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Soap operas dressed up as morality tales do not come any better than the American Stan Kroenke’s take-over of Arsenal. The official word from Arsenal made the latest arrival of a foreign owner sound like the welcome a 19th century father might have given a man seeking the hand of his daughter.

This is what Peter Hill-Wood, the long serving chairman of the club, said: “The board of directors and I consider it a key responsbility to protect the ethos and spirit of the club. Mr Kroenke, although relatively new to Arsenal, has shown himself to be a man who values and respects the history and tradition of this very special club that we cherish. We are confident that he will be a safe custodian of its future.”

These could be the words of Mr Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when a suitor came calling for the hand of one of his daughters. Yet, without wishing to suggest that Kroenke is anything like Mr Darcy, the fact is that Arsenal has done a deal four years later than originally proposed. Then, as now, Kroenke was lined up to become the largest shareholder and bid for the club. So why has the club waited four years to make the deal?

The reason is that, four years ago, the deal was the work of David Dein, a man who has been a pariah at Emirates. This week’s deal was the work of Danny Fiszman, who died within days of the announcement of the Kroenke take-over. He is revered and a bridge leading to the ground now bears his name. Kroenke, viewed with great suspicion in 2007, is now being presented as the man who can be trusted with Arsenal. But this cloak of respectability on the American cannot obscure the intense feud that has been raging between Dein and Fiszman, once close friends. The last few years have been dominated by Fiszman, with help from Hill-Wood, making sure that, whatever happened, David Dein should never again get his hands on the club.

To appreciate how much Fiszman – and Hill-Wood – loathed him, recall what happened when Dein lined up Kroenke as the next owner back in March 2007. Dein had turned to Kroenke because he was worried about Arsenal losing out to Chelsea – and the endless coffers of Roman Abramovich. The deal he had in mind was that, in addition to buying the ITV stake, Kroenke would also buy Dein’s stake and that of Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith. It would also have meant Dein continuing to run Arsenal. If anything, his position would have been strengthened at a time when Fiszman had, to an large extent, marginalised him.

Fiszman reacted with unprecedented fury at what he felt was unacceptable behaviour. He alleged that Dein had gone behind the Board’s back. The result: Dein was unceremoniously bundled out of Emirates and he even had to surrender his mobile phone.

Image courtesy of Insideworldfootball.biz

Since then, the Board has watched like hawks for any sign that Dein (pictured above right with Hill-Wood) might be coming back. This worry grew as other foreign investors circled round the club. The fears centred on the Russian Alisher Usmanov as he bought Arsenal shares. Dein made no secret of his liking for the Russian and he was often a guest of Usmanov at his Emirates box. He eventually sold to the Russian pocketing £80 million, but this only intensified Fiszman’s dread that there could be a Russian take-over which would see Dein back in charge at the club.

Indeed anybody getting close to the Russian bred fear that Dein might return and this was what led to the breach with Lady Nina. Worried by how close she was getting to the Russian, she was dumped from the Board in 2008 hours after she had been unanimously re-elected by the annual general meeting of the club. Since then, her intentions regarding her share stake have greatly concerned the board.

The relief when Fiszman finally persuaded her to sell to Kroenke is evident. This explains why Hill-Wood went out of his way to praise the Bracewell-Smith family for the role they have played in the development and success of Arsenal over the last 70 years. He ended with the promise: “We will be considering appropriate ways to mark this long and valued commitment.” Lady Nina has clearly been forgiven now that she has done what Danny wanted, even if it was at the last moment.

There is no such redemption for Dein or even a mention that he originally brought in Kroenke. There may be a new chapter in the Arsenal story but Dein cannot be forgiven. And that is a great pity.

The fact is that Dein, for all his faults and mistakes, played a significant role in the making of modern Arsenal, not least in the recruitment of Arsene Wenger.

Just draw back a bit and consider the situation when David Dein first got into Arsenal. He was much taken by what Irving Scholar had done at Tottenham in the early 80s, managing to get round restrictive clauses that meant directors controlled who could buy shares in closed companies. Scholar’s arrival at Tottenham marked the start of commercialism in English football with Tottenham being floated on the stock exchange. Arsenal did not list on the exchange, Hill-Wood vetoing this Dein idea, but Dein did introduce commercialism at staid Highbury.

The thing to avoid here is the romantic notion that there was an English footballing paradise before money came into the game. There wasn’t. English football in the 80s was rotten. It was racist, sexist and, what is more, dangerously unsafe. English football needed to change and Dein was an innovator.

Dein had financial problems as a result of the collapse of his sugar business where he was the victim of a massive fraud. It was this that brought Fiszman into Arsenal, buying some of Dein’s shares. Having once been the unchallenged King of Highbury with a 42 per cent stake, Dein slowly saw it wither away while Fiszman’s share rose.

The two men might always have fallen out. But it did not help that they had sharp differences over Arsenal’s future strategy. Should the club have a new stadium or should it share the new Wembley? Dein favoured Wembley, Fiszman made sure Arsenal went for a new stadium.

You could argue that Fiszman was right and Dein was wrong. Building Emirates has been a success although it meant huge borrowings. It also soured relations in the board as the man Fiszman brought in to run the stadium project, Keith Edelman, did not get on with Dein. Indeed, when they both represented the club at Premier League meetings, the joke used to be that it was always a score draw with Arsenal since whatever Dein said Edelman opposed.

Kroenke, as the new custodian, does not have to worry about such things. He has made fine promises about not using the club’s funds to finance his purchase and respecting the self sustaining Arsenal model. But only time will show if these are the promises newspaper proprietors make when they buy a title. In such cases written pledges often prove not to be worth much.

And what all this does not answer is what happens to Wenger?

It is clear that he lost a soul mate when Dein was dumped. Arsenal then said there would be a replacement. There has not been. It will be interesting to see how the new owner will go about replacing the sounding board Wenger lost when Dein left.

For Arsenal fans, all this talk of Kroenke being the ideal custodian will mean little if the Frenchman does not rediscover his winning ways.

      

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