Gunners in turmoil

Published : Jan 03, 2009 00:00 IST



Billionaire Alisher Usmanov , who already owns 24% of the shares at Arsenal, says he is not prepared to buy more shares; were he to reach a total of 29%, the law states that he would be obliged to make a bid for control of the club.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” wrote the 18th century poet William Congreve. Lady Nina Bracewell Smith undoubtedly feels scorned and it seems to me she is well justified. Lady Nina, the elegant daughter of an Indian diplomat, has suddenly and ruthlessly been kicked off the Arsenal board of directors, which may well be very foolish of them. Apart from the question of the brusque way it was done, they leave Lady Nina with no less than 15.9% of the club shares which are thought to be worth a cool £75 million. For the moment she is saying that she will not sell, but who could rationally blame her for changing her mind? And if she did that, the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who already owns 24% of the shares, could buy those 15.9% shares up and have total control of the club.

At the moment, Usmanov says he is not prepared to buy more shares; were he to reach a total of 29%, the law states that he would be obliged to make a bid for control of the club. Only Danny Fiszman, the wealthy diamond merchant and businessman now domiciled abroad, has fractionally more shares than Usmanov, at 24.1%. He is unquestionably the main man, the most powerful figure on the board. The Arsenal Chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, scion of a family which has been in the Arsenal hierarchy since the 1920, sold his shares to David Dein, has a mere 0.8% of them now and is thus virtually marginalised, however often he may make strong public pronouncements.

Such as the time when he declared that Arsenal didn’t want the American sports franchise billionaire Stan Kroenke on the board. Only not long afterwards to be obliged to eat humble pie and fly to the States to elicit Kroenke’s help. Kroenke now owns 12.4% of the shares.

To understand what in its convoluted way has been going on, you must track back in time to the moment when David Dein, an entrepreneur who had risen from obscurity in the North West London suburbs, bought the bulk of Peter Hill-Wood’s shares for some £290,000. Seemingly amused, Hill-Wood opined that this was really dead money and at the time it was. But then in time the smoke cleared, new laws made the shares valid and suddenly Dein had a controlling interest in the club with Hill-Wood effectively disenfranchised.

Dein played a hugely active part in the development of the Gunners. He it was who brought to Highbury from Japan, where he had been managing Grampus 8, Arsene Wenger, who proceeded to revolutionise the whole set-up, instituting new training methods, eventually seeing that Arsenal bought their own new training ground area at London Colney out in Hertfordshire, after previously using the London University ground nearby. Honour after honour in due course showered on the team, which, under Wenger, made a speciality of signing talented players from abroad. So much so that often there wouldn’t be a single British player in the team.

But when it came to the decision to leave the hallowed Arsenal Stadium, where the Gunners had been playing since 1913, Dein found himself at odds with the other senior directors. They wanted to build what is now called The Emirates Stadium just across the road from the original home. Dein would have preferred to build somewhat more centrally at Kings Cross. But ironically enough, seeing what has happened since, the ultimate bone of contention seems to have been over Kyoenke. Dein wanted him, the others at that time didn’t. So exit Dein who having already made one fortune by selling a chunk of his shares to Danny Fiszman, made still more money by selling to Usmanov. For a time he became chief executive for Usmanov’s Red and White company but that arrangement has been ended.

Internecine might well be the word for relations among the Arsenal board of directors. Out went Dein. And out after the successful move to the huge new 60,000 capacity stadium went Gerald Edelman who had played a leading part in organising the move. Hard to be sure why he went.

Lady Nina has her shares because her husband Sir Charles is the grandson of the late Sir Bracewell Smith, once Lord Mayor of London and a leading financier who reportedly helped Arsenal out of their economic troubles back in the 1950s. The image he projected was however of pompous self-importance. It was hard for any Arsenal fan to forgive him for forcing the little Scottish playmaker and fulcrum of the team Jimmy Logie out of Highbury. This because Logie had refused at the end of a supposedly friendly game versus Moscow Spartak, at Highbury, to shake hands with the Russian referee, Nikolai Latychev. Yes; the very same Latychev who had made such a dog’s dinner of officiating the Arsenal-Moscow Dynamo “fog farce” at Tottenham — where the Gunners were then playing — in November 1945.

Insisting, in conditions of almost zero visibility, of stationing himself on one side of the field with both his linesmen on the other! None of which stopped him from refereeing the 1962 World Cup Final in Chile. I saw it; he did well enough that day. At all events, when Arsenal’s players staged a Christmas celebration, Bracewell-Smith blatantly refused to shake hands with Logie who not long afterwards drifted into non-League football at Gravesend, menial jobs, dying an early drink-ridden death.

Jack Kelsey, Arsenal’s accomplished Welsh international ’keeper in the 50s, once told me, of Bracewell-Smith, “He comes down to the dressing rooms now before a game and gives us advice. Silly little things like, ‘pass to a man!’”

None of which reflects on the maltreated Lady Nina, who has bitterly declared: “I’m in total shock and very upset about the appalling way I have been treated. I can’t understand why I have been removed in such a ruthless fashion.” It might have something to do with the fact that she disagreed with the recent appointment as top executive of Ivan Gazidis, an Englishman who has long worked in American soccer. But her views seem regularly to have been brushed aside. Now, however, she is free to do what she likes with her shares, having previously announced that she would not sell them. There is even talk of a Middle Eastern takeover at Arsenal.

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