Those Arsenal fans handing out leaflets outside the annual general meeting on Thursday morning, imploring the club to be more like Bayern Munich, might have been slightly disappointed. While they were demanding a “fresh approach and fresh ideas” in the boardroom, the reality inside the Highbury Suite was quite different.
There has been a change at the top of the club, a change in panel from last year’s AGM; the departure of Peter Hill-Wood as chairman and his replacement with Sir Chips Keswick. And while Sir Chips is a lifelong Arsenal fan, who has been on the board since 2005, this might not have been precisely the change that the fans want to see.
Arsène Wenger, thanking Hill-Wood for his three decades of service, said: “He was a symbol of what Arsenal was about – he respected traditional values and he was forward-thinking.” This is typical of Wenger and of Arsenal too, and their chairman, new to his role but not exactly a modern figure.
Summing up Arsenal’s desire to be successful this year, Sir Chips said they were keen to win “leagues, pennants and cups”. Reflecting on the recent success of Arsenal Ladies in the Women’s Champions League, he spoke of their win in “Kazakh-something”. When discussing the Qatar World Cup, he joked that he “probably won’t even be alive”, so it was not high on his list of priorities.
At least Sir Chips is authentically Arsenal. Wenger must appreciate that too, and insisted in his short speech that the club’s global popularity – which is hugely important to them – owed to how true to itself it remained, in obvious contrast to some of its Premier League rivals.
The manager said: “Our club is well respected all over the world because we have values, because we are not artificial, because we are based on tradition, because we are forward-thinking and we give a chance to young people who deserve it.”
Wenger, as ever, was well-received by the shareholders and was confident enough to tell them he hoped he could “organise a very positive meeting” in May. The mood was the polar opposite of last year’s AGM. That took place the morning after Arsenal had lost 2-0 at home to Schalke in the Champions League. They were ninth in the Premier League, with 12 points from their first eight games. They were still stinging from the loss of Robin van Persie and the questioning from the floor was raucous and accusatory.
This time there were only a very few hands opposing the re-election of majority shareholder Stan Kroenke to the board, and the criticisms of the club were for the most part very specific – ticket prices, the purchase of a data management company, even the lack of protection from the rain in parts of the ground – rather than about overall direction. On the issue of Kroenke meeting the fans, and the possibility of a dividend, there was not much movement.
It felt at times like a calmer place, a more agreeable family now in the Mesut Özil era. Maybe, though, that was just a function of the way the meeting was organised, with almost all questions pre-submitted and displayed on screens, and the board offering pre-prepared answers. Just a few came from the floor afterwards.
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust certainly thought so. “It was a staged meeting reducing the opportunity for shareholders and supporters to interact with the board,” said AST spokesman Tim Payton afterwards. “Most questions were not answered. It has never been controlled like that before. It reduced the dialogue and engagement for supporters.”
Kroenke did speak, but not for long and not revealing much. He might not have made himself much more popular with the supporters but as Wenger, who knows what football fans base their opinions on, said: “Our attitude, our commitment on the pitch has to bring everybody on board. I personally am convinced we have the team who has the attitude and the desire to do that.
“We are top of the table, in a very strong position, but if you look at the schedule, by the end of November you will have a much clearer situation.” For now, judgements on the future are still on hold.
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