Earlier this week, several Arsenal fan groups and websites came together to formulate and sign a letter addressed to the club and its ownership. The campaign adopts the hashtag #WeCareDoYou. It is fair to say that Arsenal fans have been divided in recent years, but that division has manifested into a faintly ridiculous micro-argument about precisely how disenfranchised we feel and how exactly to express it.
That supporters, speaking very generally, feel disengaged is scarcely up for debate. Some of that disillusion has its roots in the direction of elite level football in general, not least as we lurch closer to a European Super League- more on which later. One thing I think I have learned through social media is that, if enough people have a perception of you and your behaviour, then that is an issue that you own.
Even if you are convinced that it stems from misunderstanding, that’s a consequence of miscommunication on your part. The choice you are then faced with is whether you care enough to correct it. If you do, it is fair to say that deeds carry greater weight than words. The reason Arsenal fans ‘feel like the club is an investment vehicle’ is because that is precisely what it is. It is the truth the club’s executive branch dare not utter.
‘KSE’s ambitions for the club are to see it competing consistently to win the Premier League and the Champions League’ the fan statement recites from KSE’s own takeover document, before following up with the aside, ‘we see little evidence of how this is to be achieved.’ Again, the truth the club and KSE dare not speak is that there is no active plan for any of these things and we know it as well as they do.
A lot of Arsenal fans report feeling disengaged from the club, that they are not sure what its purpose or its mission is. To my mind, this is not a communications issue per se. Arsenal have been plenty communicative and, next week, will host another supporters’ Q & A. The problem is that what we’re grasping for, as fans, goes way beyond words and straplines.
The reason we cannot grasp the mission or the purpose of Arsenal under KSE is that they cannot admit their mission and purpose publicly. The truth is that KSE’s ‘ambition’ is to grimy hold onto the elite status Arsenal enjoys thanks to Stan’s historic predecessors, take the TV cash and gratefully accept an invitation to the European Super League when it inevitably arrives.
This is why choreographed statements don’t cut it anymore. It’s all been said a million times before and exposed as nothing more than rhetoric. That the owner didn’t even bother to turn up to the Europa League Final tells you everything you need to know about his ‘ambition’ for Arsenal and his level of engagement. There are no words that conceal this level of active inaction.
You might reasonably ask why it matters? After all, Kroenke appoints a highly paid executive team to run the club on his behalf. I perfectly understand the ‘devolved’ model, it’s not uncommon in the corporate world at all. Lots of executives and directors have interests in more than just one company. It is and has been a problem for Arsenal though, as you are seeing through this managed decline.
Distance is not necessarily an issue per se. Disengagement is and that disengagement has been hugely costly to Arsenal. Principally because it allowed an under performing manager and under performing CEO to remain in position for too long. Much of the current malaise has its roots in allowing that CEO and manager to spend the club’s self-generated (a cynical manipulation of the proper term ‘fan generated’) money very badly indeed.
That makes it much more difficult for the new broom to sweep up the mess. We have also seen a raft of poor appointments behind the scenes, which has resulted in even greater upheaval. Darren Burgess and Sven Mislintat are, by all accounts, not bad at their jobs. Both were appointed to great fanfare and neither lasted so much as a year. This is what dysfunction looks like and it’s all happening on KSE’s watch.
‘Everyone knows that we have a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget,’ Josh Kroenke’s open letter to the fans read on Tuesday, as if this was a circumstance presented to him and KSE by happenstance rather than as a consequence of their persistently poor decision making. Excuse me if ‘we’re in a mess right now because we’ve been running the club really very badly indeed’ didn’t feel like a rallying cry for a brighter future.
The club’s ‘brand’ is badly damaged at the moment. This is having an impact in the transfer market. Nobody is lining up to take Arsenal’s players because a) their salaries are too high (this is a problem at lots of top clubs right now, in fairness) and b) because the market views Arsenal players as damaged goods.
Look at the players the Gunners have shifted to Barcelona over the years; Alex Song, Alex Hleb, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Thomas Vermaelen- guys they didn’t keep from the door. They weren’t crucial players but Barcelona saw Arsenal as a club worth buying from- that’s a consequence of your ‘brand.’ Arsenal’s is very damaged. The reverse is true of Liverpool right now, who could probably sell second-hand chewing gum to Southampton or West Ham or Bournemouth for £20m.
When you have a disinterested owner, it leads to executives in high positions effectively performance managing themselves.
‘Hey Ivan, how’s it all going there?’
‘Great, I am doing my job brilliantly!’
If the likes of Sanllehi and Edu underperform in their roles, the likelihood is that KSE won’t know, or pay any attention to it until the damage has already been done. That’s the price you pay for detached ownership.
The reason supporting a football club invokes such strong personal feelings in us, is because it fosters a powerful sense of shared identity. The sense that you are a part of *something* greater than yourself. This is why supporting at distance is easy to do. That feeling of kinship crosses borders easily. The problem for Arsenal fans is that we don’t really have anything to rally around because we know, because we can see, that Arsenal under KSE doesn’t stand for anything. You. Can’t. Fake. This. Shit.
It is not that Arsenal are trying and failing, it’s that they are not trying to stand for anything that we can rally behind. Think about why adidas’ promo video for the new home kit was so well received. The video made real that sense that Arsenal is a global club based in a global city. It meshed together the local and the global very well, drawing on the club’s history and customs in doing so.
The painful truth is that it wasn’t just a slick marketing video (I mean, it was exactly that), but it reminded us of something we’d forgotten. It reprised something in our memory banks and the deepest recesses of our Arsenal supporting souls that has been asleep for so long we forgot it was even there. A sense of what Arsenal is, or what it is supposed to be.
Yet that is only a piece of crafted communication. Its sentiment and nostalgia can only sustain us for so long. Besides which, it is not really adidas’ job to re-connect us with our football club. No amount of communications or high production values can do that, only deed can. Yet we will continue to be frustrated in that respect because of the truth that we all know and dare not speak. Stan Kroenke and KSE don’t care and under their stewardship, Arsenal is very much just an investment vehicle.