The Arsenal AGM had started badly for Sir Chips Keswick. The club chairman was up for re-election to the board and such things are normally routine. In this case Keswick had the support, by proxy, of the largest shareholders – Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov – who, between them, control 97%. In other words, it was a done deal.
The minor inconvenience did not stop the smaller fry in the Woolwich suite at the Emirates from making their point; their protest. Overwhelmingly, the show of hands from the floor opposed Keswick’s appointment. David Miles, the club secretary, was obliged to request a second show and he did so with what amounted to a plea. Guys, this is pointless, he pretty much said. Again the hands shot up in opposition.
And so we went through the pantomime of Miles calling for a poll vote. Cards were distributed to the shareholders in the room; they marked them and queued up to hand them in. The whole thing took about 15 minutes. And at the end of it the proxy votes of Kroenke and Usmanov held sway. Keswick was re-elected.
The small shareholders then opposed the equally routine reappointment of Kroenke’s son, Josh, and the farcical process was repeated, burning another 15 minutes and clearly testing Arsène Wenger’s patience – the manager temporarily vacated his seat at the top table. It was easy to see this as quintessentially Arsenal; the wholehearted pursuit of a forlorn cause. But more seriously, it advertised the theme of the meeting and of recent times – the thirst for something, anything, to change at the club.
Nobody could remember there being a poll vote at a previous AGM and it was a humiliation for Keswick and Kroenke Jr. Keswick’s day would not get any better. As the chairman it is his duty to lead the meeting and to answer many of the questions, which are pre-submitted by the shareholders. He did so with the air of a man who, in the words of one of the rank and file, was worried that his luncheon was in danger of going cold.
Keswick attracted a few hecklers and moments of incredulity during the scripted part of the Q&A, most notably when he declared, with reference to the board, that “we have a diverse and modern organisation”. He noted how Arsenal had been “the first club to receive the advanced equality standard”. There was also a taster of what was to come when he simply ignored a question he did not like. Why had Usmanov, who holds a 30% stake, not been offered a seat on the board? On we went.
It was in the closing moments, when Keswick dared to open the floor for a few questions – with the emphasis on the few – that the frustration boiled over. A woman asked when the composition of the board might truly change but he did not hear a question. “Thank you for your statement, madam.
“Yes, sir,” Keswick added, turning to the next questioner.
There was uproar. “If I understood it rightly, it was when are we going to move, or move on and start again,” Keswick said. More uproar. The woman tried again and Keswick ignored her again.
“Would you like to ask your question,” he said, looking once more at the next person in line. Even more uproar. “Ladies and gentleman,” Keswick said. “You get respect from this side of the hall. I would ask you to show a little from the other.” By now, Keswick had lost the audience. Everything he said was met by jeers. Yet he seemed determined to lob a few more metaphorical grenades.
Why had Kroenke said nothing during the meeting? Because he did not have to, according to the rules of the AGM, Keswick replied. But how are the fans supposed to know what the owner of 67% of their club thinks? “Read the Daily Telegraph today and you’ll find out,” he added, with reference to an interview in which Kroenke once again voiced his support for the status quo. In other words, himself and Wenger.
There were boos and, for Keswick, it was time to bail. He declared that the meeting was closed. One final shareholder tried to jam in a question but Keswick was on his heels. “I have stopped the meeting,” he said. “I have been very polite to you, so thank you. Would you write in if you’ve got a problem.” Cue the slow handclap.
The shareholders had come for answers but in their hearts they knew they would not get them. Perhaps, on that level, they could not be disappointed. No one knows better than them how these kind of occasions work. This is the modern-day Arsenal.
But it was, nonetheless, another occasion when grown men and women were reduced to head shakes and exasperation; when the fault lines at this grand old club were laid bare. Keswick said that Gazidis was doing a fabulous job. Gazidis said the same about Keswick. Good work is being done, according to all of the directors, but is it narrowing the gap to the top? Kroenke and Usmanov will not work together and nor will they trade their shares. There is impasse; the continued sense of a club sprinting to stand still.
Wenger spoke well, as he always does, and he was warmly applauded. He remains the club’s only persuasive orator. But perish the thought that this AGM ought to be instructive. Why not embrace the intelligence of the 250 or so in attendance rather than insult it? It might serve to break down barriers.
Keswick was in no mood to do that and the subtext to it all chimed with the ill-judged line from his predecessor, Peter Hill-Wood, at the 2012 AGM: thank you for your interest in our affairs. It was actually quite an entertaining spectacle, unless you were an Arsenal shareholder.
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