Arsenal AGM (It's All Gone Meshuga)

Last updated : 11 October 2004 By Bernard Azulay

They were shoehorned into parking spaces usually occupied by bone-shaking old bangers which have seen better days, it was therefore obvious that the Arsenal's AGM was taking place around the corner.

Having previously spent more than half an hour patiently sitting with my hand raised hoping to put a question to the board, only to be ignored by a chairman who appeared to choose the more respectable looking shareholders, I'd decided to make a rare effort on this occasion. Instead of my usual impersonation of a paid-up member of Al-Qaeda, the surprising sight of me being clean-shaven and suited must have suggested to my neighbours that I was either heading for a job interview, trying to borrow money from the bank manager, or up before a judge! If it wasn't for the alice band which has been keeping my long locks off my face long before footballers made them fashionable, I might have blended in completely with the boring array of similarly attired businessmen.

However I doubt there were many at the AGM who actually bought their shares as some sort of lucrative investment. Nearly all are Arsenal supporters who have merely been able to achieve a lifelong ambition of owning a minute piece of their club. I haven't stopped kicking myself for my failure to fork out a couple of hundred quid a few years back, before the share price shot up to an astronomic four figures, if only to receive my own invitation to this gathering of the Arsenal's most opulent Gooners. Fortunately I invariably find myself being able to participate in this exclusive annual event as the proxy of a shareholder who is otherwise engaged.

Chairs are laid out along the length of the North Bank concourse for the occasion, with a dais at one end for the directors and the gaffer, with the proceedings transmitted on TV screens that are dotted around for the benefit of the short and the short-sighted. Having taken so much trouble with my appearance in the hope of being granted the opportunity to interrogate the board, I soon realised I needn't have bothered. Subsequent to a suggestion from the supporters forum, for the first time ever, instead of the usual procedure of ending the event by taking questions from the floor, on entering the North Bank we were accosted by a steward who was handing out forms to be filled in by folks who had questions about the club's affairs. I couldn't believe that I could have come in my customary dishevelled state. But at least it meant that I would be looking my best for the shareholders bonus of a free photo with the large collection of silverware (Prem. trophy, commemorative 'undefeated' trophy, Community Shield, Ladies league and cup trophies) which didn't look nearly so lonely as last season's solitary FA Cup.

Considering the substantial sum total of my contributions to the club's coffers over so many years and the fact that a stroll round to HIghbury is invariably synonymous with sticking my hand ever deeper into my increasingly debt ridden pockets, to be perfectly honest I am embarrassed to admit that this free pic is probably my main motivation for attending the AGM. Doubtless the photo is eventually destined to join my massive collection of miscellaneous Gooner memorabilia gathering dust in the drawer. Nevertheless there is no way I can pass up the extremely scarce opportunity of getting something from the Arsenal for nothing! Mind you, even without this incentive I would attend, for fear that otherwise I might be missing something.

Although the Arsenal's double-barreled, old Etonian chairman comes across as a bit of an old duffer, verging on senility, Hill-Wood has that politician's knack of appeasing an audience by never actually being so rude as to refuse to respond to an enquiry. Yet he has this 'hail fellow well met' affable expertise of getting away without actually answering the question. Either that or he will pass the more sensitive matters on to our MD, so that if any of the shareholders might not like what they hear, it won't be him who's upsetting anyone. As a result, in spite of learning little of interest at previous AGMs, I always find myself optimistically hoping that the meeting will somehow prove to be a panacea for all my concerns about the club. With more qualms than ever over the new stadium and the sponsorship deal, I came away on Thursday feeling even more disappointed than usual because none of them had been dealt with.

The AGM commences with the farcical votes to reinstate the various members of the board. They' get a shock if a few folks put their hands up to vote against any of the decision but I am always tempted to put my hand if as a "Nay" and would love if we could for once take the piss by forcing a hand count. Yet this legal necessity is such a pointless ritual that on this occasion in one instance our chairman even neglected to ask if there were any "Nays"! There followed a long-winded presentation which was intended to reassure us all about the state of the club's extremely complicated finances. It was so confusing that even the accountants amongst us were left scratching their heads. Despite the chairman's best efforts to pick plum question askers in the session that follows, in the past you could guarantee that the board would be put on the spot by at least a couple of queries on subjects which were worrying everyone. But the procedural change suited their purpose perfectly, as it meant that he was able to sift through the pile of questions in front of him, passing over any he didn't fancy.

The Emirates questions were limited to a single query about the fact Dubai's human rights record (shurely UAE!), According to Hill-Wood the are very worthy honorable people and there are many countries which are a lot worse. He also picked out one on the extremely important subject of the effect on the Arsenal soccer schools in Israel. In case any of you have been losing any sleep, there won't be any effect! Myself I was wondering whether we will still have jewish New Year greetings in the programme and if so does that mean we will also mark Ramadan and other muslim festivals for the benefit of our new partners?

I hardly recall any revelations that we haven't already heard apart from the fact that a members document will be sent out to all Arsenal members in 2-3 weeks, which we should all look out for as it will contain details of the fourteen categories of priority applications for seats at Ashburton Grove. There was an interesting query from a member of the Arsenal Supporters Trust about whether the club would consider a for share ownership scheme for ordinary supporters. Hill-Wood confirmed that the subject did indeed merit consideration but for all we know this might stretch only to the time it takes between their hors d'ouevres and the main course at the lunch they were all hoping to slop away to.

Usually the only other attraction to the AGM is the opportunity to show our appreciation to Arsène Wenger when he gets up to say a few words in such unusually relaxed circumstances,where he is surrounded by supporters, rather than a media rat-pack hoping to make a mountain out of an inadvertent molehill. However to complete the anticlimax, Arsène was asked to answer one specific question about the scarcity of centre-backs within our squad and while the chairman might have expected this to be Arsène's cue to make some additional comments, in typically straightforward manner our manager merely suggested that with the likes of Cygan and Senderos in the wings, we have sufficient cover.

Then again with Wenger at the helm of the Gunner's good ship we don't exactly have much to worry about as far as the Arsenal's on pitch affairs are concerned. But after chatting with a football marketing specialist on my way out, I was left with far more questions than answers. To my mind the sponsorship deal feels like the Arsenal has just flogged our birthright for a relative song. But aside from all my sentimental reservations, as a marketing strategy according to him we should have never relinquished the rights to the name of our stadium. Unlike Man Utd who have maintained their brand name and have every opportunity to promote it by retaining the image and the name of The Theatre Of Dreams, supporters around the world won't be tuning into Arsenal matches at The Home Of Football. To highlight his argument he explained the situation in the US, with the NFL there is no shirt or stadium sponsorship. This means that the teams are able to make a relative fortune by flogging their TV rights and in turn the networks can maximise their revenue from advertisers who have their product emblazoned across the TV picture of the pitch and various other sponsorship arrangements.

I can only assume that the major attraction of the £90mill. deal with the Dubai based airline (I wonder if I can tap them for a few quid - but I'm certainly not publicising them for free!) was the fact that it was front loaded. The Arsenal get a substantial amount before the sponsorship even starts, rather than more regular arrangement where clubs are drip fed all the money over the entire term of the deal (apparently that is why it's equivalent to the reported £100mill ?). If they were going to sellout in this fashion it would have been far more lucrative to have sold shirt and stadium rights separately. Additionally for a club which is trying to promote itself as a 'market leader', I would have thought that a global brand like Sony or Nike might have been far more sympathetic to their image.

There have been various assurances about the pricing policy and availability of concessions seats at the new stadium, including a guarantee that 50% of the additional seats will be made available to local residents. That is assuming they can afford them! However the wealthy Gooner-come-latelys who were able to jump the season-ticket waiting list by purchasing a five grand bond only last season will get priority over those who endured the Arsenal's dark ages and have been attending games for decades. But I imagine they will be among the only Gooners who might be able to afford to pay four years up front for one of 6,700 'club seats' in the middle tier priced from £2,500-£4,500.

As far as I'm concerned this would be closest equivalent to my current seat. Yet it won't be the equivalent we are offered, apparently with no price increase when we leave Highbury. Therefore the assumption is that the serious price hike will be inflicted upon us beforehand. Since there's absolutely no way that even the priciest pitch at our new ground will offer us the same perfect view we have at the moment, I was thinking that we might as well plump for a far more affordable option, but it seems that if I want to downgrade I will lose my priority and go right to the back of the queue! I was under the impression that with good sightlines from most every seat in the new stadium but with them all being a lot further from the action than the tight confines of THOF, the club had decided on this policy because there might be many Gooners considering doing likewise. However Edelman offered a more altruistic explanation, whereby if all those currently in 60 quid seats were to have their pick of the 30 quid seats, it wouldn't be fair to those in the cheaper seats because there would be little left for them to choose from.

I can't recall the specific example of his minor gaffes on this occasion but while our MD might be the dogs bollix as a businessman, I definitely don't rate him as a spokesperson. He's certaintly never inspired me with much confidence as evidenced by his statement at the last AGM when he was questioned about how certain the funding was for the new stadium, he said "It depends what day I'm asked!" Whereas Hill-Wood appears to have attained the sort of seniority where he isn't sufficiently interested in what anyone thinks of him to be the least bit bothered about the occasional faux pas. The genial old goat has always given the impression that he can't wait to get out of these AGMs, this year more than most as he sounded a little "tom". However he must have ignored too many of the awkward questions, either that or they were expecting Arsène to occupy the remaining time. Thankfully our chairman asked if anyone else had any queries, otherwise we might have never heard from the shareholder who has obviously got no room left on his mantelpiece for pictures taken of him with our trophies because. He wanted to know if the club would give out signed team photos instead!

Salvation came in the form of Kevin Whitcher, the ed of the Gooner. The revelations about the allocation of tickets at the new stadium has resulted in some Gooners calculating that if we should subsequently reach the FA Cup or Champions League final, there might not be nearly enough ticket to go around. So Kevin wanted confirmation that those who can afford to stump up 10 and 18 grand for their club seats in the middle tier for four years won't get priority over existing season ticket holders for final tickets. Hill-Wood suggested that the matter hadn't been decided but Edeleman stepped in to suggest that they wouldn't have any more rights than existing season-ticket holders. This was the last question and the most hilarious incident happened afterwards when a shareholder came charging up to Kevin to express his outrage. Evidently he'd got the wrong end of the stick as he thanked Kev for raising the matter and announced that he'd have to get on the case in the Gooner because he was outraged to think he might be paying four and a half grand for his seat and not be guaranteed a ticket to a final!

I became so engrossed in a discussion about the various ramifications over coffee in a gaffe in Blackstock Rd. that I forgot all about my free photo. I'd intended to wait until the queue had died down but they were packing up by the time I walked back around to HIghbury. I was told that if I still wanted a pic, I'd have to wait until the next time, when I can pay 18 quid with all the other mug punters. So absolutely the only good thing to come of this AGM was that I managed to make my way to the front of the throng around Arséne and flummox him byhanding over a copy of my book, as everyone else was hassling him for autographs and photos. Later that evening I joked with Ró that Wenger might have gone to bed with me that very night as he'd assured me "I will" when I'd said that I hoped he might find time to read it. I am not convinced but between you and me, the thought of my tome sitting on the great man's shelves is sufficiently gratifying.

Meanwhile it might sound a much longer walk to the Emirates on a Saturday than to Highbury but I'm not sweating about getting there nearly as much as I am about having sufficient moolah to be able to afford a season ticket to get in!