Arsenal AGM – ReactionPosted: October 26, 2012
If the Arsenal board had been given the opportunity to move the Annual General Meeting of shareholders to any other week, they would probably have grabbed it with both hands. The general mood within the room reflected the grey skies and cold air around the stadium, following the abject defeats away at Norwich and at home to Schalke. With their recent ailing, the issues of the summer and the summer before rose back up to the fore – namely the sales of big players and the club’s overall stagnation. The board were all present, including the elusive majority shareholder ‘Silent Stan’ Kroenke, who did not do an awful lot to work against his nickname.
For any who have listened to or read Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis’ statements before on Arsenal’s financial position, his speeches were more of the same. He maintained that the board still wished to push forward and win titles and made a point of comparing Arsenal’s position to those around them and reiterated that they were looking towards the Holy Grail that is the enforcement of Financial Fair Play (FFP) by UEFA in 2014. He alluded to FFP being the catalyst for the club’s long term financial strategy and the security it would bring, as well as stating that they were prepared to compete between now and then. His words promised a new era, with the financial stability as the foundation for it. It was encouraging, to a degree, but the promise of 2014 has been fed to the fans before, and will be for the next two years now that, to paraphrase him, the moving process is coming to an end. The South African has a significant number of detractors, but he is becoming, if he is not already, the public face of the board, and is the right man for the job. He is well trained in PR and does take the time to respond to and meet with supporters groups, unlike notable others around him, although they apparently do not see it that way.
‘Silent Stan’ finally spoke and while scant, his statements were unintentionally illuminating. His brief speeches seemed like interruptions to his boredom. His hesitation in speaking was evident and unimpressive. When asked directly about whether he plans to take dividends from the club, he talked about his record with his other sporting investments – which, if you speak to fans of the St. Louis Rams or the Denver Nuggets, is not exactly uplifting – and described it as a ‘board decision’. His evasion of the point is worrying and shows that it is in his plans. He was also called out by the opinion-dividing Tim Payton, chief spokesman of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST), on his official promise to meet with fan groups, which he has not done. Payton’s response elicited a huge round of applause from the floor. The closest he has come is attending the AGM, but he claimed otherwise, even though it simply is not true. Payton attempted to press him further but the situation was partly diffused by Gazidis and his efforts to move the discussion along.
If Kroenke was unimpressive, we will soon be needing a new word to describe Chairman Peter Hill-Wood’s performance. Any who remember 2011’s AGM will agree with the decision to give the task of answering questions to the smooth Gazidis, rather than the badly ageing, out-of-touch man who sat at the centre of the table. His closing line showed better than anything the extent to which he does not ‘get it’: a thinly veiled jibe at those he saw as intruding on private matters – thank you for your support and your interest in our affairs”. The reaction to this was as you would expect. A few in rather stunned silence, a few jeers and the odd hollow laugh. Very much reflective of the general opinion on Hill-Wood, and of the board as a collective. Too old, too detached from the fans and in need of replacing. Gazidis and Arsène Wenger are the only two members beneath the age of 65.
Wenger looked more subdued that his usual self; the last week appears to have taken its toll. He opened with a joke, apologising for the Schalke result, but his overall speech had a more sombre tone than others in the past have. He harked back to the 11/12 season, and the importance that finishing third has had amid the difficulties within the season, but described the downturn in fortunes in the last two games as “unexplainable”, although this was probably in lieu of being seen to make excuses. His comments on ‘achievements’ are the ones that most have run with. He ranked them in order: 1. Premier League; 2. Champions League; 3. Champions League qualification; 4. FA Cup; 5. League Cup. The ranking of Champions League football over the two domestic trophies has been a sticking point and a source of extreme frustration for many. He recounted a tale from the Geneva Managers’ Conference in which one of their number had a Europa League semi final and an important league game in their hunt for a Champions League place and was fretting over which to prioritise: the general consensus was ‘if you care about yourself, go for the semi final; if you care about the club, go for the league’. He closed with a call for unity, offering to meet unhappy fans at the end of the season, in stark contrast to the majority shareholder, who has actively avoided it, perhaps showing a divide between the board and the management. He came across, as ever he does, as someone who knew what the fans wanted, but knew what had to be done. Without a doubt the best person the club could have in the role.
The overwhelming feeling afterwards was that a board overhaul was of the essence. On top of this, near-30% stakeholders Red and White Holdings, chaired by Alisher Usmanov, should be allowed a say in matters, given their standing. On a personal level, I have felt for some time that the board needed radical changes, but had also thought that Kroenke was the lesser of two evils in the ownership tug-of-war that is currently afoot. Now I am not so sure. Kroenke has not put a penny in as of yet, sees no need to change this and clearly has plans to take money out. Arsenal appear to be reluctant to allow Usmanov onto the board, but it may spark the drastic changes that are so desperately needed. Gazidis receives stick but is very much the shield to the rest of the board. 2014 is the benchmark of something real in the way of change and movement forward in the eyes of the club. Until then, there are cash reserves, a fantastic manager and a squad that is a couple of additions short of being their best for some time; if success is achieved, it will most definitely be despite the board and not because of it.