EXCLUSIVE: Arsenal director Kroenke vows the club 'are NOT for sale'

EXCLUSIVE: Arsenal director Josh Kroenke vows that the Gunners ‘are NOT for sale’ as he insists ‘we’re just getting started’… and claims he can fulfil Champions League dreams of sceptical fans

  • Arsenal director Josh Kroenke has vowed to make supporters proud of the club
  • Kroenke states he loved meeting fans, despite being grilled over club’s running 
  • Described the Gunners joining the European Super League as a ‘low point’ 
  • Kroenke wants to get Arsenal challenging for Champions League glory
  • Former boss Arsene Wenger would also be welcome to return to the club
  • Wenger has not attended a match since his 26-year-tenure ended in 2018 

Josh Kroenke is well acquainted with disillusionment in a sporting context. His age of innocence had ended even before he left high school. 

A talented basketball player, he was good enough to play for the University of Missouri, which means he was the equivalent standard of a Premier League academy player. 

As the incubator of future pro superstars, American university sport is a big deal. At end-of-season events such as March Madness, Kroenke would play in front of 30,000 spectators.

Jose Kroenke was interviewed by the Mail on Sunday’s Rob Draper at Arsenal’s training ground

Arsenal director Josh, is the son of the club’s owner Stan (centre), pictured in 2019

But his cold shower of brutal reality came even before that, when selected as an 18-year-old to play on a representative team of the best high school seniors which would tour Europe. 

Naturally, he felt pretty proud, before he overheard the on-looking NBA scouts chatting. ‘These guys aren’t bad,’ said one. ‘But we have an eighth grader [14-year-old] who’s better than all of them.’

‘Fortunately a few years later I realised that eighth grader he referenced was this guy that no one’s ever heard of called Lebron James,’ says Kroenke. ‘It turned out it was a pretty good guess on that guy’s part. And I’d guess the eighth grader was a lot better than anything we were doing. I can live with that. There are moments in time for every athlete where you realise either how gifted you might be or that there is a different level of athleticism that someone else has been blessed with!’

Kroenke is in London to watch today’s game with Watford and for one of his trips back to touch base with Arsenal. Kroenke Sports Entertainment, the company built by his father, Stan, own the club and the global response to Covid has restricted such visits recently. 

He flew in for the appointment of Mikel Arteta in December 2019 and then did not manage to get back again until the final game of last season, in May this year. In his absence, Arsenal have won the FA Cup, finished eighth twice — their lowest-placed finishes since 1995 — and failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in 26 years.

‘That was the most frustrating part for me, not being able to get over,’ he says. ‘Mikel and I were having lunch together the other day and we were laughing, [because] he said: “I feel like this is my first real season in charge”. And I said: “It is! You came in December 2019 and I was only able to get over here [then]”.

‘One of the things he and I spoke about was changing the culture. To use a metaphor of a house, the legendary Arsene Wenger had built Arsenal Football Club into one of the most beautiful houses you had ever seen. Over time that house has different people inside and out and over time every house needs to be renovated.

‘When I sat down with Mikel, all he talked about was culture. He wanted to build on the foundations that Arsene had laid and the great people that had come before him. And also to help renovate the house back into a beautiful modern-day home that our fans can be proud of and you’re starting to see those foundations are really taking shape and he’s renovating the Arsenal home in a beautiful way. Hopefully, whether that’s one year, three years or five years, it’s going to become a home all Arsenal fans are proud of.’

It has been a busy week. It is the third time he has been back this season and, as well as lunch with Arteta, there was the first chance post lockdowns to attend a meeting of all Arsenal staff, more than 200 of them, at the Emirates Stadium.

There was also a first meeting of the fan advisory board, set up in the wake of the Super League debacle, where frank views were exchanged on Thursday night. The temperature may have cooled since Arsenal attempted to extract themselves from the burden of qualifying for Europe in April, yet the attempt to form a Super League and its subsequent collapse in 48 hours has left scars that Kroenke is aware will take years to heal.

‘The more we get to know each other, the only thing it’s going to do is strengthen our relationship,’ he says of the attempt to build bridges with fans. ‘There’s scepticism, I don’t know if I’ll ever be embraced with open arms. But to unite the global Arsenal fan base around a young manager and a young squad, would be one of the more powerful and rewarding experiences of my life.’

He has formed a good relationship along with manager Mikel Arteta, who he shakes hands with during the Spaniard’s playing days following a Community Shield fixture back in 2015

He says the experience of having a group of seven of Arsenal’s most committed fans grill him was ‘fantastic’. 

Really? ‘Absolutely. The only way to get better is to challenge yourself. I truly believe that. And that’s what those people in the room are designed to do, to challenge myself, the board and the club as a whole.’

Liverpool are writing into their company articles of association that the club’s supporters will effectively have veto over affairs such as a future Super League proposal. Arsenal will not go that far but feel they have matched those commitments by agreeing with the advisory board that any major changes and anything which affects the culture and tradition of the club would not happen without their buy-in.

When it is put to him how disempowering it felt to have investors from the US, Abu Dhabi and Russia seemingly tear up the English game and dismantle 150 years of tradition, he says: ‘There were so many factors at play. I understand what you’re saying. It was a low point, that’s for sure.

Supporters were left angered by Arsenal’s decision to join the European Super League in April

‘We were presented with an opportunity and the main question we asked ourselves, the key concept, was talking about stabilising certain parts of the football pyramid. We knew it wasn’t a perfect concept. But the question we kept asking ourselves was, “What’s worse: a Super League with Arsenal or a Super League without Arsenal?”.

‘And in the moment, when things were moving as fast as they were, we got that question wrong. We quickly pivoted out of it. We apologised to our supporters. And when you’re at that level with your supporters, there’s really only one way to go and that’s up. I’ve worked hard to try and re-establish lines of communication which usually means me getting a certain number of strong opinions my way, which I welcome very much.

‘But with that has come a galvanised sense in myself that I really want to connect with our supporters in a much more meaningful way, starting with that first fan advisory board we had.’

Arsenal, though, are still part of the Super League company, which is yet to be dissolved. Kroenke insists this is simply a legal complication, something being worked on and that the Super League is dead. ‘There are so many legal aspects to that, I definitely can’t comment,’ he says. ‘There many people with highly trained legal minds working on this.’

The context for all this turbulence was, of course, the response to Covid. Arsenal’s losses are likely to be about £140million from the 2020-21 season. Last season was also grim on the pitch. 

At one stage, Arsenal went seven Premier League games without a win. Kroenke was in almost daily contact via Zoom with chief executive Vinai Venkatesham and technical director Edu and spoke regularly with Arteta.

Before the club quickly backed out of ESL, fans protested angrily at the move at the Emirates

Arsenal’s poor 2020-21 season meant they missed out on Europe for the first time since 1996

https://oldtimerfest-muensingen.net/sports-news/fears-are-growing-at-headingley-over-the-clubs-financial-viability/

‘There were never any doubts on my part. There was always going to be a tough transition. And as long as we understood that and stayed together there was never any doubt in my mind. There were only words of encouragement going on behind the scenes.

‘Mikel recently was commenting on how there’s a point in time when doubt is a natural thought process that comes in but we all put our arms round each other and we only encouraged each other. The power of positivity got us through some very dark moments. And with the work ethic of everyone in this building [the London Colney training ground], with the power of positivity, we’ve come through it and everyone is stronger for it.’ 

Amid the swirl of the poor form and the failure to qualify for Europe, there was a bid for the club from Spotify billionaire Daniel Ek. ‘The club is not for sale,’ says Kroenke. ‘We just took control of the club in 2018. I’m 41 years old. As far as I’m concerned we’re just getting started.

Amid the swirl of the poor form and the failure to qualify for Europe, there was a bid for the club from Spotify billionaire Daniel Ek

‘We received many, many other offers behind the scenes in addition to the one that was public and we only issued one statement on the whole thing and that was that the club was not for sale. Lots of parties, all over the world [have made offers]. Arsenal Football Club is a global thing and there are people paying attention all over the world and there’s people who want to get involved in this club all over the world. The club is not for sale. We’re just getting started.’

2018 is the crucial date in Kroenke’s eyes. From 2011, KSE owned 66 per cent of the club but Alisher Usmanov and Everton owner Farhad Moshiri owned another 29 per cent. It was only in 2018 that KSE took full control as sole owners.

When asked about their 10-year record as majority owners — four FA Cups and regression from Champions League football —Kroenke is keen to make this distinction. On their record since 2011, he said: ‘Any time you’re winning silverware, it’s not a bad thing. But the standards for Arsenal are much higher than winning FA Cups. We need to be competing for the Premier League trophy consistently, year in, year out. As the best league in the world, if you’re competing for that trophy you’re basically competing for every other silverware in global football.’

Essentially that would mean winning the Champions League? ‘Absolutely. I state the Premier League as our goal. It is the strongest league in the world and if you’re competing for that trophy then you’re competing for every other trophy in the game. But if you’re competing for the Premier League trophy you’re competing for the Champions League trophy.’ He says he will not be satisfied until this is achieved.

He draws attention to the fact that finances have loosened since KSE took control, mainly guaranteeing loans to allow Arsenal to be more aggressive in the transfer market. 

Kroenke stands alongside technical director Edu during a pre-season tour of the USA in 2019

Arsenal though look to finally be heading in the right direction under Arteta this season

‘It [the financial model of the club] was tighter before 2018. Since 2018 we have been as aggressive as we can in our singular ownership of the club. We’ve refinanced multi hundreds of million pounds of stadium debt, we’ve broken transfer records and this past summer we had the highest net spend of anyone in the Premier League. Does that mean we’re going to keep doing it? I’m not 100 per cent sure. But we’re going to continue to be aggressive and when we see areas where we can improve the club on and off the pitch we’re going to keep doing it.’

Yet he admits the club got the Wenger succession wrong. The key executives entrusted with that mission in 2018 were Ivan Gazidis, who left a few months later to join AC Milan, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi, who left by mutual consent in 2019 and 2020 respectively and boss Unai Emery, sacked in 2019.

‘It hasn’t been smooth. It was always going to be a tough transition, no matter when it occurred. [There was] a lot of transition that summer, maybe too much. Not only did we lose Arsene, we lost our CEO, we were changing our structure behind the scenes, trying to implement a head of football, technical director. Were we ever going to get everything correct? We’d have to have been maybe unique in global sport to get everything right the first time.

The Spanish boss has recovered after a dreadful start to get Arsenal climbing up the table

‘But we’ve acknowledged mistakes, we’ve corrected those mistakes, we’ve charted a clear path for the club, which has started to take shape over the last few matches. As a club we’re proud that we have withstood the early challenges of this season to be where we are now. But if anyone’s satisfied, they’re kidding themselves.

‘With a taste of stability and a touch of success, maybe, over the last few matches that only makes us hungrier for the future. Once we took a step back and understood what we needed to do, we quickly changed direction. And hopefully that culminated in what they saw was a very clear strategy in the transfer marker this summer.’

There is one last elephant in the room: the fact that Wenger has not returned to the club to watch a game since his departure in 2018. Kroenke seems perplexed when it is put him that the former manager may still be nursing a degree of hurt and that is maybe the reason why he will not return. 

Arsene Wenger has not been back to Arsenal since leaving the club in the summer of 2018

‘I wasn’t aware of that sense. If that’s the sense, I would love to sit down and understand that. There’s nothing but respect on this side from myself personally, I know from my father and as a club as whole. If there is anything, there’s no substitute for good open communication. So if there is something I’m unaware of I would welcome that conversation wholeheartedly.

‘Arsene will be welcomed at the Arsenal whenever he wants to come back, he will be welcomed with open arms by the entire club. After 22 years of being in one place, it’s natural to want to do other things. 

‘But as a club we’re in the position we are today because of him and we know that and we understand that. He’s a big part of our past, he’s a big part of our present and we want him to be a big part of our future as well.’

Wenger back watching matches at the Emirates would surely be a sign that the Arsenal family is healing. Kroenke is the only owner from the Super League plotters who subjects himself to media scrutiny, the others hiding behind media advisors and the voice of the club managers. For that, he deserves credit. Now though is the time for delivery beyond fine words.




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