Friday, 30 September 2011

Kroenke’s comments: clarity or confusion?

So, silent Stan has finally spoken – not directly to Arsenal fans, and not via the club, but in an interview with the Telegraph Sport, published today. So what’s he got to say for himself?

Well, the interview seems to have been a wide-ranging and fairly informal conversation of which the topic of Arsenal was actually only a relatively small part. Indeed, Stan talks about his childhood, how he met his wife, his business success and his passion for sport – particularly, it seems, baseball and basketball. Kroenke’s sports ownership portfolio includes the St Louis Rams (American football), the Denver Nuggets (basketball), the Colorado Rapids (Major League Soccer), the Colorado Avalanche (ice hockey) and the Colorado Mammoth (lacrosse). Arsenal do at least get more attention than the lacrosse team, but considerably less than his beloved Rams. Indeed, the interview was actually conducted in the owners’ box during a Rams game, which they lost to the Baltimore Ravens by 37, er, goals, to 7.

Stan does a fair bit of a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ throughout, and the Telegraph piece is peppered with interludes like:

‘There it is, there it is ... WOW!’ shouts Stan Kroenke as he exchanges a high five with his wife, Ann. ‘Now that was an unbelievable play!’ The Rams have scored what turns out to be a consolation touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens and Kroenke has his arm around me.
‘Do you want to know why that was a great play?’ he says. ‘I’ll tell you why. For the quarterback to have that kind of arm strength, on the run, was unbelievable. Watch the replay ... on the run. BOOM! That’s really strong. That’s a big-time play right there.’

Forgive me for being cynical, but if that’s what our owner has to say, then I’d prefer him to go back to being quiet. Suddenly, silence really is golden.

When the conversation moves on to Arsenal, Kroenke’s endorsement of Arsène reads like a hagiography of ‘le Professeur’. He calls him ‘one of my favourite people I have met in the last 20 years’ and ‘a very intelligent guy.’ It won’t come as a surprise to most Arsenal fans that our manager is regarded as a bright chap. But what does Stan see as Arsène’s greatest quality? Well, in a comparison to Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane (seen as a management guru thanks in large part to the book Moneyball, now being made into a major feature film starring Brad Pitt) it is ‘his ability to spend money and extract value. That is what it is all about to be successful in pro sports. If you can do that better than other people, you are always going to be pretty good.’

Well, yes, Arsène is pretty good. We know that. But is ‘pretty good’ enough? On the defensive, Kroenke, taking a lead from Wenger, points to the Gunners' remarkable consistency, i.e. finishing in the top four every season. When quizzed further on the very alarming fact that we might actually drop out of that top four this season, he doesn’t seem unduly worried – although he is concerned, apparently. Here’s some Kroenke wisdom:

‘A wise man was asked, ‘If you had your life to live over what would you do differently?’ He said, ‘The thing I look back on that robbed my life of the joy I had was worrying about things that never happened’. I try not to worry too much because I think that is good advice. Having said that, you are always concerned.’

The man’s a billionaire, so he is clearly doing something right, but I’m not sure his ‘wise man’ is a code to live by. It’s certainly not a way to run a football club.

Stan’s opinions basically centre around the fact that he has firmly and unequivocally put his faith in Arsène and his ‘tried and tested’ methods, i.e. developing young players, creating stability through the stadium and the academy set-up and waiting for financial fair play to be introduced. Ultimately, then, he seems content to leave the decisions entirely up to the manager, ‘the ultimate evaluator.’ This is worrying for those who already think that Arsène is already making too many decisions around the club rather than, well, concentrating on the football.

Predictably, Kroenke does seem to liven up when it comes to marketing the team and (groan) ‘the brand’. ‘We have definite plans for what we want to do on the business side and hopefully we will be able to do as well as Man U. The ownership there was the most controversial but I don’t know how you can do it much better. They have built the commercial side. What the Glazers have shown is that it was way under-marketed. The revenue of the club now is huge. That gives you lots of options.’

Paying the Glazers generous compliments is not a good PR move and these sentiments will immediately set massive alarm bells ringing among Arsenal fans. There is discontent already, and comparing Arsenal to United in this sense will not be viewed positively. Will next season see our own ‘green and gold’ campaign? Perhaps we’ll get groups of fans walking around the Emirates in a load of old Nottingham Forest shirts as a symbol of protest?

However, Kroenke has promised that his purchase will not place any debt or interest liability on the club, and he believes that his track record to date should provide reassurance. We can only hope he honours those promises. He stresses that his ownership group are ‘long term’ and that he is committed to a self-sustaining model – seeing the concept of a private benefactor as unsustainable. This is perhaps, a dig at the increasingly vocal Alisher Usmanov – who isn’t a board member and has been outspoken in his criticism of the Kroenke setup and the current way the club is run, but who seems in many ways to have equally dangerous ideas. Arsenal should not become another United; neither should they become another City or Chelsea. Reliance on a single owner makes a football club entirely subject to the whims of an individual – and typically, the type of individual who is used to getting their own way – and if that individual’s fortunes change, or even disappear, then so, potentially does the club. This is inherently dangerous. Long-term sustainability is therefore important for the future of Arsenal and should be lauded. At the same time, and without wanting to sound melodramatic, we shouldn’t look to the horizon whilst ignoring what we’re about to tread in. Fans want trophies and success, but staying competitive is not just a means to this end – it means we can be proud of the club we invest so much in, both emotionally and financially. On any given day, we want to be capable of beating Barça or Man United – we’ll accept a defeat, but we still want a performance from the team, and 8-2 just doesn’t cut it.

Given that Kroenke really had a chance here to clearly and eloquently outline a vision and strategy for the club to a set of fans who feel as though they have been kept largely in the dark, this interview will be seen by many as frustrating and ultimately a missed opportunity. Admittedly, the Telegraph have presented this as a football piece when actually it seems that Stan was simply making some off-the-cuff observations about Arsenal during a game of American football, but what he says does not seem to be particularly well-thought out or insightful. He will, it seems, back Arsène to the hilt. From the manager’s point of view, this means that with his position secure, the only pressure on Wenger will come from the fans and from himself. This season ought to show whether is capable of rebuilding a competitive team, but it may also reveal just how much drive and passion he still has after 15 years in the same job.

Kroenke still believes in him, evidently. Stan’s positivity in the interview is almost infectious – a good thing – and he seems aware of his strengths and his limitations in the sense that he implicitly acknowledges, MLS experience notwithstanding, that he’s not really a football man. As such, he’s not going to interfere too much. This will come as a relief to some but will not pacify those who think that what Arsène and Arsenal really needs is a firm shake-up from the top down.

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