Inside a club “in crisis”

FourFourTwo Magazine sent Sam Delaney to have a snoop around at Arsenal to find out what makes the Gunners tick. Here, he describes his month peeking behind the curtain at the Emirates Stadium...

The editor explained my mission: I was to travel deep inside the heart of one of the biggest, most talked about and often strangest football clubs in the world: Arsenal. Sometimes they call themselves ‘The Arsenal’, which is just one of the things that makes them so strange. And, to some, a bit annoying too. But they’ve never bothered me that much. I’m a West Ham supporter and we’ve always reserved most of our animosity for other London clubs.

In fact, I’ve always found Arsenal fascinating. I suppose it’s because, in a game governed almost entirely by knee-jerk decisions and irrational behaviour, Arsenal take a different path. They have always seemed a bit more considered. Irritatingly, they don’t bend to the will of fans or the media and make the sort of brilliantly exciting, ludicrously rash decisions that keep the wheels of this preposterous game of ours turning. Instead, the powers that be at the Emirates seem more concerned with what’s best for the club. They’re all clever and grown-up. See what I mean? Annoying.

I knew there was unrest among the fans. I’d seen the comments on Twitter from dissatisfied Gooners slagging off the board. But the way I saw it, Arsenal were doing pretty well. They never seemed to overspend, they weren’t in the sort of crazy debt other big clubs had found themselves in, they were run self-sufficiently and still managed to get into the Champions League every year. OK, they weren’t mounting a serious challenge for the title these days but since Chelsea and Manchester City started breaking the bank, how were they really supposed to compete?

When I first visited the training ground in mid-October, they were on a decent run, having just beaten West Ham 3-1 at Upton Park. Santi Cazorla had played a blinder and Lukas Podoski was starting to find his feet too. It felt like I was going to be writing a story about the dawn of a bright new era at Arsenal.

But soon they lost away to Norwich. A few days later they lost at home to Schalke 04 in the Champions League. In the weeks that followed, defeat at Manchester United and uninspiring draws against Fulham, Aston Villa and Everton left them mid table, with the calls for change at the top of the club growing louder.

What I’m saying is, their season seemed to take a nosedive from the moment I started hanging around the place. Coincidence? Almost certainly. But I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt each time Wenger’s side took another stumbling step through the autumn months.

Especially after I’d met him a couple of times and he’d expertly won me over with his laid back charm and intelligent Gallic lyricism. Dreamy? That’s going a bit far. But I would say that he was rather more human than I expected him to be. I knew he very rarely gave one-on-one interviews to journalists. So I suppose I felt flattered to be there chatting to him in the first place. But let’s get this straight: I am as cynical, jaded, unimpressed and generally miserable as the next hack. I wasn’t going to be won over by a big name and fancy French accent alone.

Our meeting was scheduled for the same day as the Arsenal AGM. The AGM couldn’t have gone much worse, with a row breaking out between board members and fans and Wenger having to call for unity. I was ushered into a windowless room to wait for him. He arrived without the miserable demeanour I was expecting.

Even though it sounded as though he’d had a rough morning, I had to ask the questions that really mattered to Arsenal fans. Like why he kept losing his best players. And how he intended to stop this from happening in the future. And how he thought he could bring the good times back without actually signing any expensive new talent. He didn’t hesitate or flinch from any of the questions. He was relaxed and honest in his responses.

You’ll have to read the piece to see the exact nature of his answers. But suffice to say there was a clear theme to everything he said: that Arsenal was honest, straight, decent and above board. They didn’t run up huge debts and they didn’t offer to pay people more than they could afford. He believed in building a team slowly, not throwing one together willy-nilly and hoping for the best. I looked in his eyes and could see he sincerely believed everything he said. He genuinely couldn’t see the sense in doing things any other way. And when he said it, it all seemed so obvious. Why would anyone gamble the future of the club on doing it any other way?

When I walked out of that room I was a Wenger convert. That night I hosted the evening show on talkSPORT and found myself passionately defending the Arsenal way and the principles Wenger stood for. It was strange but it was like that time alone with the strange Frenchman was my Road To Damascus moment.

A few days later I had a similar chat with chief executive Ivan Gazidis in the Arsenal board room. Gazidis gets a fair bit of stick from Arsenal fans who think he’s an ineffectual money man. But he struck me as knowing his football: he talked excitedly about the ridiculous 7-5 victory over Reading he had witnessed the night before. Gazidis seemed very relaxed about giving me as much time as I needed to go through all the issues surrounding the club.

I got the sense he was also on a bit of a personal PR drive following the fractious AGM. Maybe he wanted to prove to the public he was more than just a bean-counter in a suit but a passionate football man. I wasn’t sure what to think. He made broad points about the financial stability of the club and did so in very long, politician-like answers. His themes were similar to Wenger’s: honesty, integrity, self-sufficiency and a pride in the way they did things. They both declared Arsenal was a brave club because it dared to do things its own way. That might turn out to be the wrong way, of course, but it still takes guts to take that risk.

Gazidis might have been a bit overkeen to talk about shirt sponsorship and commercial deals but ultimately I still bought what he said about building a club on firm foundations. Like Wenger, he seemed perplexed about the alternatives. “Are we just supposed to keep spending more than anyone else?” he asked, incredulous.

But none of what he said addressed what Arsenal fans were asking: what about the £70million or so lying around in the bank from all those player sales? Why hasn’t Wenger spent that yet?

Everyone at the club felt proud that, in spite of this relative financial caution, they were perennials in the Champions League. But between my article going to press and the January issue of FourFourTwo hitting the shelves, Arsenal lost 2-0 at home to Swansea City and slipped to tenth in the Premier League. I was left thinking this could be the year Wenger’s luck ran out.

Someone told me Wenger is so powerful at Arsenal that he actually got to interview Gazidis for the position of chief exec. So he effectively interviewed his own boss. I wonder how Gazidis feels about that now? If it’s true that Wenger is the best paid manager in the world – as one former insider told me – and that it’s him, not the board, who refuses to splash out on star players, then you can imagine that Gazidis, Kroenke and the rest might be starting to get frustrated with the Frenchman. Next summer, he’ll be going into the final year of his contract. It’ll be interesting to see how negotiations for an extension unfold.


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