The Christmas Sales have started earlier than normal this year. Whilst fighting your way through the crowds for the latest Wii or iPod – how does anyone use the new iPod shuffle? My thumb covers the whole of it – you can scoop up a bargain in the Premiership’s equivalent of a bring and buy sale.
The news that Liverpool have finally made positive steps towards new owners of the club brings to a close the most protracted drama since Dirty Den went missing for the first time in Eastenders. Following on so soon from the West Ham takeover, the timing is coincidental but highlights a wider issue facing Arsenal, something that will be addressed in the near future, namely when will they be taken over?
You will notice the word “when” not “if”. A glance at the Premiership table will tell you why; of the teams that can be remotely considered to be “cash generators”, there is only Arsenal and Newcastle United left who are ripe for new ownership. The latter is reportedly already available for those with sufficient funding behind them with Freddie Shepherd reportedly wanting to front a bid to buyout the Hall’s or sell the club completely. Irrespective of league success (or lack of it in any competition), The Toon are viewed as a big club mainly for their ability to achieve a high average attendance as a percentage of stadium capacity and the attendant commercial revenues are there to be exploited even further should they ever be able to escape the stigma of Shepherd’s comments some years ago, which they probably could if people such as myself would let them.
With Manchester City admitting at their AGM that exploratory talks were underway that could lead to new investment, the rush to invest in Premiership clubs is now reaching the point where it could be called a stampede. UEFA are now actively pursuing ways to implement a salary cap to prevent a gulf between “the haves and have nots” according to their spokesman, William Gaillard. Bearing in mind that this is a man who appears to shoot from the lip with a speed that would shame Simon Jordan or Ken Bates, not too much can be read into the wording he uses but the principle is one that is long cherished of the Footballing Authorities hierarchies. However, the fundmental problem with UEFA’s stance is that it would probably contravene European Anti-Competition laws and misses the point as to why English football is so appealing. Certainly the cash involved (along with the Real Estate values of most stadia) but more importantly, the ease with which an investor can back a club. With Italian club football’s star waning, the footballing hotspots are England and Spain. It is extremely difficult for an investor to break into the Spanish market due to the Socio ownership structure there so everyone wants their kopeks or dollars into England. Equally spurious are UEFA’s concerns about English clubs falling into foreign ownership. For an organisation that openly promotes the movement of assets across borders without impugnity as long as the correct paperwork is in place (how very European), it is hypocritical to then complain about the owners of said businesses not being nationals of the countries in which they operate. So much for Globalisation.
There were of course rumours earlier this year of an impending takeover at Arsenal that came to nought; the question is not as to how long it can be fended off but more importantly, is it in the best interests of the club for the Board to do so? Do not misunderstand me; I have no overall issue with the current ownership / stewardship of the club. In trying circumstances, they have managed to build a new stadium as well as allowing the manager sufficient leeway to maintain a relatively successful team. For sure there have been some dubious PR displays but money does not guarantee success on that front at all. If that were the case, Chelsea would be the most popular club in the world instead of one of the most reviled.
It is not even a case of the richer clubs pulling away from Arsenal in the short-term. On the playing side, Arsene Wenger has accumulated a squad that if it reaches its full potential has sufficient youthfulness to actively compete on the pitch for five years. There are plus and minus points in this; positives are that it allows the next crop of youngsters to come through at perhaps a more leisurely pace rather than being thrown in at the deep end. The minus is that positive – the next generations have to come through otherwise substantial sums may require spending in the transfer market, money that may not necessarily be there.
But it is not the richer clubs which should be causing concern. It is that the pack of mediocrity below them could get closer. Looking at the Premiership this season, there are a number of clubs under new ownership or with wealthy backers. Whilst they may not be able to compete in monetary terms at the moment, a new investor who perhaps cannot afford a club such as Arsenal, may be able to boost their ego by getting involved at, for example, Manchester City which may make them more competitive on the pitch. Money does not automatically guarantee success; Leeds are the most obvious example of that but investment can lead to sustainable mediocrity. This makes them as opponents more likely to throw the proverbial spanner in the works in terms of results. They may not be able to compete at present with Arsenal but it would only take another phase of rebuilding to be required for them to be a dangerous opponent; both Liverpool and Arsenal can over the past two seasons identify with a struggle to attain a Champions League place, something that in previous campaigns has been achieved without even a passing thought for what the teams in fifth and sixth place have achieved on any given Premiership weekend.
The major factor in any sale would rely on the individual(s) involved, perhaps more than at any other clubs. Please bear in mind that any cheap shots over the next few sentences can make a serious point. Of the big four English teams, only Arsenal and Liverpool can claim with any justification to have remained true to their roots to any degree. Manchester United have long been a commercially driven organisation and must be respected for their success in pursuing that course of action. The downside of that was that they became vunerable to takeover as soon as they listed on the Stock Exchange and prior to the Glazer’s successful bid, had long been the focus of takeover bids – real or otherwise – from such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell amongst others. Chelsea as the “Johnny Come Lately’s” to the Big Four had no history in terms of Corporate Culture to speak of so the Abramovich-era has seen them create one for themselves, which they are obviously happy with. Liverpool meanwhile, like Arsenal, have been for many years owned by one group of investors. A realisation that they cannot move the club to the next level, primarily a new stadium without impacting on the playing side, has necessitated the search for new investors.
Which leaves Arsenal. And they are a hefty proposition for anyone to take on. Financially, the new stadium is a costly venture but that it is mortgaged so a new owner would need to be able to satisfy not just the Board but also the Lenders that there were no plans to make that investment “insecure”. Presumably, it would rule out a bid from someone in the same boat as the Glazers, ie borrowing considerable funds to buy the club unless clearing that indebtedness was one of the criterian for lending the money in the first place which would surely be the case. The question is whether that makes the club any more secure, the answer has to be “no”. However, if someone or a Group of similiar financial stature as Abramovich or the DIC were to bid, with the ability to remove the mortgage, Arsenal are a very attractive proposition. A stadium that sells out every week with substantial property revenues still to come, allied to a solid commercial base with room to grow and a wages policy that has most clubs looking in envy at its sensibility? Good returns are not guaranteed but have a strong realisable potential.
The second and equally high hurdle to clear is the Board’s (publicly stated at least) requirement that any new owner appreciate “The Arsenal Way” of conducting themselves. The club are by no means squeaky clean but have a reputation of being the equivalent of an English Gentleman. Whether that is a true aim of the Board remains to be seen; after all, if someone comes up with an offer that cannot be refused, do they value the club’s reputation ahead of their own investment or the ability to unencumber the playing side of the equation?
I have no doubt that before the end of 2007, most likely a group of investors will be coming to The Emirates with their cash. How that will be received remains to be seen.