Scourge of the Shareholders, Keown The Kop Knight-Errant

Last updated : 09 October 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Rudely stirred by a 6am alarm, it would have been easy to roll over and return to a beautiful dream about banging in a hat-trick at the Bernabeu where I refused Becks my Arsenal shirt until he was able to explain Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Neither the missus or Nell were able to accompany me to Anfield and having been blown out by both, I was sorely tempted to stop in bed until noon and a much gentler awakening to the dulcet tones of Andy Gray's live match coverage on TV.

Based on previous experiences of the Arsenal's lethargic Premiership efforts after a long trip back from a midweek Champions League encounter and in the knowledge of such important no-shows as Vieira, Bergkamp and Ljungberg, rustling up any real enthusiasm for the long schlep to Anfield, at such an ungodly hour, was a real challenge. However the more games you go to, the harder it is to miss one, for fear of kopping out on the match of the season. Not only was I grateful to witness Pires' wonderful strike nestle in the net before my very eyes but it is only by enduring such exhausting outings that one earns the right to slaughter shareholders without a "scooby" when they start having a dig at our marvelous manager's disciplinary dilemmas.

Every year I announce to Róna my renewed desire to purchase a share in a concern which is so close to my heart and each year I end up kicking myself even harder as the price of a snall piece of the Arsenal continues to soar beyond the pitiful reach of my penniless pockets. Nevertheless, profitability is not my principal motivation. Above all it is not a financial but an emotional investment which interests me. I am most grateful to various Gooner shareholders who have been unavailable for the Arsenal's AGM over the years and who've allowed me to attend as their "proxy".

Prior to last Thursday, our double-barreled, old Etonian chairman might have taken one look at me and assumed I was the representative of the Gooner branch of Al Quaeda. So I shaved specially for the occasion and dug out my most respectable looking strides and shirt. I might even have donned a suit in my efforts to achieve a sufficiently respectable mien to merit consideration for putting a question to the panel, but I couldn't face all the "where's the funeral" or "what are you charged with" mickey taking. Yet I was so keen that, looking spick & span (if feeling a little spiv), I turned up ten minutes early. Already the seats laid out along the length of ground floor of the North Bank were full. Not wanting to sit so far from the dais that I'd have to view proceedings on the screens set up for this purpose, I carried a chair from the back, to a point near the front where I hoped the chairman wouldn't be able to ignore me during the question and answer session. Sitting there with my hand in the air for almost the entire hour, I grew increasingly frustrated at the folly of my efforts to jump through the hoops of social acceptability.

At least I was looking fairly "buff" for about the only result of the day. Yet another chance for shareholders to have their picture taken with some silverware. Compared to the last photo a couple of years back, where the mens and womens teams had amassed a plethora of shiny pots and plates, the solitary FA Cup in this photo looks a little forlorn. Nevertheless I have given the Gunners such a vast fortune over the years that there is no way I will ever give up an opportunity to get something back, gratis. I even grabbed the complimentary coffee and Kit-Kat whilst waiting. Considering how many greedy Gooners were doing likewise, we are just as entitled to call ourselves the "Yid Army" as our friends from White Hart Lane!

I always eagerly anticipate the AGM in the belief that it will present a rare opportunity to dispel a year's worth of tabloid half-truths. Where all the Gooner gossip will be dealt with as we discern Arsenal fact from fiction. Whereas in truth it is nothing more than a querulous necessity in the corporate calendar as far as the board are concerned. The shareholders might be hoping for transparency, but the directors always do their level best to comply with the regulations whilst playing their cards as close to their chest as possible. Never has this been more apparent than in the current climate.

We were treated to a detailed presentation about the progress being made in the plans for our new stadium. I assume some of the intricacies and complexities of this ambitious inner-city regeneration project were addressed in an attempt to appease all those punters who have become impatient, with perceptions being that the entire future of the Arsenal is up in the air whilst the stadium build stagnates. If you are to believe our board, construction on the stadium itself is due to begin in the first quarter of next year.

Meanwhile as always, I ended up feeling more than a little frustrated with far more questions than answers. For the most part there was an attempt to impart a mood of optimism about Ashburton Grove with the board's conviction that there was absolutely no doubt about it going ahead, with minimal impact on the Arsenal's ability to compete on the pitch. However we heard how the club have failed as yet to secure the all important long term loans necessary for the bulk of the project. Apparently these remain the crucial subject of ongoing negotiations with overseas financial institutions. Yet as with the premature announcements in the media concerning the birth of this Arsenal baby, I would have fully expected the entire board to bluff it out with assurances that their borrowing was already in the bag.

Our managing director had yet to be embarrassed by a shareholder who wanted to know how, in such hard times, with all the cost cutting constraints introduced by a man who's known as a paper clip counter rather than a football man, the club could justify our hard earned cash going towards a 60 grand increase in this poor man's paltry £400k salary! So there was little excuse for dropping what sounded like a far too candid clanger in an off the cuff comment concerning his disquiet about securing the finance. He divulged "Worried? It depends which week I'm asked!" Words which spoke volumes in my opinion.

Nevertheless I am fairly confident that (by hook, or by crook!) the new stadium will eventually happen. If only for the fact that we can't afford otherwise because we are already in the hole to the tune of £95 million. With all the bluff and bluster the board could muster, they steadfastly refused to entertain any suggestion of a Plan B. Yet I can't help but wonder who exactly they are trying to kid with the outrageous assertion that the Ashburton Grove deal won't have a detrimental affect on our ability to compete on the pitch.

It might make sound economic sense to cook the books and separate the property development so that it doesn't appear on the balance sheet of the club's regular activities. But it is as plain as the red nose on Fergie's face that our precarious financial circumstances are forcing Arsène to skate on incredibly thin ice. Moreover injuries and suspensions might have caused it to melt somewhat sooner than expected. I doubt the board could convince that Wenger will have been delighted to deduct the veteran Gio Van Bronckhorst's salary from the weekly wage bill, when he found himself in Russia with almost his entire bench still wet behind the ears.

In a week when John Halls, another product of Brady's Academy, has gone to Stoke for the guarantee of first team football, no-one is happier than me to see the youngsters thrown more frequent carrots. In fact I believe it was the discontent Wenger discerned from the floor at the AGM which might have resulted in Aliadière being included in the starting line-up on Saturday. Yet after Arsène had explained his reluctance to risk the youngsters with the contention that over the course of a season their inexperience would cost us points, we might have expected him to give them their head at home to Wolves, or Leicester, not a crucial top of the table six-pointer away to Liverpool! An immediate understanding between Titi and Jeremie in such a competitive climate was unlikely but Aliadière's inclusion was a blessing if only to administer a much needed kick up the backside to Wiltord, hopefully ensuring that he's not quite so comfortable about his first eleven place in future.

Considering we should have been 0-3 down at halftime, it felt like daylight robbery to be coming away from Anfield with all three points. A draw would have been generous and I would have gladly accepted a point as we entered the ground by a gate where a steward was offering free admittance to anyone named Keown! I adore the Scouse sense of humour. The hospitable welcome we usually receive in Liverpool often makes me feel that much closer to Ireland than bovine Britain. No matter the result, you can invariably guarantee a good "craic", although that's probably due to the fact that Ryanair have flown half of Ireland over for the weekend.

It was teeming as I trotted out of the ground, in the hope for once that I wouldn't have to walk all the way back to Lime Street. Mind you I was so delighted that if I wasn't so sensitive to the feelings of the locals, not to mention my own self-preservation, I might have broken into a Gene Kelly impersonation. I stared longingly at the occupants snugly ensconced in every passing cab and couldn't believe my luck when some took pity on me. It didn't come as a surprise to find the cab occupied by two Dubliners on their way back to Manchester airport via Lime Street station, as I wouldn't have expected such a kindly gesture from my own countrymen.

Naturally despite my protests they wouldn't even let me contribute to the fare. I only hope their good karma ensures success against Switzerland this weekend!