Arsenal ownership takes surprise twist

Fourth-largest investor could spark battle for control as she looks to sell her stake
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The course of the future ownership of Arsenal took an unexpected turn yesterday when it emerged that Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, the club's fourth largest shareholder, was seeking a buyer for her stake.

Bracewell-Smith, who was ousted from the board two years ago, owns close to 16 per cent, and were either of the two leading shareholders, the American Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek billionaire, to buy her out it would spark a takeover of the club as the purchaser would move past the all-important 30 per cent threshold. Bracewell-Smith is believed to have appointed the US investment bank Blackstone to find a buyer, although the bank refused to make any comment last night.

Bracewell-Smith is one of four key figures in Arsenal's future, along with Kroenke, Usmanov and, most importantly, Danny Fiszman, the driving force in the move to the Emirates stadium and in many ways now the kingmaker. Fiszman has a 16.1 per cent share and is closely allied to Kroenke.

The move by Bracewell-Smith indicates that neither Kroenke nor Usmanov are looking to mount an immediate takeover – certainly not before the end of the season – otherwise they would have snapped up her share long before it headed for the open market. Whether Bracewell-Smith can find an investor willing to pay close to £90m but with no accompanying place on the board, or any real prospect of challenging the two leading shareholders, remains to be seen.

Kroenke is regarded as a stable long-term investor by the club – he has strong support on the board and qualified backing from the Arsenal Supporters' Trust. He has been buying Arsenal shares over a three-year period and two weeks ago moved to within 10 shares of the 30 per cent mark. He will almost certainly not attempt to purchase any more until after 1 May, when the price he will have to offer per share will drop by £2,000, a potential saving of around £87m on what he would be obliged to spend to take over the club.

News of Bracewell-Smith's move broke on the same day Kroenke was due to make a decision on whether to sell his share of the St Louis Rams, a 40 per cent stake for which he had been offered £190m. Yesterday marked the end of the 60-day window he had to reach a decision. As of last night there was no indication as to whether he had accepted the deal. Reports in the US have cast doubt on his willingness to relinquish his share in the NFL outfit.

There is a lockdown agreement in force at the Emirates until 2012, meaning any board member looking to sell shares must give first refusal to other board members. Bracewell-Smith was a non-executive director from 2005, when her husband Charles, the fourth baronet of Keighley, transferred his shares to her. She left the board in 2008, two months after Kroenke joined, ending the Bracewell-Smith family's 70-year association with the club.