Examining whether Arsenal chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, is really fit for his post

Perhaps no individual at Arsenal Football Club has polarised fans more in recent years than Ivan Gazidis. It does not seem to matter whether you are on Facebook, Twitter, or reading one of the various Arsenal forums or blogs, Ivan seems to get the blame for everything from the cost of a halftime hot dog at The Emirates to the fact we didn’t buy a player valued at €50 million (regardless of (a) whether or not he was a player required to enhance the squad; (b) available for purchase from the club that owned him; and or (c) the competition from other more wealthy clubs). Often the moaning fans go on to reminisce about the “good old days” when dear old Mr David Dein was in charge and the club was winning trebles and buying the greatest players in world football (oh wait, that did not actually happen did it).

Any frequent visitor to this blog, or long time follower of mine on Twitter, will know that I am not adverse to playing Devil’s Advocate when I feel it is necessary to try to see another point of view. Indeed, I did this not so long ago in regards to Mr Darren Dein, Football Agent extraordinaire. However, in this instance I do not believe that it is necessary for me to play Devil’s Advocate on behalf of Mr Gazidis as the criticism, nay dare I say abuse, of his abilities, is deeply wrong and foolish, especially if as many seem to want to compare him to that supposed Messiah of Arsenal FC, David Dein.

Now for those who may think I hold some personal issue with David and Darren Dein let me try to assuage your fears and honestly say that I really do not. Please do read my previous post on Darren Dein which I believe I wrote in a fairly objective manner, even if I do say so myself. Furthermore, let me begin by saying that there can be no denying that David has a great “football brain”, perhaps the best there was or ever has been in the Premier League, for someone who was not a coach but instead a Board Member. He clearly was never afraid of trying to push the club forward and try to improve the team by listening to what Arsene Wenger needed from the Board at the relevant time.

There can be no doubting that during his tenure as Vice Chairman, Dein promoted Arsenal’s interests in not just the English game but also in the European. He, on allegedly more than one occasion, blocked an FA move to invite Arsene Wenger to take over the frequently vacant coach’s chair at Wembley. His relationship with Wenger was such that one cannot underestimate the impact he had on Arsenal’s success in the decade they spent working together. The fact that they are still apparently close friends underlines this.

But that is not to say that Dein was an omnipotent genius who never got anything wrong during his time at Arsenal. It is well documented that Dein wanted Arsenal to move to Wembley instead of building The Emirates. His argument, and those of his supporters, is that this was due to a desire to be successful on the pitch and not in the Club’s profit and loss account. If Dein had got his way then Arsenal would have remained at Highbury for several years while the FA tried to fix the disaster that was the redevelopment of Wembley. Dein losing that particular boardroom scuffle resulted in one of the finest stadiums in Europe being constructed on time and on budget while Wembley suffered delay after delay before finally being completed. As for the comparison between the two finished pieces, I would challenge anyone to suggest that Wembley is a better stadium than The Emirates. Although perhaps that is a subject for another post on another day.

Of course hindsight is a wonderful tool for which to poke at others with. We have all been there and wished we could reach a different conclusion to a decision or opinion than what we had previously expressed thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Dein did not want the move to a new expensive stadium to affect our chances to win titles. However, he was happy for us to share a stadium with England (something that had really not gone down particularly well when it was attempted in the Champions League between 1998 and 2000) and pay the FA what would no doubt have been a fairly large annual rent that would only have increased as the years went on. I would argue that paying rent to the FA would hardly have increased our title chances in the last few years. Nor would it have made the outcomes of our recent matches there any different.

Those that suggest that when he left in 2007 the ambition to be the “best club in the country” disappeared from the board and Arsenal FC became a company with more focus on its profits are, in my humble opinion, living in a vacuum reluctant to take into account the influx of investment to other clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. Whether one likes it or not football is a business and every football club must be run like a fully functional and profitable company. No other industry or profession anywhere in the world could continue running with the level of debt that certain football clubs (and not just those in England) currently have. They would be closed down by their creditors, and to be honest we have already begun to see a change in policy from HMRC towards many football clubs that owe substantial sums such as Portsmouth.

One area that you never hear Dein praised for is his commercial acumen (with the exception of course of selling his 14.5% shareholding in Arsenal to Red & White Holdings for £75 million). It is an area that more and more Arsenal fans are becoming aware of, especially when comparisons are raised with other clubs and their own sponsorships/partnerships. Manchester United’s list of sponsors is quite frankly staggering compared to Arsenal’s. I do, however, find it laughable that often those spouting “Arsenal FC not Plc” are those that criticise Gazidis the most vociferously in Arsenal’s lack of progress in this area while seemingly forgetting that the current deals were negotiated during Dein’s tenure at the club (albeit I fully accept that this would have been at a time when commercial deals were not as large as they now are). Some fans seem to dislike the idea of Arsenal being a corporate entity yet dismiss others for supposedly failing to do something they disagree with. Of course corporate sponsorship is exactly what a responsible corporate entity like Arsenal should be doing.

Gazidis’ primary duty as Chief Executive (or at least as I see it) appears to be in preparing and re-negotiating new deals to bring Arsenal on par with their competitors when it comes to corporate sponsorship. Many of the current deals still have time to run and they cannot be renegotiated or broken prior to their contractual expiry date
without severe financial penalties for Arsenal. Getting the best deal does not happen over night, it can take a lot of time, and dare I say a lot of legal work, to get such deals in place. It is little wonder Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’.

Some have criticised Gazidis because they believe that Dein was far better at finalising deals for players. To be honest it is hard to compare the two as Dein’s heyday in this area occurred way before the advent of certain clubs distorting the transfer market with exorbitant fees for players. Furthermore, most of the players that Dein had a hand in bringing to the club were relative unknowns, diamonds in the rough that Arsene Wenger has been able to polish. Gazidis has merely attempted to continue with this transfer policy. It is said, from those with certain insider knowledge which I admit that I cannot confirm, that he actually had a huge part to play in bringing both Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker to The Emirates.

Anyone who knows even a little of Gazidis’ background can hardly come to the conclusion that he is an idiot. His history is available for anyone to see online, and it is clear that he is an educated man with a law degree and who has practiced law at one of the largest law firms in the world, Latham & Watkins LLP. He was among the founding management team of Major League Soccer and was its Deputy Commissioner. He has overseen the MLS’s key strategic and business decisions and marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, of which he was president. He also helped to promote the Mexican Football Federation as well as the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

He would not have survived as long at Arsenal, nor been employed at his previous positions if he was not up to the task at hand. Has he already and will he make mistakes in the future? More thank likely, such as in the alleged instance where he contacted a company regarding possible sponsorship without knowing that their majority shareholder was Alisher Usmanov. Whether or not this was true and not just Usmanov “propoganda” remains to be seen but I would say that any individual in business, whether they be the Chief Executive of a Premiership Football Club or a self-employed plumber, can and will make a mistake every once and a while. It just so happens that a Chief Exec gets more publicity when things go wrong.

I said at the beginning of this post that I did not think it necessary to play Devil’s Advocate and I hope the above has proved that, although I am sure there will be many reading who will still have their doubts as to Gazidis’ abilities. However, I will say this; I would not expect Ivan to tell any of you reading this how to do whatever it is that you do for a living. If he did I would be the first to jump up and defend those that required it. Alas I cannot say he should not do the same as me as he has had a far more illustrious legal career than I have had. He could probably tell me how to write this blog an awful lot better than I currently am!

Having said all that, how about we all leave the job of running a successful company to those that know how to run one and keep our opinions to that which we know little of to ourselves? That is of course not to say that when mistakes are made they cannot be commented upon or our dissatisfaction at them expressed when necessary, but let those opinions be reasoned and analytical instead of the foul mouthed hate mongering that we appear to have at the moment in tweets and blogs and forums. Moreover, let those gripes be for real issues that affect the club, not because he happens to be on holiday when some supposed “crisis” occurs. The man is entitled to go and sit on the beach every once and a while.

I of course do not know Gazidis personally but I am aware of those in legal circles that do and their opinion of him is quite high. Any man who is handpicked by Arsene Wenger and the Board to oversee the running of Arsenal Football Club will get my respect until he forfeits it, and as of yet he has not done so.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.