What is a football club? Is it the bricks and mortar that provide its physical structure? The players and coaches who are responsible for shaping its fate and pursuing its ambitions on the pitch? Or the supporters, who through their collective expression of identity and deep emotional attachment supply a club with its soul?
If you lean towards the third option, it’s hard not to feel that a part of Arsenal’s soul died this week.
Arsenal, which with its marble halls and conception of doing things the “Arsenal way” has always had a fond sense of its own history, will never quite be the same again after the news emerged that majority shareholder Stan Kroenke had toppled the last remaining barrier to sole ownership by convincing Alisher Usmanov to sell his 30.05 percent stake in the club for around £600 million. With 97 percent of the club now in his possession, Kroenke can and will force the remaining shareholders to sell up.
For the first time since a group of workers at the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory joined together to form a football club in 1886, Arsenal will be the sole private interest of one individual. Supporters who were proud to be shareholders and act on behalf of their contemporaries in a custodial role will have their investment forcibly removed from them. A Rubicon has been crossed.
In practical terms, it will essentially be business as usual — at least for now. Arsenal’s refusal to allow Usmanov onto the board means that Kroenke has effectively been running the club as he likes in any case. This is no leap into the unknown under a new owner; indeed, Arsenal fans are only too aware of Kroenke’s hands-off approach. His desire to run Arsenal as a self-sufficient entity without needing to dip into his own pockets is well established.
But if it carries minimal practical weight, the emotional toll exacted by this week’s announcement is nevertheless substantial. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust described it as a “dreadful” development for the club. Leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has voiced his regret that “this sale will bring to an end the longstanding official role of Arsenal supporters in the running of the club.”
Even if supporter oversight and investment in Arsenal had waned in the face of Kroenke’s expanding ownership and stony-faced silence, it still existed in a very real sense. Minor shareholders could still attend Annual General Meetings (AGMs) and voice their concerns, asking probing questions of the Arsenal hierarchy. They feel they had some say, however small, in the direction of the club.
Even if their questions were sometimes met with an arrogant response from various chairmen, the AGMs maintained an important link between the club and its supporters: a reminder that Arsenal was at heart a collective enterprise still beholden to its community. Mirroring the wider trend in football, that link will now be severed entirely. Arsenal, a whole club with a verdant history and millions of supporters around the globe, will be the sole property of one man. Frankly, it’s unthinkable.
When Kroenke made his first investment in Arsenal, purchasing 9.9 percent of the club in 2007, then-chairman Peter Hill-Wood, bristling with indignation, said the other shareholders would be “horrified to see the club go across the Atlantic.” Hill-Wood’s suspicion of Kroenke mellowed pretty quickly as the American began working alongside him on the board and started buying up his shareholding, but today his words ring true in a very real sense.
Divorced from any oversight from supporters at home, and with no requirement to open up the financials in public fashion, Kroenke can effectively decide the future of the club from his base in Delaware. Arsenal can now be officially registered in America. In an administrative sense, they can become every bit as American as the other assets in his portfolio: the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Rapids.
The days when football clubs were run as benevolent social institutions, of and for the local community, are long gone. Full supporter ownership of a sports behemoth valued at £1.8 billion by the Kroenke takeover is a utopian dream rendered impossible by the financial realities of an engorged industry. But before this week, Arsenal at least paid lip service to the notion that supporters could match emotional investment with financial investment and have some sense of ownership over their club. Now, those supporters are utterly powerless.
Of course, Arsenal will carry on. Games will be won, lost and drawn, players will be moved in and out, matchday tickets will be purchased and message boards and social media sites will be a constantly flickering hive of debate, impassioned argument and general ridiculousness. If Arsenal are wildly successful under Unai Emery, then most people probably won’t even care. But underneath it all the fabric of Arsenal, and that fundamental relationship between a club and its supporters, has changed forever.