These people love Arsenal, they don’t need the money and they have no interest in selling. The club has been run for the benefit of supporters, staff and players, and the shareholders would prefer to stay in control than sell out to some stranger without the years of support they have.”

The tone of his comment was far too superior. He said, “They are independently wealthy and do not need the money. Having a few extra million pounds in the bank is of no interest to them. We’re here for Arsenal Football Club, not to make a few bob. We would be horrified to see it go across the Atlantic.”

Peter, can’t you see it’s not about that? It’s not about whether they can afford not to sell. It’s not about whether you or Danny or Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith could use a few extra million.

Its about making Arsenal into a better club with a winning team for the supporters, who are paying the highest ticket prices in world football.

The Premiership is a global business now and it’s very competitive and Arsenal cannot afford to be held back any longer by the patrician fantasies of directors with double-barrelled names.

The last two AGMs have seen ten or eleven directors on the stage.The board needs to  be streamlined. Lord Harris of Peckham, the carpet mogul, and Sir Chips Keswick. What do they do? What do they contribute? What do they know or care about football?

Every football club needs a good structure and an executive who is a driving force and make sure everyone else does their jobs. At Champions League level, as Lars-Christer Olsson points out in Amy Lawrence’s Observer piece, you need a dynamic chief executive.
The Swede said, “It should be someone like David Gill or Peter Kenyon. Chief executives are the future for big clubs, especially when you have a strong coach. You have to have a chief executive who can handle that. A chief executive can’t deal with a coach and the team in the same way that you deal with the staff of a normal company, especially with all the emotion involved, media coverage and pressure from the fans.”

Basically, it’s still Danny Fiszman’s call, so my message to Danny is : Don’t look for another buyer. Don’t look for another benefactor who is more acceptable to the old guard and the old Etonians. Don’t wait another year and see Arsenal slide into mid-table. Tell the board that it’s time for all of them to bow out gracefully. Don’t let this takeover get nasty, don’t let it get ugly, don’t let the media have a field day with the gossip and spite of a hostile takeover. If you all really care for the future of Arsenal FC, accept that this part of your life is over.

That should be Danny’s message : move on, don’t cling on. Leave with a bit of style, please. Sell your shares, take the money, say thanks to Dein, Graham and Wenger for making multi-millions for you and giving you such a good time, and move on. Highbury has gone, the twentieth century has gone. Hand the club over to people who know what do to do with  it, people who can take it to the next level. Otherwise Arsenal could become the laughing stock of world football.

A front page story in the The Observer business section said that more Yank billionaires will buy Premiership clubs and that half will be American-owned by the end of 2007. The Arsenal fans I know have had season tickets for 30 years and they all favour a takeover. Their friends, lifelong fans and shareholders, all want a takeover, to a man. Everybody thinks the team needs investment and everybody thinks the current board should go.

In The Sunday Telegraph, under the headline Arsenal board ‘self-interested’, say shareholders, Mark Choueke reported that the Arsenal Supporters Trust had accused the board of acting irresponsibly in refusing to meet Stan Kroenke.

The AST has 350 members who own almost 2% of the club, while other small investors own 12%, and institutions, including Lansdowne Partners, own another 12%. Lansdowne, a hedge fund, has about 3%.

What the last two years have shown us that is that Malcolm Glazer lives in Florida and never sees Manchester United play. That doesn’t matter. The club is about Sir Alex,  the games, the battle for trophies, the flair of Ronaldo and Rooney competing for the same trophies that were won by Denis Law, George Best, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and other great players.

United’s owner Malcolm Glazer is a geezer who wears a baseball cap but we never see Glazer and never think about him. MD David Gill goes over to Florida and tells him what Man United are doing and what they want to do. That’s fine. It works. Arsenal should do the same. This is the twentieth first century and the world has changed and it doesn’t matter who owns football clubs.

Frankly, a  takeover is inevitable. Sir Bobby Robson wondered in The Mail on Sunday whether the Arsenal directors were just delaying the inevitable.

I’m sure the Maktoums would not touch a situation as acrimonious as this and most Gooners would not want to see their club sold to an oligarch of any nationality.

So it has to be a good American. And Stan Kroenke has proved he is a good American. So why make it messy and complicated ? Why make the sale of the club last fourteen ugly months? Why not go now and give the club a chance to be competitive in 2007-2008 ? Why not accept the inevitable and retire gracefully with seats in the directors’ box for life ?