Addressing an audience of around 250 Arsenal supporters Ivan Gazidis said there had barely been a single hour since the end of the season when he was not working on club business. A midsummer’s evening spent at the Royal Oak Suite at the Emirates summed up how the goings-on at a football club never ease off.
There may have been a complimentary pie, drink, glimpse of the FA Cup and bunch of Ray Parlour anecdotes to help the evening flow but it was notable that emotion ran high as Arsenal’s chief executive fielded questions from the floor about the club’s direction and the disconnect with some of the fanbase. “If I felt there was an easy answer I would jump at it,” he said. “There is real regret we haven’t had that togetherness and I would do anything to bring that back.”
Gazidis periodically appears at supporter-oriented events. In fairness he is one of very few senior executives at a major Premier League club to front up and engage directly with supporters. It was an initiative originally conceived to be a fairly positive bridge between club and fans but on this occasion he was not surprised that the mood was “a conflicting mix” with frustrated complaints aired alongside warm praise. After all, as Gazidis himself confessed, that was how he felt about the season just gone by. He showered the FA Cup on display with affection, before saying, “Sorry, old friend, but you are not the trophy we all want.”
So, how to get closer to the one they want, the Premier League? Gazidis was unwilling to shed much light on any transfer manoeuvrings with negotiations continuing but he did talk about how the club was trying to upgrade across a range of departments. That brought to mind a line he trotted out at a previous fan forum, when he suggested that the difficult period last season, flummoxed and strained as the team fell away while the manager’s future was uncertain, was a “catalyst for change”.
The first question from the floor came from the son of Reg Lewis, the striker who scored both Arsenal’s goals in the 1950 FA Cup final victory. He evidently felt more plus ça change as he lamented how he had “never felt such a period of stagnation”. There was a ripple of applause for this directly made point.
Gazidis told the supporters to watch out for a few more recruits in terms of the support staff behind the scenes. But so far, it must be said, the catalyst-for-change concept looks like a thinly disguised version of more of the same. After all the fevered debate about Arsène Wenger’s contract, the flurry over Stan Kroenke’s ownership once news emerged that the American declined Alisher Usmanov’s takeover offer, the whispers about refreshing various personnel, ranging from the coaching set-up to the scouting staff and transfer negotiators, plus all the worries with star attractions such as Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil entering the final year of their deals, the Arsenal scene remains pretty familiar with the majority of the squad returning for pre-season on Monday.
Gazidis’s intentions to refresh an environment that had become a little too comfortable are easier said than done. The creation of a director of football role to link better the technical decisions with the board, to offer a support structure to the manager and to pave the way for an eventual succession plan whenever the Wenger era ends has returned to the backburner.
Meanwhile the cluster of staff whose positions were under review, including the goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton, fitness coach Tony Colbert and chief scout Steve Rowley, remain at the club.
There is an incoming fitness guru from Australia in Darren Burgess, a legal whizz Huss Fahmy to work on player contracts and a youth goalkeeping coach on board but it remains to be seen whether these appointments are radical enough to make the kind of instant impact to help Arsenal do what Gazidis aspires to. “We are all geared towards the question: how do we get from 75 points to the 85-90 points bracket in the Premier League?”
It is not, he claims, all about transfers even though Arsenal have plenty on their agenda as they try to work the markets. They have a number of issues to address within the squad, to try to fend off suitors for Sánchez while chasing attacking targets of their own, plus pruning a few expendable players from the wage bill if they can. They also need to appoint a head of youth development, not having yet replaced Andries Jonker, who left for Wolfsburg in February.
The complicated search for more change goes on.