This is my column from issue 229 of The Gooner, which came out for the Fulham game a couple of weeks ago. Last Saturday’s match against Aston Villa makes it still very pertinent.
I have the privilege, if that’s the right word, of writing this after the defeat to Man Utd. Lost to Norwich with a performance that would shame a Sunday League team; lost to Schalke without threatening them; scrambled a late and fortunate win over QPR; went 4-0 down to Reading before finally overcoming them; and finally losing to Man Utd with barely a whimper. It’s been an up and down couple of weeks for Arsenal – mainly down – and bang in the middle of it was the club’s AGM.
The number of shareholders in Arsenal has fallen quite a lot in the last couple of years, what with one billionaire after another hoovering up any and every share they can. However, as you might expect it seems to be the more passionate supporters who still have their shares, and so the AGM attendees become more outspoken at the Board’s perceived problems. I say perceived, but let’s face it, the Board and the club have problems. How serious they are depends on whether you think the recent performances are down to a temporary loss of form or a more permanent decline in class.
It’s blatantly obvious that Arsenal are not the same class of team that they were between 1997 and 2005. The class level – overseen by the same manager, oddly – has dropped from certain challengers for the League title to a team struggling to stay in the top four – and for most of last season and the first part of this, not even being in the top four, despite the record books showing we finished third in May. Whether the current squad still has sufficient class to finish in the top four this season is debatable.
Back to the AGM. Peter Hill-Wood was his usual self, patronising to supporters in general and small shareholders in particular. His father and grandfather would be ashamed of what he’s become – a lackey for an American billionaire who cares nothing for the club he owns. Ivan Gazidis as usual talked a good game, but the story becomes less convincing on each telling. Stan Kroenke doesn’t want to be there facing other shareholders and doesn’t understand why he needs to be. The rest of the Board are even less relevant to proceedings than those three.
That leaves the manager sat at the top table. Arsène can’t lose at these gatherings, because the one thing he can guarantee is that whatever reception the Board gets, he’ll get a better one. Win everything in sight: we’ll be happy with the Board and ecstatic with him. Out of everything by February: he’ll be unpopular, but the Board will get more flak. So he can come along safe in the knowledge that his past record is enough to keep him as the most popular man on display.
Frustration with both parties, Board and manager, was all too evident this year, though. Ivan’s amazing bonus of close to three quarters of a million pounds for apparently nothing more than keeping everything off the pitch just ticking over was the subject of questions. The manager’s refusal to spend money that we all know is there is equally perplexing. It seems like every financial decision at Arsenal is being taken by George Osborne. Unfortunately, despite the opportunity to heckle the men in charge and symbolically vote against their resolutions to allow themselves another three years on the gravy train, we can do little to effect real change unless we all act together and start boycotting matches. One day that might happen, but the team has not yet fallen far enough for the plan to stick. Decline in form or decline in class? If it’s the latter, the calls for boycotts will become progressively louder.
Still, on the plus side, we came back from 4-0 down and we’re still in the competition that we have by far the best chance of winning. It’s a sad and damning indictment of the current Arsenal Board – and, yes, the Arsenal manager – that we are only a quarter of the way into the season and yet most of us accept that the League Cup is our best chance of silverware. Even worse, we have more chance of winning the League Cup than we do of getting our hands on the ‘fifth trophy’: the top four place that keeps Arsenal as one of elite of English football, with the extra money and the pulling power that goes along with it. Again I come back to the question: form or class? I almost don’t want to find out.
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