16 October 2014

One question that won't get asked at the Annual General Meeting

Here we go, right as the we're about to return to some proper footballing action: the Annual General Meeting. It's sure to provide a fair amount of sturm und drang with pointed questions put to Stan Kroenke, Ivan Gazidis, Arsène and others who hold the purse-strings of a club so many of us love so dearly. Given the power that these and other men hold over the present and future of Arsenal, we have a right to know what's been going on and what plans they have for what should happen in the future. However, given what's gone on in the last decade, what with our own trophy-drought, slaked if only temporary by the FA Cup win, and with goings-on elsewhere, I have one question that I wish would get asked. It won't result in any shocking revelations about transfer-fees, cash reserves, or ticket-prices. Worse, it's a hypothetical question.

Without further ado or buildup, then, here it is:
Arsène, knowing what you know now, would you still have committed to building the Emirates Stadium?
It's water under a bridge, I know. Heck, we've burned the bridge. It's a bridge too far and we can't go back. We're up the river with no paddle. I'm running out of idioms.  What can I say? I'm an idiot without an iota of sense.

On a more-serious level, the decision to leave Highbury, fraught with as many emotions as it was, still stands as a momentous one. It might very well stand as one of the most important decisions in the club's history. By the time that work was completed in 2006, we had almost doubled seating capacity from Highbury's 38,419 to 60,272. For comparison's sake, Highbury's capacity would strand us with the eleventh-largest stadium in England, behind Leeds United's Elland Road. (but still larger than White Hart Lane).

The new stadium would hamstring us for most of the rest decade while also propelling us forward into the future, perhaps uniquely equipping us with the internal financial resources to make us one of the best clubs in the Prem, if not the world. After all, who else could take a club that had already achieved so much and use that as a foundation, as a stepping-off point, rather than a destination?

However, as we all know, forces beyond Arsène's control, perhaps beyond his vision, conspired. The arrivals and acquisitiveness of Abramovich and Mansour cut in. Like a driver who uses the turn-lane to pass you on the right, these owners launched Chelsea and Man City ahead of Arsenal, who perhaps overcomitted ahead of time to such antiquated notions of using one's turn signal and coming to a full-stop at stop-signs. It's almost as if we pre-committed to a series of FFP-like restrictions while everyone else was driving as fast as they pleased.

Which brings me back to my question: would Arsène have embarked on building the Emirates if he had known ahead of time that oligarchs would jump past him?

Perhaps more maddeningly, we've had in the passenger-seat a driver who could very-well take the wheel and overtake those overweening oligarchs. Stan Kroenke. "The Most Powerful Man in Sports". He of the mysterious £3m annual payment and the less-mysterious £3.3b net worth. He's like the forbidden fruit, for he could swoop in, like Abramovich, and spend us out of our misery. With him at the wheel, we might have held onto Cole or Fabregas or van Persie; we might have signed Toure or Mata or Hazard. The mind boggles.

And yet, the original question persists. Would Arsène have committed this club to a new, state-of-the-art stadium had he known what would happen in the years to come? We're just now starting to reap the fruits of the seeds sown a decade ago. Özil and Alexis are just a beginning. No, they're not enough to make up for a decade of orgiastic spending at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad. Then again, the spending over there is ebbing while ours seems to be surging. "The best laid plans o' mice an' men," John Steinbeck once wrote, "oft' go awry." For the British purists, Steinbeck was alluding to Robert Burns who offered "the best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley".

In the short term, yes, we may feel like our plans and schemes have gone awry (or "agley"). In this same short term, it's easy to fret and worry that none of the pieces will fall into place, not when others seem so eager to scatter them willy-nilly. However, at some point in the very near future, we'll start to see whether our own plans have gone awry or, as I suspect, exactly as planned. Building the new stadium may have put us on a path towards a kind of financial stability that others will envy, gnashing their teeth and rending garments (mostly their own) along the way.

I doubt we'll get any answers to our predicament at the AGM on Thursday. Heck, we may have to wait until January (whether it greets us with a signing or two or a "like a new signing" return from injury). More likely, we'll witness a glorified presser in which questions more difficult than mine are posed and parried. While you're pursing your lips and clenching your jaw, ask yourself, deep down, would you really go the route that Chelsea and City have gone? If it's trophies you want every year, no questions asked, I think you know your way to Stamford Bridge.

For me, I hope you don't mind if I quote Dennis Bergkamp: "I really like Arsenal. But you, do you like Arsenal or just Arsenal with trophies?" Through thick and thin, I'll stand by this club. If these count as thin years, well, with Bergkamp as my witness, I'll take them.

As for Kroenke, the would-be miracle-working, deus ex machina? Yes, he could Abramovich-ize us. However, on my short-list of people whose teeth I would like to punch down their throats, he's top-five. There are those who would love nothing more than to see Arsène retire or be put out to pasture, all the better to see someone like Kroenke or Usmanov pave the way to glory. All that glitters isn't gold, however. I don't love this club for the automatic ends it achieves. I love this club for the methods and means it uses to achieve those ends.