'Patronizing' Arsenal leadership angers shareholders

'Patronizing' Arsenal leadership angers shareholders
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks dejected during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Everton at The Emirates stadium in London, Sunday May 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

By Rob Harris, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — For so long the target of discord at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger was the unifier for once on Thursday.

On a day of rage and protest in Arsenal's annual general meeting, only the veteran manager's brief but eloquent address from the top table punctured the mutinous atmosphere.

It would take more than Wenger posing for selfies to quell a rebellion years in the making as the Premier League club's drought continues without winning one of the game's biggest titles.

As the board of directors prepared to flee the hostility, chairman Chips Keswick's hasty closing of the AGM was drowned out by booing in the Emirates Stadium hospitality suite.

"You are getting very angry so there is no point continuing," said Keswick, who shareholders earlier tried to block from being reappointment chairman.

When Keswick was asked about the lack of diversity on a board of directors featuring six white men, the shareholder was thanked for their "statement." It was yet another question unashamedly ignored during a stormy AGM.

So many shareholders have had enough, but the power rests with Stan Kroenke.

Enough certainly of being ignored in such meetings by the club's hierarchy under Kroenke, the largely absentee owner who has rebuffed calls to sell up to minority shareholder Alisher Usmanov.

Even with Kroenke in the room, the American majority shareholder would not adress their questions. One shareholder was told by Keswick to buy a newspaper instead and read a rare interview with Kroenke, who also owns the NFL's Los Angeles Rams. Those who had invested in Arsenal wanted their chance to hold the owner of 67 percent of shares to account. No chance.

Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters' Trust later claimed Kroenke was displaying "total contempt" with the display of "rudeness and incompetence" by the board.

It was a dismissive tone that only enraged the 200 or so shareholders in the room even more. Jeers spread through the room as chairman Keswick and chief executive Ivan Gazidis lost control.

"If we could stop the shouting from the floor," Gazidis pleaded.

They would not stop. Not when the club has failed to win the Premier League since 2004 and is already nine points behind front-runner Manchester City after a quarter of the season.

Just why, inquired one shareholder, was Gazidis worth 2.6 million pounds ($3.4 million) last year?

"Ivan is doing a fantastic and first-class job," Keswick responded.

What shareholders are demanding is more spent on talent, especially as the club's revenue surged from 350.6 million pounds to a record 422.8 million pounds ($556.7 million) last year.

"There's been an unprecedented investment in our squad in recent years as our revenues have grown," Gazidis said, pointing to the club's transfer record being broken again in July by signing Alexandre Lacazette for 60 million euros (then $94 million).

Gazidis tried to assure the audience that Arsenal, which finished fifth last season to miss out on the Champions League for the first time in two decades under Wenger, had in fact "over-performed." Gazidis cited "objective metrics" such as points vs. transfer expenditure.

"Is losing 10-2 to Bayern Munich successful?" bellowed one heckler, citing last season's Champions League loss over two legs.

The European Cup is one prize Wenger has failed to collect since taking charge in 1996. Winning the continent's elite competition is now even tougher, the manager observed, given the concentration of wealth among a few clubs. Aston Villa, now in the second tier, would not today be capable of winning the European Cup as it did in 1982, Wenger said.

"At least they won it," a shareholder interjected from the floor.

Wenger, early into his latest two-year contract, was more considered in his observations about the struggles of recent seasons when Arsenal has had to settle for FA Cup triumphs.

"I question myself a lot don't worry," Wenger said, "to be better every single day."

The club's leadership is facing the same demands from shareholders.

"This is the most disruptive I have ever seen," Darren Epstein, who has been attending AGMs for three decades, said as he left. "The patronizing nature of the board is one of the reasons small shareholders want the board diversity changed. The bumbling nature of what went on came to the fore at the end and they just abruptly ended the meeting."

But the disharmony will linger.

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