We’ve had the annual supporters’ Q&A at Arsenal, on the evening of Friday 3 June. Most Arsenal fans congratulate the club for holding this event, as it’s more than other clubs do – and that is certainly one point of view. But the reason it’s held is down to the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, who instigated it as an event for their members to speak to and question the club’s CEO, who when it started was Keith Edelman. That was pre-Kroenke, pre-Gazidis; it was the regime of Danny Fiszman, who encouraged supporter involvement and meaningful interaction with the Board. It was when all the Board members owned shares and ran the club jointly. They needed each other’s support, they wanted the fans’ support and many of them or their families had been involved long before football was about making money.
Since 2011, though, Stan Kroenke has become the first majority owner in Arsenal’s history. He isn’t interested in supporters, except to take their money. For many reasons, but chiefly to do with Kroenke, relationships between the AST and the Arsenal Board are distinctly cooler than they were. The Board widened the remit of the end-of-season event to include other supporter groups and shareholders. This is on the pretext that they don’t want to give priority to one group, but for them it has the benefit of allowing them to say that it fulfils Kroenke’s promise to meet supporters and share his vision, if only through his representative in the UK – Ivan. It also gives shareholders a perk, as their meetings with Arsène were stopped when the manager got a bit huffy about Silvestre being called geriatric.
Then there’s further dilution of the original purpose by shortening the time for questioning the CEO and replacing it with an ex-player or two – which is where Lee Dixon comes in – plus a season highlights video compilation and now a compere (Tom Watt in this case) to ask most of the questions. But those are all things fans want much more than the chance to ask proper searching questions of the CEO… I’m sure the club’s extensive research has found.
A couple of years ago Ivan spent so long on his introductory speech that people going home from nightclubs were on the streets by the time he finished. After some forthright feedback they came up with the compere idea instead: someone reasonably popular with fans asks questions that are reasonably probing, but nothing too tricky or controversial – then if we’re lucky there’s just time for a couple of questions from the floor to fulfil the all-important ‘having regular meetings with supporters’ brief. Boxes ticked, job done. Cushty. Thank you for your interest in our affairs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt have cause to say it again: it honestly doesn’t matter how long Ivan speaks for, as he never says anything of any substance. Five minutes or five hours, the result is the same. If you have a good idea how Arsenal functions as a club and who does what, then you already know all Ivan’s answers before he’s given them. The thing is, though, some people don’t know how the club functions and are fooled by Ivan. But then lots of people read the Sun or the Mail, watch TOWIE without realising it’s more fake than Katie Price’s knockers, and believe horoscopes.
This year it was even easier to predict Ivan’s answers, as he’d given an interview to the Telegraph the day before, presumably to rehearse everything he was going to say. Jeremy Wilson often seems fooled by Ivan – indeed he’s so susceptible to spin that I reckon revolving doors probably make him vomit. In one of my tweets during the Q&A I even coined the term ‘spinterview’ for the piece Wilson had written on Ivan.
Spinterview (n): an interview given to a newspaper or other publication purely for the purposes of delivering a PR message.
But enough about me, what did Ivan actually say? If you cared, you’ve probably read the transcript from Tim Stillman that’s on arseblognews. Tim recorded the whole thing so no doubt has it all accurate. What he didn’t record though was the second half of the evening, with Lee Dixon.
I like Lee Dixon. I liked him as a player (not like I liked Liam Brady or Thierry Henry, but I still liked him – and as he’ll tell you, he was a better right-back than they were), I like him as a pundit and I like his interaction with fans on twitter. I like him even more after listening to him give his views on Arsenal for 45 minutes or so. But it would be useful to compare what Dixon said against what Gazidis said.
Ivan’s position is always that everything is great and everyone at Arsenal is doing all they can to make things even greater. Specifically what they’re doing he can never say, but rest assured they’re doing it. They all have fantastic knowledge, drive and ambition. They’re all experts. Arsène is absolutely the best manager he can possibly be – I mean, boy, if you saw him at work, you’d realise! Not only that, but Kroenke loves Arsenal MUCH more than he loves money – in fact he doesn’t love money – who said he loves money? – and he’s incredibly supportive of Arsène and wants success as much as any fan and blah blah blah blah blah.
To sum up: you can’t criticise anyone at Arsenal because they’re all doing a top job and it would be impossible to do it any better. This is the message from Ivan. And if you don’t believe it then you’re a bad person and Ivan will be very disappointed in you and will look at you in a sad and thoughtful way.
So why don’t Arsenal win everything every year? To be honest I’m a bit vague on Ivan’s reasons why success hasn’t already happened to a greater degree under his and Kroenke’s leadership.
Lee Dixon, on the other hand, does not follow Ivan’s agenda of trying to convince people that corporate and footballing perfection have both already been attained. I honestly don’t know how much Ivan knows about football, because he never says anything useful about it. Dixon, though, definitely understands football. He understands why Leicester won the League and Arsenal didn’t: they were a better team. Not better players; a better team. Individually Arsenal have better players than Leicester, but Arsenal’s players in 2015-16 didn’t care as much, didn’t try as hard, didn’t work for each other like Leicester.
In between Dixon’s highly amusing anecdotes about his fight with Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright punching Steve Bruce, and why David Seaman was so pathetic at stopping balls going over his head, Tom Watt made the mistake of praising Arsenal’s team spirit. Dixon was unimpressed. In his view, he said, Arsenal’s team spirit, and indeed their fabled mental strength, is poor – unlike Leicester’s. For him, team spirit is demonstrated when a goal is conceded as much as any other time. What are the players’ reactions? Do they shrug and walk back to their positions for kick-off, or do they gee each other up, have a go at each other about doing their jobs properly, and obviously care enough to make an effort to change things to stop another goal being conceded? And far too often at Arsenal they don’t care. Most of the defenders don’t even care enough to jump in the way of shots to block them. They’d rather turn their backs and hope the ball doesn’t hit them.
Dixon didn’t claim to know what goes on in the dressing room, but he said in his day no one was afraid to point out when others weren’t performing. Everything was brought out into the open. It didn’t matter whether teammates were friends – team spirit in professional sport is not about all being mates together and having a jolly time, it’s about helping the team to win by making it more than the sum of its parts. It’s an attitude that not enough Arsenal players seem to have.
In contrast, in Ivan’s world everything is rosy. No issues here, move along now.
So despite Arsenal doing their best to dilute this event into a happy-clappy “we’re all in it together, we care as much as you do and that’s why we work so hard for you” affair, we did get some hard truths about Arsenal’s problems this time. Just not from anyone inside the club, unfortunately.