Thursday, 13 October 2011

Share and share alike?

The man formerly known as Silent Stan was in the news recently (Kroenke’s Comments), and in the last couple of days Arsenal’s other main – and increasingly vocal – shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, has also caught the eye of the media. The activity seems to focus around an ongoing attempt by the Uzbeki billionaire’s company Red & White Holdings to buy up additional shares from minority Arsenal shareholders – at a higher price than the £11,750 that Kroenke was recently offering. This move is perhaps unsurprising given that the club’s AGM will shortly take place on 27 October, when Kroenke is finally likely to visit North London and talk to shareholders and even – gasp – supporters. Whether Usmanov will also turn up is debatable (in the past he has only ever sent a ‘representative’), but it seems he is keen to play a larger part in the running of the club, by forcing the board to let him inspect the club’s accounts and by fortifying his position to demand a place on the board – something Kroenke has always refused, placing his support firmly in the existing set-up.

Back in 2007, Arsenal fans were vocal in their opposition to billionaire Usmanov. After the rotund and rather jowly Uzbeki bought up David Dein’s 14.5 per cent share in the club, banners were raised inside the Emirates defiantly proclaiming, ‘Sod off, Jabba’. Opinions seem to have softened since then – Jabba the Hutt no longer, perhaps, though hardly Obi Wan Kenobi. Usmanov has been keen to position himself as a true fan, in it for the long-haul, and is apparently a friend of archetypal Arsenal obsessive Nick Hornby. The more cynical Gooners among us might view these claims with suspicion, but equally others would argue that anyone who wants to stir those at the top into action should be supported, particularly given the team’s inconsistent start to the season, Arsène’s increasingly clichéd recent statements, Kroenke’s apparently unwavering support for the boss, and Ivan Gazidis’ recent statement downplaying the importance of a top four finish.

Usmanov’s latest efforts to purchase shares from minority shareholders seems to represent a concerted effort to buy the 405 shares necessary to up his stake in Arsenal from his current 29.35 per cent holding to the 30 per cent-plus threshold. This would make him subject to the Premier League’s ‘Owners and Directors’ Test’, a measure supposedly in place to ensure a degree of transparency in clubs’ affairs and ownership – although it can’t be that hard to pass, since Sheikh Mansour seems to have got through it. The term conjures up images of club owners taking a really hard A-level, but it actually seems to be a set of financial assessment criteria that have to be met. For my money, Richard Scudamore should forget this sort of thing and instead introduce an arcane football club trivia quiz – so in Usmanov’s case, he’d have to tell us how many league goals Rocky bagged in 1987-88, and produce the ticket that proved he was at the game where John Jensen scored.

If Usmanov does get to 30 per cent (and recent reports state that he has been offering £14,000 a share to the estates of some of Arsenal’s estimated 200 recently-deceased shareholders) he will be entitled to inspect the accounts. He’ll learn therefore, why the club’s turnover in the last tax year increased by a mere one per cent, while the wage bill increased by 12.4 per cent, despite our ‘rigid’ wage structure. Whether that means the supporters will be told anything is a different matter, of course. Usmanov has been critical of many of the Arsenal board’s decisions and outspoken on things like the commercial deals currently in place with partners like Nike and Emirates – which pale into insignificance compared to those offered to Manchester United, for instance, and arguably undervalue the club. Moreover, Usmanov has said that he would inject more money into Arsenal to provide Wenger with a bigger budget, as opposed to Kroenke’s ‘self-sustaining’ model:

‘Arsenal has all of its major commercial contracts coming up for renewal … to
maximise the value of those you need to invest in building a winning team. This
is simple commercial logic.’

He certainly has the money to invest in the team. Whereas in 2007 he was worth around £2.7 billion, he is now worth an estimated £12.4 billion, making him the 35th richest person in the world. That’s as wealthy or even slightly richer than a certain Roman Abramovich, whose personal fortune is put at around £11 billion – although he has lavished much of his pocket-money on that small club near Fulham. Most Arsenal fans don’t want to take an approach that mirrors Chelsea or City in any shape or form, but on the other hand it is hard to get excited about the Kroenke vision for the future, and with the contracts of RvP, Walcott and Vermaelen due to expire in 2013, a bit more money in the kitty – as well as a man at the top with a bit of ambition – might not be wholly unwelcome. We certainly don't want to lose any more key players and adding some more quality and strength in depth in the next transfer window will also be vital.

Embracing Usmanov (in either the literal or the metaphorical sense) would probably be both unwise and unpleasant, but as a counterbalance to the inertia that seems to have developed in recent years and the apparent unwillingness of the American across the pond to do anything about it, letting Usmanov provoke those at the top into action could be good for the club. Playing with fire perhaps, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and the situation at Arsenal seems to be getting increasingly closer to that stage.

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