Graham Poll was guest speaker at the Football Writers' Association dinner in Manchester last weekend.
In truth, it wasn't a great speech, starting off with the now-obligatory joke about the first rule of refereeing being to award Manchester United all the stoppage-time they want. A few minor laughs followed but, at times, it was difficult not to think his perception of the job was a little blurred, particularly when he talked about the buzz it would have given him to send off a player at Wembley.
There was a story, though, that will resonate with Arsenal supporters at a time when it is not always an easy thing to know when the club will rediscover the old stardust.
Poll recalled the Arsenal game against Chelsea in 2004 when Thierry Henry asked for permission to take a free-kick quickly, then promptly curled it into the goal while Petr Cech was still lining up his defensive wall. Poll remembered the fury of John Terry and José Mourinho and seemed quite happy with the outrage it had caused. "Lovely" was the word he used.
He did, however, say that it caused such a controversy that when he refereed an Arsenal game at Wigan Athletic the following season and the same situation arose, with Henry whispering in his ear that he wanted to take a free‑kick early, he told the Frenchman he would have to wait. Henry wrinkled up his nose, let the wall get in position and then curled his shot into the top corner. He turned to Poll and the look on his face was of a man who considered the art of the spectacular, and all its associated glories, as the most natural thing in the world. "Long enough?" he asked.
Perhaps it is because Arsenal have had this kind of superstar, touched with an authentic form of sporting greatness, that makes it particularly hard for their supporters to accept the deterioration in the second phase of Arsène Wenger's reign and helps explain why, more than ever, they seem so dislocated from the people in charge of the club.
That their AGM is such a big deal speaks for itself. Each year it seems to get a little more cantankerous, with television crews waiting outside and protest leaflets handed out. The bottom line is that Arsenal's fans can see their club becoming a speck in the wing-mirrors of more powerful rivals. Naturally, they don't like it and that, in turn, means heckling, to varying degrees, for the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, and an increasingly out-of-touch chairman, Peter Hill-Wood.
Arsenal are not alone when it comes to struggling not to be left behind and there is no particular shame about not being able to keep up the Joneses when, in football, that basically means taking on Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.
Take the story Ferran Soriano recounts about the deal that took Michael Essien to Chelsea from Lyon in 2005. Essien, it turns out, was actually due to join Juventus, with the fee agreed at €15m. Until, that is, Abramovich got wind of it. "Chelsea butted into the negotiations and offered €36m," Soriano, formerly of Barcelona and now Manchester City's chief executive, recalls. "The logic of business said Essien was worth approximately €15m. Abramovich's logic was different. It was the logic of his personal wealth and his desire to have the best team."
As for Soriano's current club, the men in power in Abu Dhabi have spent not far off £1bn, yet still find the team coming up short in Europe. Carlos Tevez cost £47m, not the £32m that was mooted at the time. So goodness knows how much they would have paid Manchester United for Wayne Rooney when he was agitating for a move two years ago. Rooney stayed and City's information now is that his salary was bumped up to – no kidding – £300,000 a week, rather than the £180,000 that was reported at the time.
On the same theme, Wenger told one shareholder after Thursday's AGM that City had offered Robin van Persie a £300,000 weekly salary to try to dissuade him from joining United. Arsenal must feel they are operating on a different planet sometimes.
What sticks in the craw, though, is the fat-cat mentality at the Emirates that leads to Gazidis getting a 35% pay rise, taking his annual salary to £1.36m, when the club's financial figures show an operating loss of £31m (pre-transfers), limited success when it comes to commercial revenue, sponsorship deals and a team that has gone seven years without a trophy. Add in a £675,000 bonus and another £100,000 in benefits and Gazidis is almost certainly the best-paid football executive in the country. Hill-Wood explained the rise on "an extremely good year" (how?) and pointed out that salaries are benchmarked against industry competitors.
What a shame for Wenger the club could not have done the same with his players. The real swizz here, though, is that Arsenal's supporters have to pay up to £126 for a match ticket at the Emirates. The cheapest season ticket is £985 and the most expensive a jaw-dropping £1,955. These are the most expensive seats in the Premier League by some distance. The least expensive deal costs more than the priciest one at 17 of the other 19 Premier League clubs (Chelsea and Spurs are the exceptions). You could get one at Manchester City, Aston Villa and Newcastle for the price of the cheapest one at Arsenal and still have 60 quid to spare. It is a rip-off.
Then consider Arsenal's position when it comes to the Premier League table showing net spending on transfers over the past five years. Manchester City are top, with £407.2m, followed by Chelsea on £231.7m. Stoke City, believe it or not, are next, on £75.2m, followed by Aston Villa, £69.8m; Manchester United, £62.1m; Liverpool, £49.1m; QPR, £46.2m; Sunderland £36.4m; West Ham, £26.4m; Southampton, £18.9m; Norwich, £16m; West Brom, £13.2m; Fulham, £13.1m, and Tottenham, £3.2m.
All the other clubs have all recorded a profit, starting with Swansea City, £1.9m; Wigan Athletic, £12.1m; Everton, £15.3m; Reading, £16.7m and Newcastle, £36.3m. Arsenal? You will find them bottom of the spenders' list, with a profit of £45m. Which either counts as good business, or lack of ambition, depending on which side of the fence you sit.
The truly perplexing thing is that Arsenal have around £70m swilling around in their transfer pot. It is just they perpetually seem reluctant to dip into it. Ajax, with a team assembled for £3.5m, showed against Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday that unending wealth does not guarantee winning. But this is the exception these days, rather than the norm, which is why it stands out in the first place. Spending large sums of money is not the be all to end all. It does help, though.
The alternative is that you become a selling club, where the category A players invariably leave, Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly starts to like your manager, the supporters feel shortchanged and the AGMs are as grumpy as a bear.
Arsenal are pinning their hopes, to a large degree, on Uefa's financial fair play regulations snagging their wealthier rivals, but that is not a quick fix, by any means. Wenger turned 63 last Monday. The cruellest irony would be if he were no longer in charge when the AGMs became less mutinous and the club started to feel a happy place again.
Turning the final page of Ceefax
So farewell, Ceefax, thank you for the joys you occasionally brought, let's not dwell too much on the difficult moments, and sorry for being so terribly unfaithful over the last few years. His name was Jeff. But it was me, not you.
Ceefax, was the instant fix for every football junkie, the go-to place back in the days before Soccer Saturday, Twitter and all the other modern information sources. The final page has turned now, 38 years after it all began, and I wonder if Dexter Blackstock knows his 90th-minute equaliser for Nottingham Forest at Blackpool was the last Ceefax goal. There's a guaranteed quiz question of the future.
It could be bad for the blood pressure sometimes. Those moments, in an important game, when the page seemed to take an eternity to turn. Or when you missed the hold button before the whole thing started to scroll round again. But I suspect I'm not alone in remembering many afternoons and evenings staring at the same computerised pages, pressing the refresh button, heart beating, hoping for good news in those awkward little blocks of blue, yellow and white.
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