The battle for control of Arsenal entered a new phase yesterday as the American billionaire, Stan Kroenke, bought another eight per cent of the club's shares for £42.5m from a fellow board member, Danny Fiszman, taking his holding to 20.5 per cent, and then received a lavish endorsement as "a model owner" from the club's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis.
The share trade alone is understood to have rattled Arsenal's majority shareholder, the predatory Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, who with a business partner owns 25 per cent of the club through his investment vehicle, Red & White Holdings. The lack of warmth from Gazidis will only have compounded that ire, and a civil war within the "Arsenal family" for ownership of the club is on the cards.
The next significant skirmish is likely to involve Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who owns 15.9 per cent of the club. The destination of her shares, should she decide to sell, could tip the balance in favour of one of the warring parties, but no sale is guaranteed and Kroenke holds more aces than Usmanov for now.
Ever since The Independent exclusively revealed Kroenke's initial involvement with Arsenal as a commercial partner two years ago, and his desire to buy into the club, his long-term ambition has been control, if not outright ownership. His latest purchase from Fiszman takes his stake to 20.5 per cent of the club while reducing the holding of Fiszman to 16.1 per cent. But of as much significance as the numbers was the stance of Gazidis.
Notable by their absence were any flattering words about Usmanov, who is furious at his continued exclusion from the inner sanctum at the Emirates, where he has no board representation and no sign of that changing.
An Arsenal insider with first-hand knowledge of the latest Kroenke-Fiszman deal said: "This is a major play en route to a scenario where Stan is the major shareholder in an Arsenal regime run by a Kroenke-Fiszman partnership."
Kroenke, 61, knows Gazidis well through their dealings in Major League Soccer in America. Gazidis was the MLS deputy commissioner before moving to Arsenal, while Kroenke owns the MLS franchise, Colorado Rapids, among a portfolio of sports interest that spans American football, basketball and ice hockey as well as soccer.
In an interview with Arsenal.com, Gazidis said that despite the share boost for Kroenke "it is business as usual" at the club. But he gave more of hint where the club's ownership ambitions lie when he said: "Stan really is a model owner. He takes the long-term view and believes in the model that Arsenal has been run on, of self-sustainability, and has developed a good relationship with other members of the board. This is somebody who shares the philosophies of the current board and who will be influential as we go forwards."
The next big question is whether Lady Nina will sell her shares, and to whom. Gazidis effectively confirmed that Kroenke and/or Fiszman are would-be buyers by saying: "Certainly if she were to say she was a seller, then I am sure there would be interest among the current Arsenal board."
The influential Arsenal Supporters' Trust has said it supports Kroenke's latest move, with a spokesman saying: "The AST has met with Stan Kroenke and visited his operations in Colorado. We were supportive of him joining the board and welcome the sporting and commercial expertise he brings to the club. If a sale had to take place we are reassured that it is to Stan. The fact that Stan Kroenke is already a member of the board at Arsenal should ensure that this change does not create any instability."
Emirates board game: The big players
Stan Kroenke (20.5 per cent stake): "Silent Stanley" – who rarely speaks in public – has become the most powerful Arsenal board member. The 61-year-old is a major player in many American sports and his wealth is valued at £1.9bn.
Alisher Usmanov (25 per cent): The billionaire born in Uzbekistan has largest stake in the club, through Red & White Holdings, but is not on the board. Made his money in mining and lumber and is worth £6.5bn but is treated with suspicion by the board
Nina Bracewell-Smith (15.9 per cent): Became a shareholder through marriage but was controversially voted off the board last year. If she decides to sell her stake, to whom she sells could determine the future ownership of the club.