Hill-Wood should be given his due

Tuesday 18th June 2013 6:59

Peter Hill-Wood: Stepped down at The Emirates

Peter Hill-Wood: Stepped down at The Emirates

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Arsenal FanZoner Harry Moylan looks at Arsenal's recent history and says Peter Hill-Wood and Arsene Wenger should be given some credit.

After 31 years in charge, Hill-Wood stepped down as chairman of Arsenal on Friday.

Hill-Wood's first decade at the helm was largely spent, season upon season, watching Liverpool dominate football in the 1980s. However, Hill-Wood did oversee Arsenal break that dominance on two occasions, most notably Michael Thomas' iconic "it's up for grabs now!" injury-time title decider at Anfield in 1989.

Perhaps one of Hill-Wood's wisest decisions was the 1983 appointment of David Dein as vice president of the Arsenal board. Although Hill-Wood himself dubbed Dein mad for buying so much stock in Arsenal at the time, by appointing him to this role, he had in fact laid foundations for the most successful era in the club's history.

The 1990s saw Liverpool's stranglehold over English football wane and the era of Manchester United arrive. George Graham led Arsenal to 1993 FA Cup success and the 1994 European Cup Winner's Cup, before his nine-year reign ended in unsavory circumstances in 1995.

Some years of managerial changes followed when Dein, on observing his successes with Monaco and Japanese outfit, Nagoya Grampus, appointed the then relatively unknown Arsene Wenger to the helm - and the rest is history. Three Premier League titles and four FA Cups later, with Arsenal established as an English football heavyweight and Sir Alex Ferguson's primary headache in winning league titles. Hill-Wood, Dein, the late Danny Fizman and Wenger seized the opportunity to ensure Arsenal would have a platform to remain at the forefront of English football for a long time. Prominence paradoxically didn't come without cost, however, and this point also saw problems develop and the story turn somewhat sour.

Since as early as 1997 - a year after Wenger became Arsenal manager - Arsenal had been investigating the possibility of moving stadium. After much deliberation, in 2000 Arsenal made plans to move stadium from its endearing, if small, spiritual home at Highbury.

Residents of the surrounding area in Islington approved the proposed move to an estate in Ashburn Grove. After numerous financial stumbling blocks, in 2004 Arsenal announced Emirates Airline as sponsors of the new stadium and work began late that year. Despite the Emirates' sponsorship, Arsenal still had to take out vast loans to finance the building work, which cost a whopping £390 million.

Two years of construction ensued and in 2006 Arsenal opened its new stadium in time for the new season. In a smart move to maximize profits to help repay banks debts, the Arsenal board transformed Highbury into a swanky apartment complex. Money-spinning friendlies featuring high-profile teams such as Brazil and Argentina are now a regular fixture of the Emirates, as the board does whatever possible to pay back debts.

Hill-Wood and his board demonstrated vision in building the new stadium, because in the long term, to remain competitive Arsenal needed the additional revenue. Crucially, Wenger shared this vision. With the Galacticos at Madrid and Roman Abramovich's millions at Chelsea, it seemed football was now entering a new era of extravagance and Arsenal's 38,000 capacity at Highbury simply could not bridge the gap between itself and Stamford Bridge. But you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and in building the Emirates, Wenger knew Arsenal would necessarily be limited on the pitch...hence Arsenal's trophy drought since 2005. And hence too, since 2005, Arsenal, their manager and their board have been not just been panned in the press, but also by considerable sections of their fan base.

The traditional AGMs have become increasingly uncomfortable as Wenger and the board attempt to justify themselves to fans, and prove that they still have palates primed with a hunger for success. Hiked tickets prices, another mechanism for repaying debts, have proved the most controversial action taken by the board.

Spare some sympathy for Arsenal fans as, on empty wallets, they muster sole focus on the fact that sky-high ticket prices will at least allow them to witness Champions League football. Barcelona, Bayern Munich and their ilk have graced the Emirates in recent years, and Wenger's Arsenal can never be faulted for attempting to entertain.

Wenger's latter years as manager have been filled with immense pressure, and that, combined with lack of ultimate success in terms of wins, has taken a physical toll on the Arsenal manager. In spite of this, Wenger, Hill-Wood and Arsenal's board have stuck undeviatingly to their fiscal plan, with Arsenal continuing to turn over massive profits and, in turn, using that money to repay the banks. And what has made this all the more remarkable is that on the pitch, Wenger has somehow managed to keep Arsenal in the Champions League year after year. As Arsenal's decline as a competitive title-challenging outfit set in, stars began to hunt up new opportunities for success. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Cedc Fabregas and Robin van Persie are among the big names that have left the club, while Wenger constantly toiled to find new and cheaper channels to plug these gaps.

One positive is that these lucrative departures have considerably sped up the bank repayment process. A lesser manager might have become demoralised, however, and begun to dream of better opportunities for himself to succeed. But Wenger clearly is a stayer, and stands committed to the vision, recently acknowledging that he would like to sign a new contract and remain Arsenal manager beyond 2014. The impression is that, after years of enduring limited success, Wenger still harbours a quiet but burning desire to bear the fruits of his own labor.

In 2007 Dein left Arsenal, another blow to Wenger, as he had worked in tandem with Dein on Arsenal's transfer plans. There can be no doubt that this has had an adverse effect on Arsenal's transfer dealings in the post Dein years. Dein's replacement, Ivan Gazidis, has devoted much of his time at the club reiterating the board's support for Wenger, while working to finish the job Arsenal started in 2004. Encouragingly Gazidis has also orchestrated an astounding £30million-a-year deal with Puma for the club's shirt sponsorship. As Arsenal close on the final debt repayments, Gazidis has perhaps unwisely made it known that for the first time in years Wenger now has considerable funds to burn. Big statements, and not entirely unprecedented, but it is always important to note that in the transfer market Wenger insists in getting value for money. New UEFA Financial Fair play also favors Arsenal's current self-sustaining model.

The board is often depicted as made up of penny-pinching, self-interested Scrooges, and Wenger - the single greatest thing that has ever happened to Arsenal football club - is accused of being a cheap skate. A leap of faith is clearly called for, not just that but also a banishment of the kind of paranoid dark murmurings that say Wenger and the board have been stowing all the club's profits away in Swiss bank accounts or on the other side of the world, while sipping scotch, adjusting monocles and cackling manically at underdog fans' expense (although in truth our new chairman's name 'Sir Chips Keswick' does little to dispel these caricatures).

The facts are Hill-Wood's family have been involved in Arsenal FC since 1927, Wenger has been in charge for closer to 20 years. Is it so inconceivable that these men aren't acting in self-interest and do in fact actually want the best for the club? Despite consistently being told they are doing it wrong by pundits, Arsenal have conducted themselves in an efficient manner over the past decade and thus avoided the same pitfalls as the likes of Leeds and Portsmouth.

The Emirates crowd should recognize this and fully support the team. Lets have more support and fewer incidents where a player was reduced to tears or a club legend has to remind his fans to support their club. They made mistakes - Hill-Wood's somewhat Eastern xenophobic isolation of Russian billionaire and major stakeholder Alisher Usmanov, for instance; or Wenger's passing up of Juan Mata due to price also springs to mind. But it should be obvious that these people do love Arsenal. If history tells us anything, Arsenal has been a recurring competitive force of English football. If their latest and most ambitious project yet is about to pay off, maybe in years to come Arsenal fans will look back on the building of the Emirates Stadium and the men behind it, recognise not just the vision but the grit and staying power that saw it through and finally give old dogs like Hill-Wood their due.

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