Arsenal and the Bracewells


I think we can assume that if the controversial Uzbek businessman, billionaire Alisher Usmanov (in pic) does take over Arsenal, he will appoint David Dein as his chief executive.

There is now a new and very real threat to the ownership of the Arsenal football club. Till very recently it was generally assumed that the millionaire diamond merchant, Danny Fiszman, now domiciled in Belgium, and the largest shareholder, held the key; and would certainly retain his shares at least till next April. All the major director-shareholders had agreed to that. But now, what of the elegant, 52-year-old Nina Bracewell-Smith, Indian born wife of the ailing Guy, the grandson of the former Gunners chairman? She owns no less than 15.9% of the Arsenal shares which are presently priced at £120 million.

The controversial Uzbek businessman, billionaire Alisher Usmanov, would gobble them up tomorrow if he could; and the temptation for Nina to make such a dramatic killing, even though she is hardly living in penury, must be immense. So we must hold our breath till April, with Usmanov, as we know, having already shelled out £75 million to buy the shares held by the former Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, with whom he has recently somewhat distanced himself.

This because, he says, he does not want poor relations with the Arsenal board of directors, with whom Dein, since his dismissal by them, has been at daggers drawn. But if as and when he managed to take over the club, it will hardly matter what the current directors think or say. The high probably would be that, as seemed originally to be planned, Dein would be appointed as the chief executive. Having as we know paid a mere £292,000 for his shares, when Peter Hill-Wood, the chairman then and now, casually declared that it would be dead money. Well, financial dispositions changed and it emphatically wasn’t. Dein eventually sold a chunk of his shares to Fiszman but, as we can see, he had plenty left to sell to Usmanov.

Dein as we know was kicked out because he had made common cause with the American mogul, Stan Kroenke, owner of a host of sports franchises in the USA. His fellow Arsenal directors were most aggrieved with Peter Hill-Wood, rashly and typically, announcing that Kroenke, for all his 12% of Arsenal shares, was not the kind of person that the club wanted. Though he has since U-turned and cultivated him!

More recently Hill-Wood has said the same broadly about Usmanov, yet in no time at all he turned out to be talking to Usmanov’s chief lieutenant. Hill-Wood in fact, though the scion of a long and distinguished Arsenal family tradition — going right the way back to the 1920s and the retired millionaire from Glossop, Sir Samuel — has been something of a marginal figure, despite his official title, since he sold those shares, and they proved so embarrassingly lucrative.

As for Dein, himself famously a self-made entrepreneur, from humble origins in North West London though nowhere near as humble, not to say poverty stricken, as those of Chelsea’s billionaire oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich. Dein, to give him his due, is a passionate Arsenal fan and did them the enormous service of bringing to the club as manager Arsene Wenger, who has enjoyed such huge success and radically transformed the club, its tactics, personnel, training methods and training ground. Usmanov would surely and badly need Dein and I think we can assume that if Usmanov does take over the club, he will appoint Dein as his chief executive.

Certainly, in that case, Hill-Wood’s position would be quite untenable, since his antipathy to Dein has gone beyond the bounds of civilised converse. When Arsenal recently played their north London derby game at Tottenham, Hill-Wood was incensed by the presence of Dein, invited by Spurs. But it was then pointed out that Spurs not only had every right to invite Dein, but that his son was in fact married to the daughter of a Tottenham director.

Apropos of the original Bracewell-Smith, he is, I know, credited with helping Arsenal sort out their finances, but to me he appeared a pompous, self regarding figure with scant knowledge of the game. I remember that famous Welsh international goalkeeper of the 1950s Jack Kelsey telling me once, “He comes down to the dressing room now before a game and gives us advice. Silly little things like, ‘Pass to a man.’”

What I could never forgive Bracewell-Smith was his harsh treatment of little inside-right Jimmy Logie, arguably the heart and soul of the successful Arsenal teams of the late 1940s and 1950s. Logie, a Scot who scandalously played only once for his country, was a glorious ball player and an inspired passer of the ball. One evening, after a friendly at Highbury against Spartak Moscow he refused to shake hands with the Russian referee Nikolai Latychev (who in November 1945 so ineptly refereed the infamous fog bound game at Tottenham between Arsenal and Moscow Dynamo).

In Logie’s view, Latychev had refused his team a plain penalty. But, for some reason, Bracewell-Smith deplored this and pointedly refused to shake hands with Logie at the club’s Xmas party. Soon afterwards, Logie left for non-League football; later had a newspaper pitch in Piccadilly Circus, had a commissionaire’s uniformed job on the front desk of Thames Television in London’s Euston Road. He died poor, when, today, he’d have been a millionaire.

Usmanov is that, many times over. “A fit and proper person”, in the words of the Premiership, to control one of their clubs? Hardly a factor, when a sinister figure such as ex-Thai President Shinawatra runs Manchester City unchallenged. And I believe Usmanov when he insists that his six years in a Soviet prison camp was a frame up, later confirmed by President Gorbachev. Not so endearing are Usmanov’s close relationship with repressive President Putin and his ties with the brutal ruler of Uzbekistan, reportedly given to boiling dissidents alive. But now it seems only Nina Bracewell-Smith can stop him, with his 23% of shares gaining control of the Gunners. Bringing with it, no doubt, the return of David Dein and a fierce settling of Highbury accounts.