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Wenger gets guns blazing

IT is rude to look in through windows, but strolling across the car park at Arsenal's training ground it is impossible to ignore the sight of Arsene Wenger chatting in his office with Ivan Gazidis, the club's chief executive.

Wenger has his hands clasped behind the back of his head. Both men are smiling, possibly at the idea, floated some five weeks ago, that Arsenal were in crisis.

There was never a crisis, even after the chastening 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea that left them 11 points adrift of the Premier League's summit in late November, but without question the atmosphere around Arsenal is as positive as it has been for some time.

The deficit has been reduced to four points, with a game in hand, and, with their rivals struggling, the platform for a title challenge is in place. Off the pitch, after a period of relative turmoil in the Arsenal boardroom, there is calm and none of the innuendo that surrounds Liverpool and Manchester United. Yes there is debt, but there are big profits, in contrast to the huge losses announced recently by Chelsea and Manchester City.

Gazidis is not the smug type, but he is certainly happy about where Arsenal lie in January 2010. Would he swap places with David Gill at United, Ron Gourlay at Chelsea, Christian Purslow at Liverpool or Garry Cook at City? Almost certainly not.

Nor would Wenger swap places with any of his rival managers. Both men believe that a golden era is beckoning at the Emirates Stadium, an era when glorious football and huge crowds are joined at last by the missing ingredient: trophies.

"There is always pressure to win trophies at a club like this and we think we can win trophies this year," Gazidis says. "We're going to be right in the mix. You never know what fortune holds for you, but we believe we have a squad that will be very much in the mix for any competition we enter over the next five years.

"There is no question in my mind that this club is going to be very successful in delivering trophies to its fans consistently in that period."

The reference to five years inevitably gives rise to questions about Wenger, who is 60 years old and has yet to open talks on an extension to his contract, which expires at the end of next season.

"We are very relaxed about Arsene's contract," Gazidis says. "At the right time we and Arsene will talk about extending that. Typically with Arsene those discussions happen towards the end of the contract period.

"But we're extraordinarily happy with him. It's difficult for me to imagine anything other than Arsene leading the team forward with this young group of players.

"There's a huge amount of ambition left in Arsene and a huge amount of vision and legacy that has yet to be achieved."

Legacy: the very word might send a collective shudder around the Emirates Stadium because it floats the idea of life after Wenger. The Frenchman, according to Gazidis, has "defined the modern Arsenal with his vision, his commitment and his sense of responsibility".

Without question Wenger has built something lasting, something for the long term, but his philosophy is so unique that, perhaps even more than Alex Ferguson at United, he looks close to irreplaceable.

"I'm hesitant to talk about a time after Arsene because he's in great health and I hope he will keep going longer than Alex Ferguson," Gazidis says. "But at the same time we have to be aware that the club is bigger than anybody -- any owner, which is why I talk about the self-sustaining model, and any individual -- and that some day, which I believe will be a long time from now, Arsene is going to say, 'I've done enough, I want to spend some time with my family', or whatever it is that he decides.

"The club needs to be prepared to continue the traditions that he has built. I'm conscious, and Arsene is conscious, that what he has created here needs to continue after him, so it's imperative that we take those values, that vision, that legacy, and institutionalise it and take it forward. Arsene will be a big part of that when the time comes."

Does that mean, for example, Wenger identifying a successor who he could then spend the coming years grooming for the role?

"I think it's too early to talk about that," Gazidis says. "We are so focused on what we're doing with the team and what our ambition is for the next five years.

"There's no thought being given to that yet. But, as you point out, it can't be that the entire club depends on one individual, no matter how great that individual is."



Ownership

Reliance on individuals is something Gazidis feels strongly about where club ownership is concerned.

Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's billionaire owner, wants to make the club self-sufficient, but their losses of £44.4m in the last financial year suggested that his vision is some way off; City announced this week that they lost a staggering £92.6m in their first season under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour; Arsenal, by contrast, made a profit of £35.2m last year and, with debts of £297m now fully under control, their financial position, while not ideal, looks rosy.

"There were a lot of questions when I came in 12 months ago about Highbury Square (the property development on the site of Arsenal's former stadium), but we have made tremendous progress with that and it's fairly clear that we're going to make a profit from it," Gazidis adds. "The other debt is associated with the stadium and that is tied in at very good rates long term.

"Not all debt is bad. Our debt has allowed us to build a new home which will take us into the future in a very healthy way and is extremely affordable. Financially, the club is extremely well set.

"As we continue to grow, as a business and as a club, we're going to be able to be successful as far as the eye can see.



Confidence

"I don't want to talk about other clubs, but the great thing about this club is that we can say with confidence that providing we don't live beyond our resources, providing we don't depend on outside funding for our success, we will compete at the very highest levels for the foreseeable future. That is a very strong position to be in."

That is a view shared by Stan Kroenke, the American sports tycoon, and Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek billionaire, who respectively own 29.9pc and 26pc of the club. Gazidis cannot speculate about the intentions of either man, due to Takeover Panel regulations, but he says: "We're very comfortable with the multi-ownership position that we're in. The club has great stability.

"We've got a good functioning board and the financial ability to operate without being dependent on any individual.

"Unless and until somebody crosses the 30pc threshold (that would trigger a compulsory bid), there's really not very much happening. I've had no indication that anything fundamental is likely to change."

Things at Arsenal are just fine as they are. Kroenke and Usmanov, like everyone at the Emirates Stadium, should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

©The Times, London


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