"Seven trophyless years" has become a byword at Arsenal, an epithet with which Arsenal fans are taunted. Seven trophyless years, the fruit of lack of ambition.
So the narrative goes.
This has become a defining marker for Arsenal, so much so that at the end of the FA Cup replay between the club and Swansea City, the camera's final shot was of the figures "2005," engraved on one of the terraces of the Emirates stadium. The figures were zoomed on to rather deliberately to highlight the year the club won its last trophy.
2005—seven long years.
The commentator of this match touched upon this with a rather portentous voice: "If they do not win anything this year they'd have gone eight years without a trophy."
"Trophyless" has become the scarlet letter for Arsenal, a brand of shame.
It is the word a Chelsea fan needs utter, and off scurries the Arsenal fan away in shame. It is the word some troll needs write and a website goes haywire, fury answering fury. Say "trophyless" and there is an immediate buzz, with people falling over themselves in their haste to name the one to blame for this ignominy.
So, who is to blame?
Below, I examine Peter Hill-Wood.
For a section of Arsenal fans, someone over 70 years old should not be running a football club. Advance age for these fans means purblindness or dimmed vision and certainly diminished powers. For some, he is synonymous with lack of ambition.
But is this really the case?
The myth about Hill-Wood centers around the idea that he possesses no ambition for the club, that he cares less for trophies—the most important part of a club's reason for existence—and rather more for making profit for the club and for the owner, even certainly for himself.
If we focus on trophies alone, then there indeed is some justification for this assumption. Even an infant knows what should be done to win trophies: sign quality players; but this hasn't been the case at Arsenal in the last seven years. Instead, the club has sold its players, and who should be held responsible for this but the club chairman?
To say, though, that there haven’t been quality players at Arsenal in the last seven years is to bandy falsehood around. If there hasn’t been quality players at Arsenal, who then have some top clubs deemed fit to buy, dross?
If the responsibility for Arsenal's lot should be laid squarely at the feet of Mr. Hill-Wood, then we have to say that he has presided over a prodigious period at Arsenal in terms of player production: quality players that top, rich clubs have snatched away—the chief culprits being Manchester City and Barcelona.
There has been quality at Arsenal; the only problem has been the club's inability to retain this quality, and the reason why isn't difficult to see; although, for some who eschew reason, no mitigating factors should be considered.
Eschewing all reasoning is the same factor that makes a number of fans base their judgment and conclusions on signing players alone: world-class players.
But if one asks, "could Arsenal have afforded truly world-class players in the last seven years?" The right answer would be no. This could not have been done without sinking it into debt and thus endangering its very existence.
It is the same reason—inability to afford world-class players—that made the club lose some of its best players (although in some cases there were other militating factors).
But why hasn't the club been able to afford top players or retain its own? The answer, of course, is what has become the big elephant in the room: the stadium. For some, this is the refrain that has become tiresome.
Fans and Supporters
But for any person who calls himself or herself an Arsenal supporter, despising this huge achievement—something that every Arsenal supporter should celebrate—tells me that the person is nothing but a fan.
There is a distinction between a supporter and a fan. The latter is more or exactly like being a fan of a movie star or of the latest fad. The element of attraction is the glitter and the euphoria. Once these fade or become wanting altogether, the fan slinks away, or turns into an antagonist or an outright enemy.
The multiplication of fans is responsible for the toxic environment that surrounds many a club these days. The Web and cable television make it easy for the multiplication of fans, and, of course, these fans are vocal. They always are at hand with quick fixes. In fact, they have become experts at coaching and management.
The supporter on the other hand is more measured.
Certainly, he or she is exactly what his name implies: He supports the club. When things aren't exactly as he or she would have them, he or she examines the issue thoroughly, gives credit where it is due and makes constructive criticism.
It is to such that I write this article, and certainly to such do I take the time to write at all. Supporters of Arsenal (not mere fans) know that Arsenal can't be what it is today without the stadium. I have treated this topic in this article.
Fans ask: "Why can't a top club, one of the richest clubs in Europe, afford top players?" What they forget to ask is what made Arsenal one of the richest clubs in Europe, the answer to which is the stadium.
What one finds is people wanting to eat their cake and have it, too.
You hate the stadium but delight in boasting about the benefits it has bestowed. The name for this is hypocrisy. Such people abrogate their right to make criticism. If you are unwilling to give credit where it is due and are unwilling to consider militating and mitigating factors within an issue, then you have little or no right to open your mouth to make criticism.
The fact is, without this maligned stadium, Arsenal wouldn't be where they are today. In fact, there is no guarantee that Arsenal would have won anything at all had they even remained at Highbury. Certainly, the income they'd generate there wouldn't be enough to afford the world-class players that the fans clamor for.
As I observed in the aforementioned article (again find it here), it was jealousy for Arsenal and for its future that led the Arsenal board to seek a bigger ground, a place that would generate enough money to enable Arsenal to compete with the top clubs in Europe—clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and so on.
It was after the stadium was built that the value of the club rose. The problem, though, is that a number of fans mistake value with cash in hand—two different things. The fact that Arsenal are among the richest clubs in the world (owing to the club's value) does not mean that it has cash in hand to spend.
Even if you take a census of the money the club generates annually, you have to account for expenses. You first have to pay wages and other monies (including paying off the stadium debt and money that must be in reserve in service of the same debt). Only then can you say I have so and so amount to spend.
Even after that, say you are left with £40 million to spend, what's that in today's over-inflated transfer market?
Think, for example, that Wesley Sneijder is said to be demanding a salary of £240 thousand a week after tax to come to Liverpool (see this Mirror article by David Maddock), or that Edinson Cavani in whom Arsenal have shown interest has £52 million clause in his contract. (See this article by Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph.) You see quickly from these two examples that £40 million is nothing, really, in today's scheme of things.
But say you take that £40 million and buy one player, with what money will you pay his salary? Such real factors have hindered Arsenal in the last seven years. In these years, Arsenal has been quietly paying off its stadium debt. It is only now that the debt has been reduced to a manageable proportion.
Only now can Arsenal begin again to afford more expensive players. But even so, it still cannot afford every kind of player.
In terms of vision, I believe those who accuse Peter Hill-Wood of lacking it haven't really examined the issue.
Two opposing camps vied with each other prior to the move to the Emirates stadium: those who wanted to stay at Highbury or else wanted to rent the Wembley Stadium, and those who wanted a bigger ground, something to be in service of the club's future.
David Dein was a champion of the first idea. But he, himself, realized that staying at Highbury or renting the Wembley Stadium would render Arsenal incapable of competing financially with the top clubs. It was the reason he sought a patron; someone to inject cash into the club—someone akin to Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.
In Stan Kroenke he thought he had found that someone, proceeding to encourage the man to buy shares in Arsenal, a move vigorously opposed to by Mr. Hill-Wood and others.
For Hill-Wood, Arsenal was an English club, a club with a rich tradition; he could not abide the idea of selling the club to someone who knew "sweet FA" about football. The idea of a Kroenke takeover or of someone else led to the rancor that ensued in the Arsenal board, a rancor that claimed many heads.
It led Danny Fiszman to aggressively buy a number of shares in a bid to forestall a Kroenke takeover. But for his battle with cancer, which eventually took his life, Fiszman was poised to become the majority shareholder. In fact, he was the majority shareholder at the time he succumbed and sold to Kroenke.
All this took place after the move to the new stadium had been completed.
Hill-Wood, Fiszman and others stood for the second idea, the idea that Arsenal needed a bigger ground if the club was at all to catch up with Manchester United and other top clubs.
Whereas, Dein's vision was focused just on the now (think of the story of Esau focused on the transient comfort of the bowl of soup rather than on the long-time benefit of his birthright), Hill-Wood was thinking of the future.
As a supporter, I know who the better visionary was.
Had Dein had his way, Arsenal would be in the shoes of Liverpool today. Maybe they would have won a trophy or two in the last seven years; but the fact of the matter is, they would simply be a wee club—a club no better than Tottenham Hotspur or Newcastle United in terms of real financial prospects.
Hill-Wood's vision and his love for the club led him to think of the future, of Arsenal's lot in the coming years. He never wanted the club sold to a foreigner, to a mere businessman.
If he and other board members eventually sold their shares to Stan Kroenke it was because Dein had turned around and brought in another person (Alisher Usmanov) after he realized that Kroenke wasn't the spending type.
Hill-Wood and Co., owing to the fact that Fiszman was dying and couldn't consolidate his position at Arsenal, and since apparently none of the board members had enough money to buy out other board members and block Usmanov and Kroenke, had to sell to the lesser of the two looming evils: Kroenke and Usmanov.
They chose Kroenke, because in him, they saw a man who would leave Arsenal alone, someone who might not load Arsenal with the same problems that the Glazers brought to Manchester United.
Some say that the board members have been there only for their pocket, but this simply is insinuation without a shard of evidence. David Conn of The Guardian spoke of Hill-Wood's shares which he eventually sold to Kroenke as being held in the family "for three generations without ever making a penny from Arsenal."
Yes, he did sell and profited thereof, but it was only when apparently there was no other option but to do so. When, at his advent at Arsenal, Dein bought shares in Arsenal, Hill-Wood considered the money dead.
This wasn't a person who was there thinking of money.
The fact that Arsenal has not been paying dividends to shareholders means the rumor that board members are simply lining their pockets is just that. (Rumor-mongers like to throw stuff around without evidence, and so do conspiracy theorists. "Surely, those guys must be eating the money. Anyone on the Arsenal board has to have been eating money.")
To conclude, consider the following:
For someone who has only cared for his own profit, Hill-Wood considered buying shares in Arsenal dead money. Surely, an opportunist would see that any investment in the club would accrue over years.
Secondly, it wasn't Hill-Wood who brought the so-called investors to the club, such that he could be accused of hunting for an opportunity to sell his now-appreciated shares to make his millions after the stadium move had been made. Dein was responsible for bringing Kroenke and then Usmanov to Arsenal and thus causing the unrest that ensued.
For Hill-Wood, the stadium would be financed exactly the way it was, without some personal oligarch somewhere, someone who'd then hold Arsenal ransom.
After this, Arsenal would economize and gradually pay off the stadium debt. This would cause Arsenal some pain, but eventually the club would come out of the woods. This exactly is what has happened. Mistakes have been made, of course, but what human being is without mistakes?
Thirdly, to ensure that the club's future prospect would be bright, the stadium debt would be managed properly. Arsenal would take care not to incur some other debts, because in doing so, the club could fall into bankruptcy.
The stadium debt has been managed excellently, and Arsenal (due to prudent financial management) is not in debt. Hill-Wood has to be lauded for this.
Fourthly, vision for the future (not the instant gratification of the now) led Hill-Wood and his fellow board members to execute a move to a new stadium without any oligarch or oil tycoon footing the bill. No other club has been able to do this. This move has led Arsenal to appreciate financially, and if things continue as planned, the club should go on to achieve better things than have happened in the so-called trophyless years.
Am I then saying that Hill-Wood is without fault?
By no means.
There have been times that a key signing (not necessary an expensive player)—say a Christopher Samba or such like—could have won a trophy for Arsenal.
Many supporters have understood that Arsenal could not have afforded the so-called world-class players. The frustration has been in the areas where Arsenal could have afforded a player, and in areas where, with a little more effort (or ruthlessness), the club could have retained this or that player.
Surely, here, Hill-Wood can be criticized.
But to criticize without due consideration of the things I have highlighted above is, as far as I’m concerned, for a person to lose the right and the credibility to do so.
In the next issue I will examine Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke.