Interview with Arsenal Supporters’ Trust chief on Cesc’s future, Dein return & more
Tim Payton grew up in Islington and went to Highbury Grove School, and has been going to watch Arsenal matches since he was 10 years old. He has been a season ticket holder since he was 12, starting life on the North Bank.
The avid Gooner has been on the Board of the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) for a few years, whose aim is to give Arsenal supporters a say in the ownership of the club, and give Arsenal fans influence on how the club is run as well as a better understanding of its financial policies.
Last year the AST launched Arsenal Fanshare, a scheme to allow supporters to buy ‘part-shares’ in Arsenal and share in the benefits of ownership.
In an exclusive interview with Gooner Talk, Tim reveals what Arsenal’s transfer strategy is for this summer, why the return of David Dein has been proposed and how increasing ticket prices are squeezing the ‘ordinary’ fans out of watching their beloved team.
What did we learn from Ivan Gazidis from the recent AST meet?
We learned he would make a good member of our first team squad, judging by how he performs under pressure. He remained very accomplished and composed over 90 minutes of questioning from AST members who have just experienced a disappointing end to the season and are uncertain what the new ownership structure means for the club. Ivan was also as open as he could be with many of the questions. He didn’t duck the fact that Arsenal need more experience on the pitch, and did not defend those who challenged the behaviour and attitude of certain playing personnel. Overall he accepted that Arsenal must improve and indicated that he would be working all summer to strengthen the squad. I thought it was an impressive performance but the real judgement will come with the business he does this summer.
Are the club accountable enough to the fans?
Historically, the relationship has been good not least because supporters were on the Board and in the ownership structure. The AST has good relations with many people at the club and enjoy a constructive dialogue. Now we are entering a new era with Stan Kroenke as owner and this will bring new challenges. He is nicknamed ‘Silent Stan’ for a reason (although in private he is very outgoing and warm) as he clearly prefers to let all his sports teams do the talking and avoids having a media profile. That is fine on a day to day basis but the AST believes that Stan needs to give Arsenal fans more information about why he bought the club and the direction it is heading in. Arsenal are bigger than anything he has owned before and supporter and media interest is greater than anything else he has experience of.
Would you like to see Red and White Holdings join the Arsenal board?
We would like to see all shareholders work together to make Arsenal a stronger football club. It should be noted that historically, Arsenal have been at their strongest when the board has been united on the common purpose of making Arsenal a successful football team.
Would you like to see David Dein return?
Well that suggestion got the loudest round of applause at the recent AST Q&A. It is a question we asked all AST members in our end of season survey. Indications at this point are that the majority of AST members would favour him returning but I won’t comment further until the final survey is released in early July.
Are the likes of Peter Hill-Wood still current enough to be in touch with the ‘modern’ Arsenal fan?
Well Peter Hill-Wood comes from a family that have been involved in the ownership of Arsenal for the last 70 or 80 years, so you can definitely say that he has a good understanding of the club and its values, and being old isn’t in itself a crime, with age comes wisdom. However, we find it disappointing the way that the Board of Arsenal and its major shareholders in the club sold their shares without considering what might happen to those supporters who own a small number of shares and wanted to remain involved in the club’s ownership structure as custodians. It wasn’t so long ago that Peter Hill-Wood led a lock-down agreement not to sell the shares to anybody. I would like to see the current Board make more effort to engage with fans and not leave everything to Ivan and his team.
Can Arsenal be competitive in the current self-sustainability model?
Probably not in the grand scheme of things. Arsenal does not have the benefit of benefactor income in the way Chelsea or Manchester City have, and lack the successful commercial income of United and Real Madrid. At present, the transfer fees and wages paid by those clubs for the world’s best players are out of Arsenal’s league. An urgently needed debate is whether the self-sustainability model is the correct one for us. With 2 Billionaire’s controlling 95% of the club; would it do any harm to ask them to invest money into the club? The AST would certainly not support ‘sugar-daddy’ type policies, but a well managed rights issue or investment in club infrastructure that will increase revenues is something that should be actively considered. The AST is very concerned that at present the fans are asked to invest in the club through the highest ticket prices in world football and this approach isn’t shared by the club’s owners who are not putting any money in.
Do you see Arsenal as a selling club to the European heavyweights?
Arsenal’s financial status means that they are forced to be a selling club if one of the top teams or richest clubs is determined to have our best players. If an Arsenal player wants the wages paid at Chelsea, Manchester City or Real Madrid and is prepared to agitate for a move then there is little that Arsenal can do. One of the successes of the AST was to persuade Arsenal to undertake an overseas tour, and so we welcome the fact Arsenal are going to the Far East this summer. The club certainly needs to increase their commercial revenue in order to be able to compete on an equal footing with Europe’s leading clubs.
Are the prices increases on tickets squeezing out the ‘ordinary’ fans and turning the club into a corporate environment?
The AST are very concerned at the impact of the increase on ordinary fans. Whilst most fans have renewed, we know what a struggle this has become for many people and that it means making cut backs in other parts of their life. Arsenal and its supporters have a unique relationship – the loyalty most not be taken for granted and renewal of season tickets should not be read as satisfaction with value for money. We were encouraged that Ivan Gazidis agreed with our concerns and has said he will review affordability at the Emirates for next season.
How do you see Arsenal’s future under Arsène Wenger?
This summer’s transfer dealing and the team’s performance next season clearly present the biggest challenge for Wenger in his career at Arsenal. He transformed the club and English football. He was the first manager in English football to embrace Sports Science and Psychology and to invest in a team based on the best talent from around the world. The question I have to ask is whether Arsène Wenger himself is able to refresh his own approach. It does surprise me that a man so committed to the study of the game and historically open to the introduction of cutting edge new ideas is largely relying on the same training methods and support personnel he introduced back in 1996. You also have to also remember that when he arrived, he had unique access to markets like France as world scouting was not developed to the extent it is now. All clubs have developed extensive scouting networks that make it harder to create a differential.
What changes would you advocate at the club to assist Wenger?
Wenger has lost his two key boardroom allies in Danny Fiszman and David Dein, in very different circumstances. In their own way, both had strong relationships with Wenger and both allowed him to do his best work. But as they were also responsible for his appointment there was a sense of the appropriate seniority and reporting lines. Replicating these allegiances and the correct dynamic between Wenger and the Board is essential. Ultimately and not altogether wisely, many supporters would not care who owned the club as long as it was successful. Stan Kroenke said in his offer document that his priority was to make the club successful. On the pitch, Arsenal need to focus on adding experience and ‘big match know how’ to the squad. On its day the team can play scintillating football and beat anyone, but our inability to ‘tough out’ results under pressure is the result of more than bad luck and is the result of a wider structural issue that the manager must reflect upon.
Is he under pressure to save money and make a profit in transfer deals?
Arsenal FC are bound by legal rules governing its ownership and debt finance to reinvest at least 70% of the proceeds from any player sale into a Transfer Proceeds Account (TPA). The TPA can only be spent on player registrations and wages. This is an important safeguard against asset-stripping and profit-making for its own sake. At present, there is no harm in Arsenal making a profit as all monies are invested back into the club. We would like Stan Kroenke to clarify that this approach will continue. But Arsene does have to make the books balance and unlike at other clubs he can’t pay £35m for a player and then if it doesn’t work out buy another one.
What is the transfer strategy this summer?
The priority set by Arsenal’s management is signing more experienced players and strengthening the defence. There is not necessarily going to be an insistence on signing English players for the sake of it, but perhaps Premier League based is the all important quality as they have the know-how to hit the ground running. We cannot afford to keep waiting for players to acclimatise to our league and gain the necessary experience. Arsenal fans do not want to be a finishing school, they want our team to be winners.
Will Arsenal really compete for the very best players?
No. Arsenal can compete but not when Manchester City, United, Chelsea or the two Spanish giants are determined to get the same player. That is the stark fact of the current financial situation. Our leading players such as captain, Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie could earn far more at those teams. Arsenal must improve their commercial income, an area where they are earning half of what United are. The long term naming rights and sponsorship deals at the club create an opportunity cost of almost £20m a year to our bottom line. Arsenal are still reliant on producing and developing great players rather than buying them.
What have you made of Barcelona’s public pursuit of Cesc Fàbregas?
Obviously the Arsenal Supporters Trust is based on the concept that fans being involved in the ownership structure of football clubs being a good thing. However, I am thoroughly disappointed that a club wholly owned by its own supporters behave as Barcelona have. It demonstrates that supporter ownership doesn’t automatically mean better corporate governance. This is a wider issue than just their pursuit of Fàbregas. Barcelona skew their income by selling their TV rights individually and have accumulated astronomical debt. They also go well beyond all acceptable levels of tapping up and interfering with the business of other clubs. The Financial Fair Play regulations will be made a mockery of if UEFA do not address the glaringly unfair policies adopted by clubs like Barcelona. You can respect them on the pitch, but off it they are a stain to the name of good football governance.
What are your expectations of the Arsenal’s board in the next 12 months?
The AST has built up a good relationship with Stan Kroenke during the initial investment he made in Arsenal and becoming a board member. In our meetings with him we found a conscientious person with experience of running teams in the sports world. We continue to give a cautious welcome to his ownership. However, there is disappointment that since his takeover Stan Kroenke has not communicated more widely with Arsenal fans about the club. The man I met would be well received, but needs to convey that to his waiting audience himself. During the takeover itself we couldn’t communicate with Kroenke for legal reasons, we hope now to meet him before the next season begins.
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