Yesterday saw the annual summer “Supporters’ Event” at Arsenal, hosted by CEO Ivan Gazidis. You have, I’m sure, read my fairly brief thoughts on it in today’s Islington Gazette, but I thought I’d expand a little as I’ve more space here.
I’ve written disparagingly about these events in the past (with good reason), but this time there were several differences. For a start this was billed not as an end of season retrospective, but as a ‘new season’ event. The fact we’re still in June and haven’t finished the first round of the World Cup demonstrates that Ivan and co are far more focussed on looking forward than dwelling on the Wenger era. That’s over, we’ve celebrated it, now thanks very much and goodbye. Close the door on your way out.
Gazidis was powerless as long as Arsène remained. At least he was until the last 12 months or so, when he finally persuaded his overlord Stan Kroenke to let him start setting up a replacement structure to the one that saw Arsène as manager, director of football, chief negotiator, head of contracts and probably stationery supplies co-ordinator as well. Once the likes of Sven Mislintat, Raul Sanllehi and Huss Fahmy were in place it was only a matter of time before Arsène lost his grip. He’d have saved himself for another season at least with better football and results, but no longer by simply being Arsene and the majority of the board being in awe of him and not having a clue how to run a major football club in the 21st century.
Now Gazidis is in control – well, as far as the Kroenkes allow – and he’s keen to demonstrate that control, while emphasising teamwork, collective effort and ‘a new energy’. It was all about ‘us’ rather than just one man.
So how did the evening go? Ivan could easily talk until the new season started, but after taking to the stage he wasted no time with lengthy introductions. He’d been received with warm applause, with most fans seemingly recognising his role in the positive changes we’ve seen around the club, including ousting the declining Wenger, an action the majority in attendance were undoubtedly in favour of. But applause for Ivan was eclipsed when, with the smugly pleased air of a magician pulling a rabbit from a most unlikely hiding place, he welcomed new manager Unai Emery to the stage.
Most of the audience were unaware who was to be the special guest, so Emery was received especially rapturously – to be fair he’s never dropped a single point in his Arsenal career, so unless he’s holding silverware aloft in 11 months time this is probably as good as it will get for him.
As is Ivan’s way, he likes to give the impression of doing everything he can to be helpful and open, without actually having to give anything away. So we were treated to half an hour of Gazidis and Emery taking turns to answer scripted questions from a well-prepped Arsenal TV host. Ivan thanked all those who had recently left, including of course Wenger, and welcomed all those who’ve arrived to replace them. Emery gamely answered in English throughout, while admitting that his mastery of the language is still coming on ‘step by step’. Ivan looked on like a proud parent at a school poetry recital as the manager said what you would expect a new manager to say: he’s happy to be here, will work hard, supporters are important, great club, everyone is helping him settle in, etc etc. Obviously no promises on results – he’s not stupid – but he came across as likeable, approachable, competent, but also humble and willing to learn. For all I know he might be a complete bastard on the training pitch, but his public persona was the opposite.
These events usually feature a video retrospective of the season, but not this time. Instead we had a very short film focused on all the changes and new personnel. Indeed, the above-mentioned Sven, Raul and Huss were all present too, with the very recognisable Sven posing for selfies with fans for some considerable time afterwards.
When Emery departed Ivan faced unscripted questions from the floor. As we all know, Ivan can produce more waffle than a Belgian bakery, so the number of questions was limited, but the first one gave the CEO the chance to further emphasise what’s changed: Who has the final say on buying players now? Well, said Ivan, ‘we needed a new structure’ and buying players is ‘a collective effort’ (though Ivan will never try and buy one the coach – yes, that’s coach, not manager – doesn’t want); there is ‘a different way of moving forward’; everyone at the club must stick together and move forward together; the club structure has changed and it’s run by a collective. In summary, the coach/manager still decides who he wants and the Board decide whether to sanction it. The difference is around identifying players, negotiations and contracts. Also football, said Ivan, has changed a lot, but the club values remain the same. Emery also wants to learn about the club, and they spent over an hour talking about the values earlier in the day.
After two minutes of answering and a further four of digression into tangential topics, he stopped talking and we moved on to question 2 from the floor: this was about match day credits for use of season tickets, something that the AST for one has been pushing for for quite some time. Ivan’s answer lasted a full seven minutes and strayed off into safe standing and other stadium-related topics. He’s apparently quite keen on safe standing now, which he never was before – he’s voted against it at Premier League meetings. But he’s seen which way the wind is blowing, so now it has his cautious backing. It’s a political stance to appease the plebs, but the best we seem likely to get from him.
Question 3 was on the subject of inclusion for disabled and minority supporters of all types. Again Ivan’s answer (a mere three minutes) was fully supportive while committing to absolutely no change whatsoever.
Question 4: the yoots and U23s seem to play at the stadium we were in, why not the women? For once a commitment was forthcoming: there will be more women’s games in the stadium. He just didn’t tell us how many or exactly when it would be.
Question 5 was shorter: What do you think of Tottenham? Ivan knew the answer the questioner wanted, but tried to waffle his way out of actually saying it, only to be interrupted by the questioner repeating it, and half the audience calling out “Say it!” He resisted, replying only “There’s no good answer to that.” “Oh yes there is!” said half the audience.
Before we could descend further into panto, the questioner moved on to his main point: could Ivan compare himself to David Dein and the effect Dein had on the club? This resulted in quite a long answer that encompassed his own passionate feelings for Arsenal, how privileged all the staff including him are, more about how much football has changed (inference: even Saint David Dein could not do everything now that he did then), and the first mention of Arsène for about 50 minutes (he did ‘an extraordinary job’). And that was it, no time for more questions, or at least no willingness to hear any.
Like many, I’ve been critical of Ivan – and his unhelpful stance on supporter issues such as safe standing and home credits to encourage season ticket use still grates, as does his waffling and how he changes his mind to suit popular opinion – but he does seem to have assembled a team that could deliver results on the pitch. In his words, his objective is ‘to deliver pride; to bring in world class people and support them’. Pride was a repeated word, second only to change. Will Ivan succeed? There seems like a good chance, but maybe I was just caught up in the overwhelmingly positive mood. It’s 43 days till the Premier League opens against Man City then Chelsea. Until then at least, the message from the club was clear: a new era has dawned. Forward Arsenal!