Ivan Gazidis held the annual Supporters’ Club event in the Royal Oak suite of the Emirates Stadium Club Level facility. Tim Stillman was there to capture the evening for Arseblog News.
Ivan Gazidis trots to the stage and thanks supporters for coming out- particularly whilst we are still embroiled in the thick of the World Cup. The event is billed as ‘Ivan Gazidis + Special Guest’ and the guest is pretty special indeed. New manager Unai Emery is welcomed onto the stage resplendent in cherry red Arsenal polo shirt.
Compere Nigel Mitchell advises that Emery’s English is still not totally fluent, but from the audience, his diction seems a little clearer than his opening press conference back in May, in which the new boss showed extraordinary courage to conduct proceedings in a foreign tongue. Huss Fahmy, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi were all in the audience for the evening. Emery fielded questions from Nigel Mitchell, after which Ivan fielded a few unvetted questions from the floor.
Unai: I can speak in English, not brilliantly yet, but I can speak with the players and with you, all the fans here tonight, in English and I will improve quickly [loud applause].
At this point, a short piece of VT was played that Unai was shown by various members of Arsenal staff during Wednesday afternoon when he met with them.
Ivan: We have entered a period of very dynamic change at the football club and all of those things have been happening for the last couple of months. But of course, the biggest transformation and the biggest challenge is on the football side, where we are making a lot of significant changes. We have said goodbye to some people who are really good people, who have made a huge contribution to this football club, in which we of course include Arsene but many others as well, who we have enormous gratitude and respect for and on whose shoulders we now stand.
But now we have the challenge of integrating an awful lot of new ideas and new people and new energy. I think everyone in this room can feel the new energy with the reception you gave Unai. But we have the same ambitions inside the football club and I assure you you have a football staff and an organisation that is going to take on this challenge and work tirelessly to deliver the success we all want for Arsenal.
Unai: Good evening everybody, I am very happy to be with you this evening.
[From the audience]: Buenos dias
Ivan: That’s Maria, you will get to know her very quickly!
Unai: I feel very good to be here and all of the people in the club have made me very welcome and so have you tonight. For me, it is a new possibility to work here and in this great, great stadium. If we have this ambience here, that we have tonight, it’s a small crowd, but if we can match that ambience in the stadium at the games then we can achieve a lot.
Ivan: We have brought in a new head of recruitment in Sven Mislintat [‘here Ivan!’ a slightly teutonic sounding voice calls from the audience] and alongside him is Huss Fahmy who has been involved with negotiating a lot of our player contracts and also we have Raul Sanllehi who joins us from Barcelona [Raul is stationed on the balcony above the audience].
So we really have a collective effort now, in terms of how we identify players and then how we take forward our interest and of course Unai is a huge part of that as well. This is now a different way of doing things, one with a very, very accomplished team of professionals who we have spent time bedding into the club.
Unai has been in the thick of that process in terms of what we need in the squad, we’ve signed two new players so far this summer and there will be more to come. At the same time we have to manage the squad that we have, but by the first game of the season, we hope that Unai has a squad that he has had time to work with and a balanced squad that addresses all of the needs that Unai has identified.
As I said, this is a challenge, but what I really hope for all of us as a club is for a feeling of unity and an uplifting atmosphere is something that we keep because anything that we achieve going forward will be done together. It’s so important for us to come together, to move forward together and accept there are going to be challenges and setbacks along the way, but if we stick together we can have a season that gives cause for excitement as our club progresses.
One of the interesting things about speaking with Unai in recent weeks is that he continually emphasises that he wants to understand the club and he wants to understand our values. We spent an hour earlier today just talking about values and what Arsenal represents. One of the long standing traditions at the club is in developing players and that’s one of the things Unai has done throughout his career.
We spent a lot of time behind the scenes over the last few years developing our academy, our academy at Hale End is unrecognisable from how it was a few years ago. We’ve got new leadership in the academy now with Per Mertesacker and Freddie Ljungberg managing the U-23s. So there is tremendous energy, not just in this room and with Unai, but right across the club.
Nigel Mitchell: Unai, what a way to kick off for you. Day number one, Manchester City at home. Welcome to the Premier League!
Unai: It’s a nice way for me to start, the first match is a very big match and it’s my first match with you [referring to the fans]. I think it helps us to start with a good energy and for us to start together like this and then we will work and work and work because I only promise you one thing, that we are going to work hard.
After that, we play against a very good team and I hope we have a good result together and our capacity for playing together as a team gives us a good chance to win. I want for this day for us to start in a really positive way.
Ivan: I’m excited about it, let’s go against the best. Of course it won’t be fully fledged Arsenal on day one, but we will be ready for that match. We will have a good pre-season, Unai is at Colney tomorrow putting those plans in place.
Unai: I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want that every day, this is my ambition.
Nigel Mitchell: On your first day here, you said you would prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0. Now, quite a lot of us in the audience, we like 1-0! (Laughter).
Unai: First, we need to change the history! (Laughter). I said I prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0 because football is about emotion and what is the best feeling in football? When you score. So I want my team to score.
Ivan: So you prefer 5-0 to 5-4? (Laughter)
Unai: Yes! For me I want the supporters to feel every minute in the stadium, I want them to enjoy.
Nigel Mitchell: Ok, so we’ll change the song. [To the audience], no more ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’, we won’t sing that anymore.
How important are these fans to what you want to achieve?
Unai: For me it’s like a table, a table needs four legs. One leg is the organisation, two is the players, the third is the media- we all need to see the whole picture and how we communicate and the fourth is you- the supporters. And it’s very important that the four legs make a big, strong club together. If one leg doesn’t work, there is no table.
Nigel Mitchell: What is your view on the World Cup so far?
Unai: Today is a surprise with Germany going out. But for me, England is an interesting side, England didn’t have a good tournament in the last World Cup and the last Euros, but this World Cup I have watched their two matches and I have seen a change in them. They will play teams that are more difficult, but I liked what I saw in their matches.
At this point, Unai departs and questions are taken from the floor for Ivan.
Q: Ivan can you just clarify the player recruitment structure, who makes the final decision when you recruit players?
IG: We have two technical experts involved in the process and many more behind them helping them. The two technical experts would be Sven Mislintat, the Head of Recruitment and Raul Sanllehi, who works on the negotiation side and then Unai himself, who has a big say. I don’t believe in bringing a player in that the coach does not want individually and also positionally.
I am involved, in the connection between the financial side of the club and in certain player negotiations. That collective works very well, we all operate in a different way. There is an agreement between Sven and Unai and then the rest of the work is more technical, legal and financial side is done by Raul, Huss and myself. Ultimately those decisions culminate in my recommendation to the board for its approval.
I felt that when we decided to make the change on the football side, that we needed to come up with a new structure and one that involve world class people that would challenge each other and have that robust debate, but then get behind each other and the decisions that are made and execute them as well as we can. Everyone in this team has enormous experience.
This club deserves and needs the best in the world, we need to be the best in the world off the field in order to compete on it. One of the great things about that process has been finding out just how attractive this club is to people and we shouldn’t forget that. Everyone we approached immediately wanted to come here.
We should be proud of that. It’s easy to forget when you love a club the things that we do so incredibly well and our reputation is so good and I believe to the core of my being that we should be proud of that. That doesn’t mean that we’re perfect, but it does mean is that we have a great reputation.
Q: Last year I asked about the matchday experience at the Emirates, which was bad last year when you look at the vast empty spaces. I wondered if the Arsenal were going to do anything in terms of incentivising people that turn up at matches. Borussia Dortmund recently announced measures to suspend season tickets of people that don’t turn up for seven games or more. We need an atmosphere to support Unai and to do that, we need everyone turning up, what are Arsenal going to do to help that?
IG: There are a number of aspects to the answer to that question. The most important thing, is are we giving our fans something they are proud of, excited by and engaged with on the pitch. That’s the quickest way of creating a vibrant atmosphere in the stadium. If we don’t do that, the rest is just window dressing.
In terms of matchday credits, it’s an ongoing discussion and there are lots of challenges in implementing that. It’s on my radar, I get asked about it with pretty much every fans forum I do. It might sound like I am kicking it into the long grass, but I am not. It is something I think about and it may be something we are able to do in the future.
The other thing, which is very topical is safe standing. We’ve had a government debate on safe standing and it’s a debate which has moved forward in a way that has surprised many people. A few years ago there was no appetite to even look at this. The Premier League have begun to review this over the last couple of years and beginning to develop the ideas behind it.
Now I feel this is a time where we’re beginning to get some traction with government. So this might be an area where we can do something, I don’t think it will happen as quickly as people want, but my own view is that if our own fans want it, if it is safe, not just in the limited sense that it’s safe for those standing but that we’re keeping a good dynamic and keeping the good, diverse, positive aspects of the atmosphere in the stadium and not bringing back some of the more divisive aspects of the culture we had in the past, certainly when I went to football as a kid.
I don’t think it will do that either. If we can get through those types of questions, then I would be disposed to it. One of the things that will come through in the next phase of the debate is that people will be informed about what safe standing does do and what it doesn’t do. A lot of people think standing in stadiums is a return to the 1980s, I don’t think that.
I have spoken to people and some people in government who say, ‘well, if you have one part of the stadium standing, then we have to absolutely mandate that everyone else sit down.’ That is not really what safe standing is about, we’re not going to be able to achieve every other person sitting in the stadium at all times, it’s not realistic. So there are quite complicated, nuanced things we have to work on but I want everyone to understand what we are doing and what we’re not doing and understand the full implications. This is not only an issue for Arsenal, it is an issue for the whole game.
Q: I had an experience in Orlando last year safe standing. It was shortly after the shooting in the gay nightclub and there was a memorial for the victims right in the middle of the safe standing area. I had a perfect view of the pitch and the atmosphere was great, but it was inclusive and I thought ‘someone finally gets what inclusion means’ and I would be so proud to see that at Arsenal.
IG: I applaud with everyone else, because you are absolutely right, diversity and inclusion is absolutely fundamental in any football club, any organisation and there is so much that we have done in this area and we are leaders in this area right across the world of football. Last week I was at a forum in Brussels talking on this issue and I was invited because of the work Arsenal has done in diversity and inclusion.
We’ve done quite a lot in the stadium in recent years with regards to our disability access, I think we were probably one of the best in the world for that anyway, stadium wise. I want this club to be a club that continues to allow our fans of whatever gender, sexuality, religion, ethnic background, level of ability, to be able to participate in this game that we all love.
But also to participate in the way that they want to participate and that’s our challenge. We’re not perfect yet, but I know we can do it. There are ways we can work together so that each one of you feel like this club cares about you and provides you with the experience of the game in the way that you want it, that’s my aim.
Q: The U-18s play here, great. The U-23s play here, great. When are we going to see the women play here?
IG: We have seen it and we will see it. We have invested a lot of money in our women’s team over recent years, the women’s programme is now fully professional run by fully professional staff. They have their own facility at London Colney, which we refurbished for them and we have relayed the pitch at Boreham Wood.
I was talking with Alex Scott this morning and we were talking about how far the women’s game has come in recent years. I’m very proud of what we do with our women’s team, we had the biggest ever crowd at the Women’s FA Cup Final this year and we will have games here in the stadium, I promise you.
The reason I got into that conversation with Alex Scott, who is a great ambassador for this club and loves this club, because I sent her a message to say how proud I was of her. She is knocking spots off other pundits and commentators with her research, her intelligence, her enthusiasm. It’s not easy to be one of the first women through the door, demands placed on women that work in this environment are really quite extreme.
They are not only expected to be outstanding at their job, but they are expected to be a quasi-public figure. They go through all of the prejudices and take all of the comments and that is an awful lot to take on. So to see women like Alex going into that environment and doing it so well is such an inspiring sight.
One of the things we have to think about is not just how we introduce gender equality, but equality all across the board. If you could see the staff at the club, you would see that but you also see that on the playing side. We, along with other clubs, have a way to go there but we are very actively working in this area. What I want to move towards is a time where this is all so normal that it’s not even commented on.
Q: First of all, we’re all dying to know, what do you think of Tottenham, Ivan?
IG: There’s no good answer to this for me!
Q: Many of us fans feel quite attached to David Dein (he left eleven years ago ffs), do you feel under pressure with that legacy and do you aspire to that?
IG: I’ve known David for 20 years and I know him very well. I have massive respect for the people on whose shoulders we are standing. Football is very fast moving, it’s a very competitive landscape and it’s a very different world to the one that existed twenty years ago. It’s global now. Finding talent, coaching talent, developing talent, it has all changed beyond all recognition.
What that means is the old models of one individual are no longer sufficient. So if I think about myself, my job here, my objective is to deliver pride to the club and my belief is that the way I do that is by bringing in world class people and giving them the support they need to do their jobs. All of us together, it’s not a single entity.
The thing I am accused of a lot is not feeling this club, not caring in the way that you, the fans, do. That’s not the case, I live this football club. I will stand toe to toe with anybody and talk about my love for this football club and what it means to me and how much I put into it. If that’s not enough, then look, one day I will be gone, all of this is temporary.
But I care about it, I give everything I have every single day and I demand that of the people that work with this football club. Anybody that is at this club is in a privileged position and anybody that doesn’t feel that does not deserve to be part of this football club. I can’t guarantee we will win everything, but what I can guarantee you, if we embark on this journey together and stick together, we can achieve great things.
Let me tell you what I can guarantee you, anyone that does not put every ounce of their being, of their expertise into this club does not belong here. They wouldn’t get in the door and none of them feel like that when they walk through the doors and leave at the end of the day.