Arsenal in turmoil

There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger has revolutionised Arsenal, both on the field and on the now deluxe training field, out in Hertfordshire at London Colney, but will he stay?

As the Arsenal drama rolls on, as we wonder whether in due course the cast out David Dein will, in tandem with the American billionaire franchise owner Stan Kroenke, return to take over the club which has expelled him, my mind goes irresistibly back some years to a meeting in the City. In the office of the late Denis Hill Wood, then Chairman of Arsenal and scion of the distinguished Old Etonian family which brought peace and order to the club in the mid 1920s after the departure of the controversial, overbearing but all important Sir Henry Norris. Speaking of a certain North London minority, Denis said, "We've closed down the Enclosure Club". An agreeable enough institution with a block of seats in the West Stand of the Old Arsenal Stadium, whose leading spirit was once the late Harry Homer, a genial Oxford man who served in the RAF in the last war and wrote endearing match programme notes under the pseudonym of Marksman. "You know what it is", said Denis. "They take over".

Little could he realise that under his son Peter's regime, "They", in the shape of David Dein, who emerged from North London obscurity (but let us be fair, nothing like as obscure as the background from which Chelsea's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich emerged) eventually to be the propulsive force of the club.

A commodities broker whose business went to the wall when he was ill served by his partner, Dein had bought for �290,250 a 10.6% share in the club. Which Peter almost laughingly dismissed as "crazy. To all intents and purposes it is dead money." But oh! no, it wasn't. As the financial aspect of England's League clubs radically changed, Dein was suddenly Arsenal's mover and shaker while Peter, whose holding is now reduced to less than 1%, was sidelined. Thus did I call Dein the Lopakhin of our football. Meaning the serf's son who, in Chekhov's great play `The Cherry Orchard', takes over the estate from the aristocrats his father once served; and chops down their beloved cherry orchard.

Dein, however, chopped down nothing; rather did he build it up. Above all he brought to the club the remarkable Arsene Wenger, who he had known for years as the seven-year manager of Monaco and who had latterly been coaching in Japan. To bring him on board demanded a certain sleight of hand, hardly characteristic, though perfectly legal and ultimately so productive, of the Hill Wood tradition. The actual manager Bruce Rioch had just been offered a new contract which he had signed. It had chances, however that Peter Hill Wood, as chairman, had not signed his part of it, having gone off on holiday. When he eventually returned, it was to tell Rioch that he was no longer needed.

There is no doubt that Wenger, still a very close friend of Dein, has revolutionised the club, both on the field and on the now deluxe training field, out in Hertfordshire at London Colney. Will he now stay? Who knows — his contract runs out next year — any more than one can know how long the present board of directors hold out against the incursion of Kroenke.

Even before Dein made common cause with the American, the trigger for his departure, he had incurred the hostility of two other major players in Arsenal's hierarchy, the chief Executive, Gerald Edelman, and the major shareholder, the diamond broker millionaire Danny Fiszman, whom Dein had brought in and to whom Dein had sold large chunks of his shares. These two were strongly in favour of re-locating the stadium to where it now is, with its 60,000 capacity, just down the road from the old stadium, occupied since 1913. Dein, by contrast, wanted to move either to King Cross, a few miles away, or to use the rebuilt Wembley Stadium.

Hill Wood has been doing a lot of patriotic ranting and roaring, deploring the possibility of the club falling, as have Manchester United and Liverpool, into American hands. But alas, this is just so much hot air and rhetoric. If and when push comes to shove it is not going to be he who in any way decides. And though the senior directors have so far rebuffed Kroenke's approaches, he now has over 11% of the shares which, if he puts them together at some later point with the 14% still held by Dein, and worth �57 million, would put him within an ace of forcing a vote by the shareholders. Then which way would they jump?

What Fiszman and co. have said is that they will delay any action not forever but for a year. A strange sort of statement which has been interpreted by some as relating to the fact that Fiszman will by then have relocated to Switzerland, where he will no longer be subject to UK tax. In the meantime, Dein has lost his �500,000 a year salary as Vice-President of Arsenal, while last year his pursuit for new England manager of Big Phil Scolari, the Brazilian Manager of Portugal, eventually cost him his place on the Football Association Board. At risk now must be his role on the FA Council, the international committee, and the G14 group of leading English clubs. He swears, however, he will be back and one certainly should never underestimate him.

One must admire rather than share Arsene Wenger's picture of the club as a moral force: "It is important Arsenal maintains its values because they are what makes the club so popular and that is beyond any investment. The values are human class, distinction, respect for people and ambition to have a certain class in what you do."

But to those of us steeped in the history of Arsenal, and I'm the author of the recent official `Arsenal Stadium History' book, there is a slightly hollow ring to the words. Under the driving aegis of Henry Norris, who brought the Gunners across the Thames from Plumstead to Highbury in 1913, there was a major stitch up in 1919 just after the Great War, when, in collusion with the Liverpool chairman, and chairman of the Football League, Norris wangled the club back into the First Division at the expense of outraged neighbours Spurs, though it had finished only fifth in the Second Division immediately before soccer was suspended in 1915. True, since then the Gunners were never relegated, but history, after all, is history.