Sunday 18 March 2018

Arsenal chief executive believes Wenger is key to prolonged success

Arsène Wenger still Arsenal's manager for all seasons Photo: Getty Images
Arsène Wenger still Arsenal's manager for all seasons Photo: Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Ivan Gazidis has good reason to feel optimistic. Off the pitch Arsenal have just posted half-yearly profits of £35.2m, and on it they have moved to within three points of Chelsea at the top of the Premier League.

The chief executive and his directors are now hoping that Arsène Wenger, whose trophy haul makes him the club's most decorated manager and who has given Arsenal a genuine chance of becoming league champions again, will surpass even Sir Alex Ferguson in the age at which he manages the club.

Wenger turned 60 this season but the directors hope that he will emulate or even surpass Ferguson who, at 68, is still going strong.

"I think it is very difficult to encapsulate in any succinct way what Arsène Wenger has done for this club," says Gazidis.

"His discipline and his vision are why we are in a new stadium and why we are redefining the way the game can be played. He has created a young squad that has a tremendous future without having the resources that some other teams have.

"Those achievements are down to Arsène's sense of responsibility not to himself but to the club. When he interviewed for the job, Danny Fiszman [an Arsenal director] asked him what are your ambitions for the club? Arsène said: 'That when I leave, it will be in a better state than when I arrived.'

"I think Arsène has accomplished that but I also think his legacy is not written yet. There's no diminishment in his passion, competitive edge or ambition. Arsène's work is not finished."

Of Wenger's contract, which expires next year, Gazidis said: "It's very low key and it will get done at the right time."

As well as Wenger, the grand vision will ultimately depend upon keeping the current squad of players together, a priority which has involved diverting resources to 17 contract extensions since the end of last season.

"We have probably the best club stadium in the world and the youngest squad in the entire Premier League which is competing to win the league this year – that would be unprecedented for a team this age," said Gazidis.

Wenger is helping Arsenal write the latest chapter in the club's illustrious history.

"This room," Gazidis says, as he leans back on the chair behind his desk, "is where it all happened. It was the managing director's original office at Highbury and we had it moved here."

With its beautiful wood panelling and elegant cabinet full of memorabilia, you can almost taste the history and only imagine some of the conversations that must have taken place over the past century within the very same four walls.

Gazidis is acutely aware of Arsenal's past but, just as the old boardroom was also moved from Highbury to a new site overlooking the Emirates Stadium, he knows that his job as chief executive is to successfully transport the club's rich history into the modern football world.

"It's such an unusual and interesting combination of things," he says. "It's a deeply traditional club but has always had this tradition of innovation. When you think about the Marble Halls of Arsenal and the Bank of England club you might think of a stuffy place with cobwebs in the corners.

"You probably don't imagine a French manager with a radically different vision for how the game should be played with a spaceship stadium in the middle of London."

The club have announced a drop of £130m in an overall debt figure that now relates almost exclusively to the loan on building the Emirates.

With many of their competitors having to deal with rather less healthy debt or huge operating losses that depend on a wealthy billionaire benefactor, the Arsenal business model remains arguably the most impressive across English football.

"We are not in competition with Real Madrid or Manchester City to spend £80m on a player," says Gazidis. "That is not sustainable for any club and certainly not for us. There is no such thing as a free lunch and I think that people who think that there is are naïve or thinking in a very short-term way. I think all clubs are trying to get towards a self-sustainable model. We are in the fortunate position of already being there."

For all the logic in that sentiment, success in football is largely measured by silverware and, and the five-year gap since landing the 2005 FA Cup is acknowledged.

"It is something we are very aware of," says Gazidis. "The ultimate aspiration is not to produce a wonderful business model, the reason we adhere to those principles is so that we can preserve the values of the club and create the foundation on which we can deliver success on the pitch."

Yet if stability has been evident in the dugout and on the pitch, there remains less certainty regarding the club's future ownership. Stan Kroenke, the American sports team owner, is just 17 shares short of the 30pc threshold that would require a full takeover bid.

"Shareholders are likely to be people that subscribe to our model and Stan Kroenke obviously does," says Gazidis. "He has been a significant contributor to the board. He is a sports fan who happens to have enough money to invest in sports teams who doesn't have a massive ego.

"He believes that the manager should be in charge of what happens on the pitch and his role is to support the manager - not to make a big fuss about his involvement."

With the backing of Kroenke and the old guard of chairman Peter Hill-Wood and director Ken Friar, Gazidis is also in the process of drawing up a new strategic vision which he hopes will be both "cutting edge" in thrusting Arsenal forward and true to the club's heritage.

"After the days of the money culture, I think people are looking for something more meaningful in their lives," he says.

"I think a football club is a community of shared values. Our ultimate objective has to be to win trophies – it's critical – but equally critical to us is to do it in a way that will make our fans and community proud."

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