It would be hard not to call most of the old-guard of Arsenal’s owners old-fashioned, but the boardroom upheaval that the club has experienced in the last decade has coincided with a supremely frustrating period for its fans, and been the source of an inevitable friction, too.
When David Dein bought a 16.6% share in the Highbury club from Peter Hill-Wood in 1983, Hill-Wood said of his new investor, “I think he’s crazy.” Dein spent £292,000 on his investment, but for Arsenal Football Club, it was arguably the most important £292,000 in their history. It probably was in Dein’s, too.
He made his money importing sugar before investing in Arsenal and going on to win election to the FA’s executive committee, making an estimated £24m from selling off most of his shares in the club to Alisher Usmanov and Danny Fiszman. Fiszman, in turn, sold them to Stan Kroenke. Dein’s old shares now help fund both sides of the current boardroom war, but the years he spent on the board – particularly the later ones – were far from turbulent. Arsene Wenger arrived, bringing three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and a numerous modern legends after that. His partnership with the Frenchman – Arsenal’s Lennon and McCartney – brought the club to the top table of Europe’s elite.
Moving to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 spelled the end of the club’s claim of entitlement to regular silverware. Financial austerity helped fund stadium repayments at exactly the time when football was taking a forward step into a new economic era, as Roman Abramovich and later Sheik Mansour changed the face of the English game.
As a result, Arsenal lost their position as the only club in England capable of challenging the power of Manchester United, a ubiquitous corporate behemoth which had spent the last decade conquering virgin global markets on the back of unparalleled success on the pitch. That wasn’t the only thing Arsenal had lost in those years in the middle of the decade, though: they lost Dein. But they gained Kroenke.
Arsenal’s modernisation around that period is easy to see. The new stadium is the obvious example, but Kroenke’s growing influence in the boardroom, first buying shares in the club in 2007 before going on to hoover up more and gain a controlling stake in the club, is another. It ushered a new era into the club; a faceless, corporate one where profits are key and everything else secondary.
There was some sense, at the time, that it was perhaps a move forward for the Gunners. After all, the new century had arrived, so too had a new stadium, and football’s economy had changed. David Dein, meanwhile, was a man who made player agents swear on a bible when they signed transfer deals. So perhaps the club needed to add a modern sense for business to their boardroom. Arsenal had been known as the Bank of England club in the past, so why not modernise and bring in someone who knew what they were doing?
The problem was, they found a man who knew exactly what he was doing. Silent Stan Kroenke split opinion from the start along those very lines, and those fault lines still exist today, and not just in north London. How exactly should a football club be run? Somewhere in between a pure, profit-maximising business model and a finances-be-damned, shoot for the stars model, probably. But there will always be extreme romantics and and unashamed money-makers.
Kroenke represents the latter. In 2015, his NFL franchise, the St Louis Rams were uprooted and moved to the bigger, more lucrative city of Los Angeles, half a continent away, becoming the LA Rams. That may have been almost a decade after taking arriving at Arsenal, but his unabashed capitalism was clear to most at the start.
There is a certain paradox in that, an odd mix of stability and flux. It might be hard to remember a time before Arsene Wenger was the Arsenal manager, but Arsenal’s politics and divisions have been apparent pretty much from the start of the club’s existence. These days, the club is characterised as something of a unicorn: the only one in the world whose manager has such firm control. He is the very last of his kind and thus inherently unique. But such stability isn’t really in keeping the Arsenal tradition. Not on the board, anyway.
Peter Hill-Wood may have been wrong about Dein in 1983, but he wasn’t wrong about Kroenke in 2007. His remarks are prescient and almost sad.
But whilst it might be perfectly natural to pine for the days of Dein, when the Gunners were winning trophies and reaching finals of European competitions, it’s also somewhat ironic. Dein was on the side of the modernisers who ushered in Kroenke. Hill-Wood, the man who called him crazy, took his place squarely – in his own words – on the ‘old-fashioned’ side who opposed the American’s arrival.
His remarks about Kroenke could have been taken, at the time, to betray a certain lack of understanding about the globalised nature of business, especially in football. The insular feel of the comments seem to hint at a mistrust of American influence at the Bank of England club – that is, a club with an inherently English history. But that’s almost certainly not what Hill-Wood had in mind. ‘His sort’ doesn’t refer to ‘American’ – it refers to a particular breed of rabid capitalist, one for whom fourth place is a trophy because of the money it brings in. If you smelt down the European Cup, say, you certainly won’t be able to sell the metal off for the £40m you get for entering the competition in the first place.
It’s an awkward comfort. An ill-fitting sort of success which has Arsenal fans in outrage and Kroenke in smug content. In 2013, almost a decade after their last Premier League title, Kroenke refused to sell his shares to a consortium from the Middle East. And while that may well have been a bullet dodged for Arsenal, you get the feeling that Kroenke is going nowhere fast.
In the end, the passage of time changes perceptions. Dein will be remembered for the good times after leaving in 2007, whilst Arsene Wenger – who Dein claims almost left the same year – will likely leave a legacy of eventual stagnation, too.
The same sea-change is apparent in Kroenke. If he divided opinion in 2007, he certainly doesn’t now: no one, it seems, wants him at the club. But the horse has bolted. Nina Bracewell-Smith – who sold her shares to Kroenke in 2011 – has stated that she regrets letting the American buy her out. She’s not the only one.
The old-fashioned ownership of Arsenal had, at some point, to give way to modernisers who could help the club compete in a globalised footballing world. But instead of seeing the good side of the modern, the Gunners have seen its coldness.
When Dein sold his shares in 2007, it’s tempting to wonder if he made Stan Kroenke swear to do what was best for Arsenal with one hand on the bible. If he did, just where was Kroenke’s other hand?