LONDON (Reuters) - When Arsenal hired manager Herbert Chapman in 1925, the job ad told big spenders not to apply. Angry fans who have seen the London soccer team overtaken by lavishly funded rivals are now screaming for the club’s U.S. owner to bury that tradition.
The club’s billionaire majority shareholder Stan Kroenke is one of a new generation of foreign owners who have bought into the game in Britain, but while some of them have spent with abandon to get results on the field, Kroenke expects the club to stay true to sound financial principles.
The order to control the purse strings didn’t stop Chapman entering club folklore, leading Arsenal to the first of 13 league titles, making it the most successful team in England after Manchester United and Liverpool, but the trophy cupboard has been bare for several years.
Arsenal, nicknamed “The Gunners” after the munitions factory workers that founded the club in 1886, last won the English Premier League in 2004 and lifted the FA Cup in 2005. They have won nothing since, and supporters who pack the plush Emirates stadium, the club’s home since 2006, want a better return on some of the highest ticket prices in English soccer.
Even the annual consolation of a place in the European Champions League, worth around 30 million pounds ($45 million), could slip from its grasp. The top four from the Premier League qualify for the competition, and Arsenal is currently fifth behind local rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Frustrated fans say the club is the victim of a lack of drive and investment by Kroenke, who took control two years ago in a deal valuing the club at 731 million pounds.
Those who work for the 65-year-old Kroenke, who owns sports teams on both sides of the Atlantic, dismiss claims he is out of touch with English soccer and its passionate fans.
“He understands sports. He understands Arsenal,” club Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis said in an interview.
“The guy I know is phenomenally ambitious for this football club and has given it support at every possible level,” he added, saying Kroenke comes to London every month.
While the Americans who control Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool have tried to run the clubs along business lines, clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have muscled into the Premier League elite over the past decade thanks to hugely wealthy owners from Russia and Abu Dhabi who have been prepared to underwrite their financial losses.
(For graphic on financials of Arsenal, United, City and Chelsea, click on link.reuters.com/hyn86t )
Arsenal fans who have seen their club overtaken by these newly rich teams believe “Silent Stan” should do more.
“There is not enough energy or ambition to push the club hard to go forward,” said Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST), a lobby group of fans who own shares in the club.
“Kroenke owns the club, but he’s out of the country, and most of the rest of the board are over 70. It does feel that coming fourth is the height of ambition rather than the minimum requirement,” he added.
Gazidis, 48, believes Arsenal will soon benefit from the completion of a financial transformation that began with the move to the 60,000-seater Emirates stadium from their former home at nearby Highbury in north London.
“We will have a football club that will certainly be one of the leading clubs in financial power in Europe,” he said in his wood-paneled office in “Highbury House”, a building with views on the old and new stadiums.
Gazidis points to a new 150 million pound sponsorship deal with airline Emirates signed last year, while a new kit supply deal is also being negotiated.
“We have a vision of a football club which stands on its own two feet, which relies on its own resources,” Gazidis said.
“We think that football is about more than simply who is prepared to lose the most money.”
That matches the way Kroenke run his other teams.
Named after two famous baseball players from the 1940s St. Louis Cardinals, Enos Stanley Kroenke has maintained a low profile that belies his significance in global sports.
Besides Arsenal, his Kroenke Sports and Entertainment (KSE) group owns the St Louis Rams NFL team, basketball’s Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Rapids soccer team.
“He’s very, very passionate about what happens on the pitch or on the field, extremely so,” said KSE CEO Jim Martin.
“But he also believes that these sports teams need to be run in a sustainable manner,” added Martin.
In European soccer, ambition is often measured by how much a club splurges on players, and Arsenal has made more from player sales than it has spent on buying them in recent seasons.
That pattern continued last summer when the club sold Dutch striker Robin van Persie to Manchester United for a reported 22 million pounds. United now seems certain to win the Premier League title, helped by 19 goals from Van Persie.
That sale drew criticism from Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, whose “Red and White Securities” owns almost 30 percent of Arsenal but who does not have a seat on the board.
Kroenke makes a virtue of never having sold any of his sports teams, and aides say he will not walk away from Arsenal despite the barbs from fans and rival shareholder Usmanov.
He was unmoved by reports this month of a crowd-pleasing 1.5 billion pound bid from Middle East investors that would have allowed him to double his money. But Kroenke, who has a self-made fortune and is married to the daughter of a founder of Wal-Mart supermarkets, doesn’t need the cash.
“I think he’s totally committed to it. To my knowledge, he has no interest whatsoever in divesting his interest in Arsenal,” said KSE’s Martin in a telephone interview.
The club takes heart from new “Financial Fair Play” rules being introduced by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, which fits well with its self-sustaining ethos.
Designed to make the spendthrift sport more stable, the rules mean clubs must move towards breakeven or risk exclusion from European club competition. Arsenal believes that will force wealthy rivals to rein in their spending.
The club’s latest accounts show cash reserves of 123 million pounds, fuelling fans’ anger that more has not been invested in the squad and prompting some to draw up wishlists of players they want veteran French manager Arsene Wenger to recruit.
Wenger, 63, has been at Arsenal since 1996, an unusually long tenure in a revolving-doors profession. He led the club to three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with a swagger and style that gave him a status to rival the revered Chapman.
But some fans say he has become too careful with the cash.
“There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger is cautious in the transfer market and prefers to be a ‘developmental’ rather than a ‘spending’ manager,” said Payton of the AST fans’ group.
“This is why the AST believes the boardroom needs strengthening with people who would challenge and support him to be more decisive in the transfer market.”
($1 = 0.6619 British pounds)
(This story has been refiled to clarify in the 28th paragraph that Kroenke’s wealth is self-made)
Editing by Will Waterman