Here’s part two of my review of Monday night’s Supporters’ Q&A with Ivan Gazidis.
We rejoin the action at question 10, with Ivan still at the crease, manfully batting away googlies and the occasional full toss (Q8). Apologies to Americans who now think I’m talking another language.
Q10 – The AST recently put forward two independent reports looking at how the club could strengthen its corporate governance and boardroom. Have you had time to review these and what thought is going into strengthening the boardroom so that there is succession planning and so that new faces can strengthen the expertise that already exists?
IG: “Yes we have read the reports. We acknowledge the age of the Board. We’ll make changes, but we’ll do it quietly and in good time.”
Today’s Evening Standard had several paragraphs based on this question.
This is a question where all parties already know the answer, but having commissioned the reports the AST is duty bound to get it stated for the record that the question was asked, the Arsenal Board has stated they’ve read the reports and has promised, however vaguely, some action. Honour satisfied on both sides, we move on.
Q11 – Do you and Arsenal support the safe standing initiative that some other PL clubs are pushing?
IG: “We need the government to change its stance on standing; lots of issues; no sign of political will to change; emotional as well as practical issues.”
In other words, we don’t really care, as far as we can see it’s more trouble than it’s worth. We’d rather everyone sat in neat rows and ate three course dinners. (Note to self: can we make whole ground Club Level?)
Q12 – Alisher Usmanov owns nearly a third of the club, and is offering cartloads of money to spend on the team. Why not invite him in and take his money?
At this point there was a shout of ‘He’s also mafia!’ from a youngish gentleman close to where I was sitting. Ivan ignored this.
IG: “It doesn’t matter whether anyone wants to give us money now, because FFP prohibits new money coming in. Spending money just leads to increased wages, and that’s not a good idea. Football needs regulation, not a free for all.”
Er, hold on there a minute Ivan. So now you’re saying being able to spend extra money is NOT a good thing? But earlier you couldn’t wait for us to have a bigger turnover so we could spend more money!You want to be like Bayern, remember!
In any case FFP does not prohibit all spending, it reduces it. There are ways of allowing some new money in.
You know what, if I were the suspicious type I’d think they have something against Mr Usmanov.
Not one of Ivan’s better answers.
Q13 – You want to be like Bayern, so why can’t we follow the example of the Bundesliga and have much lower ticket prices?
IG: “The German clubs have low ticket prices and very high commercial income. The commercials also take their toll on fans. We need to diversify revenue streams. It’s true that additional TV money and from commercial deals will take a bit of pressure off ticket prices, but our model is different to the Bundesliga.”
Sorry Ivan, I’m not happy with this one either.
a) How exactly is having high commercial income a problem for fans? Can we have the choice of buying things with an Arsenal crest on them rather than being forced to pay sky-high ticket prices, please?
b) How is our model different to the Bundesliga? It’s only different because the ticket prices are so high! That IS the difference! If you think their model is better, change to their model. What’s stopping you?
Oh wait – their model puts things in the supporters’ control – that would never do. Bad enough that you have to “take an interest in our affairs”.
Q14 – What happens if FFP is not properly applied? What is your Plan B?
IG: “It’s a good question and I have a good answer for it. We hope, expect and will push for FFP to work, but we’re not relying on it. What would we do differently without FFP? Nothing – we are doing what is best and would do what is best anyway: working within our budget, increasing commercial revenues.”
Oh dear. Three in a row.
a) So your good answer to ‘What is Plan B?’ is that it’s the same as Plan A.
b) This is a big change from previous years, where FFP has been held up as THE THING THAT WILL SAVE ARSENAL AND ALLOW IT TO COMPETE WITH THE BIGGEST CLUBS IN THE WORLD. Suddenly we’re not relying on it. Interesting.
Q15 – The squad balance has got worse and since about 2005 the defence has been poor, though we have good attacking quality. It seemed to take until March this year for the manager to suddenly notice and improve the defence. Who is deciding the coaching strategy, and does Arsène listen to other coaches?
IG: “A good football question – finally! This season we had the second best defence, and in the latter part of the season it came good. Was this down to form or personnel changes? The midfield form is also important because the midfield helps the defence. The coaching staff are certainly not shy in coming forward with opinions.”
Not shy in coming forward? Does that mean there was a bust up with Steve Bould? (There was.) Did Arsène finally agree to do things differently after the debacle of the home leg performance against Bayern? (Almost certainly.)
Q16 – When you arrived here you talked of applying your laser focus to underperforming members of the squad. We seem to be getting rid of a few underperformers at last. Will you be applying your laser focus to the rest of the dead wood?
That’s the short answer. I’m considerably paraphrasing, because the word wasn’t actually used, but there was a good deal of waffle about not talking about individuals (fair enough) and the need to always improve. However, given Arsène is in charge of signing and releasing players and also paying them, it’s difficult to see where Ivan applying his laser focus is going to be of benefit. So the whole answer was not convincing. In fact I think it was at this point that @DarrenArsenal1 next to me gave up just tutting and started calling out ‘Answer the question!’
Q17 – There’s been an underlying atmosphere of things not being acceptable at Arsenal for the last couple of years in terms of transfers and performance. Why have we not taken advantage and acted quickly this year, with other clubs changing managers?
IG: “I don’t think the situation of other clubs has made a difference. We are competing for a very small group of players at the top of the game. We are in discussions, but all parties have to want to do a deal.”
Okay, but nevertheless other clubs seem to manage to sign players more quickly than we do. Even clubs without managers sign players more quickly than we do! Is it because Arsène like to haggle down the price to his own perceived value level, and also be really really 100 per cent sure he’s getting the right player, so he takes his time? Is it Ivan? It is, isn’t it? Go on, I won’t tell anyone.
Q18 – Can the ground capacity be increased, and what can be done to improve the atmosphere?
IG: “I think we have the ground capacity about right for our needs, and in any case the design makes it very difficult to change. In terms of atmosphere, we have done a lot with the concourses, decoration, etc to make it feel like ‘home’. Getting like-minded fans together helps, but that is also difficult. There’s a long tradition of fans going to the pub before games and I wouldn’t want to stop that – I used to do it myself. We need to get food prices right, but we do have one of the cheapest pies in the league now.”
I have always understood that the proximity of the railway lines prohibits us from building the stadium any higher to increase capacity – not to mention the inevitable opposition from local residents. The comments about food and drink were interesting – Ivan encourages fans to go to the pub rather than drink in the stadium! The fact is that the deal with Delaware North has not served us well, and it’s of little or no benefit to the club to get people buying their produce in the ground. So Ivan says let’s go to the pub! Then he remembered his corporate responsibility and tried to sell us a cheap pie. I expect we’ll have the munchies after a few pints, so that could work.
And there the meeting ended. Naturally a group of people immediately crowded round Ivan to try and get their questions in, including Darren with his question on why reserve team matches aren’t screened by Arsenal. Apparently the demand is not there to justify it, the club has decided.
So what did we learn? Very little that Ivan said on Monday night was new. It’s rare you get a startling revelation or a dramatic shift in policy; things change gradually and evolve, and news trickles out piecemeal. If you’re already well-informed then you don’t learn much from these sessions. In this case the press were briefed last week as well, making it even less likely we’d get anything new here.
What you have to keep an eye on is how the overall message changes over time. There may be only the most subtle shift from one month or one transfer window to the next, perhaps even one year to the next. But if you look longer term then you can discern the changes in tone, the different messages on how much money there is available and who is guiding things. Following the narrative is not an exact science, and it suits the club (and all organisations) to have a little bit of mystery. But it does mean different fans hearing the same information focus on different parts of it and reinforce their existing beliefs. Next thing you have the Acronym Armies springing up, attacking or defending the Board, manager and team from all angles, before starting on each other.
Ivan is as open and honest as he can be, but he’s in a difficult position: he’s not the owner, he’s a paid employee, and his most high profile subordinate, Arsène Wenger, is in practice at least his equal. I’m assured that it’s true that Arsène had a hand in approving Ivan for his role, and while this doesn’t mean that Arsène tells Ivan what to do, it’s indicative of the power that Arsène has after so many years in his job. The manager has, deliberately or not, carved out a position for himself where he has absolute discretion over all playing and team matters, including finances, for better or worse. I don’t believe Arsène particularly set out to do this, but a combination of his longevity in the role, his early success and his ability to maintain a relatively competitive level with the biggest clubs (compared to others who have risen and fallen during his reign), coupled with key boardroom changes – the death of Danny Fiszman, departure of David Dein and waning influence through age of Peter Hill-Wood – mean that that’s where we are.
Ivan compared Arsenal to Bayern Munich several times in the course of the evening: the German club were held up almost as the Holy Grail of how it’s possible to compete with the billionaires by being smarter and most importantly by having a turnover in excess of £300m. With increased turnover through better commercial deals, and wage increases capped by FFP, the future is indeed brighter for Arsenal, no one can dispute that. We will be in an elite of clubs that will be very hard to dislodge. However, if you listened very closely there was a bit of a contradiction from Ivan, as he talked about the increased spending power now, but tempered this with the familiar ‘wait two years’ line that we’ve come to know and love. In this case, ‘wait two years and we’ll be doing what Bayern are doing.’ Well I look forward to that, but I won’t be overly surprised if the story mutates a little before we get there.
Ivan also stated more than once that there are clear divisions of responsibility for him, Arsène and Dick Law – and presumably the likes of Ken Friar and other Board members and executives. He said that his role includes ‘supporting’ the manager. Couple that to the repeated references to the ever-improving financial position and the availability of funds to spend on the team, and the message is clear: if Arsène doesn’t spend and things don’t improve next season, it’s his fault and no one else’s. Everyone else has done what they can.
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