Celebrating Arsenal

The principal director and shareholder of Arsenal today is the American billionaire, Stan Kroenke. There could hardly be a greater contrast than with Sir Henry Norris. Where Norris was dominant and dictatorial, Kroenke is almost always absent. By Brian Glanville.

Arsenal football club, in the space of a few recent days, has celebrated two very different anniversaries. The first, the centenary of the club’s location in the North London borough of Islington; the second, the 17 years completed by Arsene Wenger as its manager. It was in 1913 that Woolwich Arsenal, then the club’s name, left the South East London borough of Plumstead, crossing the Thames to build a new stadium at Highbury, in the grounds of a former theological college. To the lasting fury of Tottenham Hotspur, a few miles down the road, whose territorial supremacy had thus been challenged.

Flames would be fanned six years later when, with League football being re-aligned after the World War I, Arsenal succeeded, in deeply controversial circumstances, to leapfrog Spurs and return to the First Division. They have stayed there ever since, it is true, but the manner of their 1919 promotion had little to do with logic or justice and all too much to do with the machinations of Arsenal’s then chairman Sir Henry Norris.

Today, the principal director and shareholder is the American billionaire, Stan Kroenke. There could hardly be a greater contrast than with Norris. Where Norris was dominant and dictatorial, till he met his match in 1925 with the appointment of surely the greatest and most significant of all Arsenal managers, Herbert Chapman, Kroenke, who owns a string of sporting franchises in the USA, remains an elusive figure. Though he seems to come not infrequently to London, he attends few home matches at the newly built Emirates Stadium where Arsenal moved in, in 2006. But he has little or nothing to do with the fans and their organisations, and until very recently scant dealings with the press.

He did, however, break cover unexpectedly, giving a long interview to a leading daily newspaper, but if this in itself was a scoop, its content was somewhat anodyne. To quote an old American saying, it told you that Kroenke was in favour of Mom and Apple Pie. He told us how much he admired Arsene Wenger who, he hoped, would stay well beyond his present contract, what great affection and admiration he had for the club and its traditions, what pleasure he gets out of his role.

With all due deference, it is rather difficult to see just what he really derives from it. That Wenger has largely had a freehand is clear enough. But Arsenal have won nothing of consequence for the past eight years even though one way and another they have yet to fail to qualify for the European Champions League; of late, however, only by scraping into fourth place in the Premier League.

Star Players such as Cesc Fabregas and the prolific goal-scorer, Robin van Persie, have been lost. Only at the last gasp of the recent transfer window did the gifted German midfielder, Mesut Ozil, arrive for a colossal GBP42.4 million. A move which, though, instantly successful, still smacked of desperation, after so little activity in the transfer market when it came to acquisitions rather than departures.

Somewhere between the dictatorial regime of Norris and the elusive regime of Kroenke, logic lies. Until a few month ago Arsenal did indeed have a Chairman in the shape of the ailing, marginalised Peter Hill-Wood, scion of a powerful family which had run Arsenal since the 1920s.

German youngster Serge Gnabry has made an early impression.-AP

When it was mooted that Kroenke should be approached to join the board, Hill-Wood spoke out fiercely against it, saying that this wasn’t the sort of person Arsenal wanted. Only to be obliged to eat humble pie some months afterwards when forced to fly to America to beg Kroenke, successfully, to come to Arsenal.

Long forgotten is the fact that if Norris had had his way, Woolwich Arsenal in 1913 would have been amalgamated with Fulham, in the area where Norris derived his financial and political power. The Football Association vetoed the idea; hence Highbury.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, and “official” League football shut down in 1915, Woolwich Arsenal finished fifth in the Second Division. There was no valid reason why they should be promoted to Division 1, but Norris connived with “honest” John McKenna, his friend, chairman of Liverpool and president of the League, to outflank Spurs on the absurd grounds that Woolwich Arsenal had been League members for 15 years longer than Spurs. Who in fact had won the FA Cup in 2001.

Norris would ultimately be thrown out of football by the FA after endless clashes. He brought a disastrous court case, whence it emerged that he had sold the club’s motorcoach, forged Chairman’s name on the cheque and put it into his wife’s account. He must have slipped into a financial crisis, but its details have never yet emerged.

But where Norris was for better or worse a dynamo, Kroenke remains in the shadows. What Wenger has arguably lacked is the presence and support of the man who brought him to Arsenal, David Dein, in some ways a controversial figure, who bought his way into the club, buying shares which Peter Hill-Wood deemed useless. But beyond doubt he was a mover and shaker, palpably missed after he was ousted following clashes with his fellow directors, partly because he didn’t want the club to move nearby to build the Emirates. Selling his shares to the oligarch Alisher Usmanov — desperate to take control of the club — for $70 million was some substantial consolation, but his vigour has undoubtedly been missed. Not least by Wenger himself.

This season has even seen another Arsenal youngster finally emerging from a youth programme famous only for Jack Wilshere and Ashley Cole. Now there’s the teenaged German Serge Gnabry; but he cost money.