On Wednesday of last week ( 16 September) myself and Steve Mann from the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association (AISA) attended the first Fans’ Forum of the new season. Arsenal hold a series of these across the season to listen to the views and concerns of supporters groups like ours and individuals representing the various parts of the supporter base (such as Red and Silver members, women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, overseas, and disabled supporters). The meetings are chaired by Mark Gonnella (Arsenal’s head of communications) and are an important opportunity for the club to hear from the fans.
Obviously, with the current health crisis showing little signs of abating the meeting took place on zoom, as the last did, although in ‘normal’ times (remember those?) we sit around the table in the boardroom at Highbury House.
As usual this event started with an opening address from Vinai Venkatesham who, with the departure this summer of Raul Sanllehí, has effective full control of the club’s operations. He wouldn’t be drawn on why Raul left but wanted to reiterate how much he respected his ability and valued his friendship. Arsenal now have one of the youngest executive teams in the Premier League but it is also a very experienced one; Arteta for example has 16 years’ experience of the PL, not many managers can say that.
Vinai kept his address short this time, aware that there were lots of questions to get through. He was upbeat, reflecting the general air of optimism that is running through the club at the moment. We finished last season on a high and hopefully that will be carried into the new campaign. Of course life is difficult at the moment and the meeting was dominated by the COVID pandemic and the restrictions placed on all of us, and in particular on football.
In response to a question he did expand on Arteta’s role at the club, having been given the title of first team manager rather than head coach. He said that Mikel will be working alongside Edu (our Director of Football) on ‘all areas of our first team football operation’. It is a bigger role than ‘head coach’ but not the role that Arsene Wenger had at Arsenal; that model was then, this is different and we are not going back to it.
Vinai also spoke about the process of scouting, identifying, and buying players and was very clear that ‘the identity of a player’s representative (his agent) had nothing to do with our choice’.
We then had a fascinating presentation by Mairead King (the director of the Arsenal Foundation) and Suzanne Goodread (the Womens’ rep) on the Coaching for Life programme that the foundation is running with save the Children in Jordan and Indonesia. It is all about building young people’s confidence and resilience in some of the most difficult areas in the world; the work they have done in Za’arari refugee camp in Jordan is truly inspirational. If you get a chance do look at the videos that the club has produced showing the work they are doing. As Vinai pointed out, no other club is doing this sort of work, now other club could – this is the Arsenal making a positive difference to people’s lives across the world. Not surprisingly though, when budgets are being squeezed these sorts of projects are under threat and the forum was asked for ideas to support it. On behalf of AISA I said I would take this back to the committee and see what we could do to help.
This took us on to the questions. These are sent to the club in advance and you can see all the answers in full in the minutes of the meeting which are published on the club’s website (and on ours). I won’t cover everything here, just the questions we asked and that of the Silver membership rep Jake Coare – who liaised with me before the forum.
Jake asked if silver members would get a refund for this season if it becomes clear that they won’t get the chance to attend matches. The club offered a fairly muted response to this, saying they will review the situation as the season unfolds with the hope that more and more fans will be able to watch the team. Mark Brindle pointed out that silver memberships are ‘not solely focused on ticket access and come with other benefits’ (such as the 10% in store discount and membership pack).
I felt this was beside the point and pressed the club a little. Would they consider a full or partial refund in the form of a holiday and credit against next year’s membership? This would reward loyalty and go some way to placating fans. Mark Gonnella agreed to take this back and consider it.
Watch this space folks, Jake and AISA will continue to campaign on behalf of Silver members (and Red and Purple ones) and I believe that AST hold very similar views to us. We recognize that the club would be hard pressed to refund all those that have renewed their memberships this season but the likelihood of many of them actually getting ‘value’ for the money they have forked out is very slim. We understand that Project Rocky (the return of fans to the Emirates) is mostly focused on the 40k+ season ticket holders who support the club with an annual commitment, but people like those Jake represents need to be dealt with fairly as well.
We asked about broadcasters rescheduling matches for TV at the last minute. It’s bad enough in normal times but in a pandemic it could be even worse for those panning long journeys to the ground. Mark Gonnella was frank, saying that the likes of Sky and BT have invested heavily in the PL and so, in effect, they call the shots (my words, not his). But yes, it is something that has been highlighted and there is an ‘ongoing discussion’ about this. AISA will continue to push on this as part of our affiliated membership of the Football Supporters Association (FSA) because, once again, fans are the ones who suffer. We can see how much football needs fans at the moment – no one likes watching televised games in empty stadia with ‘canned’ singing and cheering – now, more than ever football supporters need to band together to insist that broadcasters paly fair with us.
I also asked about arrangements for fans travelling to the ground to watch the team. John Beattie (the stadium manager) assured us that the club have sat down with TfL and the other public transport providers who were doing all they could to provide a safe service. The club will marshal queues in and out of the ground and the Arsenal tube, and have met with local safety officers and the police. They are doing what they can but of course it relies on us following the rules. There is no news on when fans can return to Meadow Park to watch the Arsenal Women play – which is a shame since they are in scintillating form!
Finally on behalf of all AISA members we put on record our thanks and gratitude to Ken Friar for his enormous contribution to Arsenal for 70 years. We wished him a well-deserved happy and healthy retirement.
And that was it, another fans’ forum over and instead of heading for Drayton Park and the over ground train home I signed out of Zoom and went to make a cup of tea. Strange time!
Drew (Chair AISA)