The Self-Sustaining Model
Bernard Dowling asks whether ‘self-serving’ is nearer the truth
4 onlinegooner.com The management of Arsenal isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, just a consequence of whoever the team manager is and whatever he does. It also reflects the direction that the Board of Directors want the club to move in. Ideally the objectives of both the directors and manager should be compatible by aiming for the same end-result: that of achieving success on the pitch, which will routinely require raising or acquiring the finances necessary to fund it. All Arsenal supporters should be aware that in recent years our board has pursued a strategy it calls a “self-sustaining model”; in brief meeting the club’s expenditure from its own business activities - i.e. gate receipts, sponsorship income, merchandising, commercial funds like player sales, prize money and television revenues. In this article I’m going to give my own thoughts on the outcomes so far and possible future impact of the self-sustaining model.
Arsenal planned to move stadiums in order to compete more evenly with the wealthiest clubs both domestically and internationally. At the time domestically this was mainly Manchester United. Yet the traditional financial landscape of English football changed just as the new stadium was being built when Abramovich, a Russian multibillionaire, bought Chelsea when it was close to bankruptcy. Hence it wasn’t just Manchester United anymore, and even they were taken over by American owners who, despite their unpopularity with the fan base, still backed their manager in the transfer market, making numerous expensive buys. Suddenly Chelsea, who I never used to consider as big a club as Tottenham, started splashing Abramovich’s cash to win the league three times over the last seven years, after doing it just once in the previous century.
It’s what has happened at Chelsea, and since at Manchester City under Sheikh Mansour, with both clubs now financed way beyond their own business resources by extraordinarily rich owners, that Arsenal’s self-sustaining model is supposed to be the alternative to. However, despite filling its new stadium (and charging some of the highest ticket prices in world football) Arsenal have not won a trophy for six years and I’ve seen nothing in the summer transfer window yet to make me think it won’t be seven at the end of this season. This raises questions about whether the self-sustaining model has been a failed experiment that simply didn’t work, or whether it’s likely to become successful in the future.
I think it’s fitting for success at a club of Arsenal’s stature and support to be measured in the context of trophies won. Avoiding relegation from the Premier League would be perfectly acceptable for Wigan, mid-table isn’t bad for Fulham, and a top-four place would be an excellent achievement for Tottenham. But Arsenal is at a different level to such clubs, which is why only Manchester United and Liverpool have won more league titles than us. If the club and its supporters ever start seeing success as anything other than winning trophies, then I’d see it as a sign of decline, whatever the club might say about achieving a top four finish to pacify its fans after another season that’s trophy-less.
Key to our chances of winning trophies under the self-sustaining model was Wenger’s youth project. Had it succeeded it should mean Arsenal signing top quality players at a young age, including from other clubs cheaply, who then mature together to develop into a trophy-winning outfit. It has unarguably worked with Fabregas, Van Persie and Wilshere and I expect it to work with Ramsey. Whereas the success or otherwise of players like Song, Clichy, Walcott and Nasri (half a great season in three years isn’t that good) is debatable, I have no hesitation in defining the likes of Denilson, Bendtner, Diaby, Vela, Traore and Eboue as relative failures. Overall, our recent trophy drought suggests the successes are too few and the failures too numerous to say the project has worked. Therefore, to date neither has the self-sustaining model.
I see any future chance for the self-sustaining model to work as being dependent on how rigorously UEFA’s financial fair play system is enforced. In effect, clubs are expected to control their expenditure in order to break even or balance their books over time. This means they should spend at a level coinciding with the income they earn via their activities as a football club, rather than have massive transfer fees and wages resulting in them going into the red or having such excessive costs met by wealthy benefactors. In other words, the rules should spell big danger for Chelsea and Manchester City who, as big clubs but not ones at the top table, spend way in excess of the income they generate from football because of their multibillionaire owners. But will it?
In June 2011 the Daily Mail reported that Barcelona’s president confirmed his club are £400 million in debt. Now Barcelona isn’t owned by a multi-billionaire, but they may pave the way for Chelsea and Manchester City to get round the fair play regulations. For while I don’t think UEFA would have any problem excluding Chelsea and Manchester City from the Champions League, I don’t think there’s the remotest chance of them excluding the glamorous, world- famous, best club side in the world. Which is good news for those English teams, because if onlinegooner.com 5