Every match, we hear from senior figures at the club on our Official Voice pages of the matchday programme. This issue our chief executive officer, Vinai Venkatesham, looks back at a particularly challenging year in the history of the club .
First and foremost I’d like to wish you all the best for 2022 – I hope it brings you and your families happiness and good health.
As we enter a new year, it seems natural to reflect on the last 12 to 18 months, throughout which we have had a remarkable amount to contend with at Arsenal Football Club.
The pandemic created (and continues to create) challenges the like of which we’ve never seen before, and nobody could reasonably predict, most notably playing the best part of a season without our fans in attendance. In addition, there have been changes to the Board, changes to the executive leadership, the situation with the European Super League, a new head coach for Arsenal Women, likewise the under-23s and so much more.
This article first appeared in the matchday programme, which can be purchased here: https://programme.arsenal.com/
As chief executive, navigating the club through these turbulent times has of course been very demanding, but I’ve been greatly helped by fantastic support from the Board throughout. In particular, having owners that are completely rock solid behind the club, through all of the challenges posed by the pandemic has been invaluable. This has provided the club with stability, for example refinancing the stadium debt in a period when we had no fans at Emirates, and has given us the financial support that enabled us to be very active in the transfer market last summer.
Just as importantly, there has been an extraordinary effort from the amazing team of people who work across all of our sites, in every department at the club. The thing that binds our people together is that they love The Arsenal and truly understand the privilege they have to work here. I see them pulling out all the stops, every day, to help us achieve our objectives. The commitment and passion from our people here is like nothing I’ve seen before in any other place I have worked and we have needed that commitment, positivity and passion over the last 18 months to get through all of the challenges we have faced. I’m hugely grateful for their Herculean efforts.
To go back to the challenges, on the pitch the stark reality is that our men’s team finished eighth last season and did not qualify for Europe for the first time in decades. This was well short of the standards expected by every single fan, staff member, coach and player – we all know that’s not good enough for Arsenal Football Club. We understood that the squad wasn’t one or two players away, who we could sign and be catapulted back into the Champions League. It was clear that we needed a big rebuild and it had to be sustainable.
Internally we aligned around a plan to put together a squad with some of the best young talent in world football, balanced with our more experienced players to lead and support them. We believe with Mikel and his coaching staff we can develop our young squad into something special.
Preparing for a transfer window is a huge undertaking and requires an exceptional amount of planning, but that counts for nothing if you can’t execute your plan professionally and efficiently – making big decisions at speed when needed. Our activity last summer, where across purchases, sales and renewals in the men’s team, academy and women’s team we did around 60 deals, was possible due to how well we work together behind the scenes. Rich Garlick, our director of football operations, has been a great addition to our team here; with the real unsung heroes being our legal and finance departments who were worked off their feet.
In the window we signed young players, but intentionally young players who have plenty of experience and character, whether that is through the number of games they’ve played at a young age, by having captaincy experience or having national team experience.
Edu, Mikel and the recruitment team deserve great credit for their work in identifying these players and although I’d stress it is still early days, it’s very positive to see that our summer signings have all settled in well and have quickly become fan favourites.
Our fans have been unbelievable this season home and away and I believe the atmosphere at Emirates has been as good this season as it has ever been. I hope that in part that is because our supporters can see the journey we are on, not just in terms of the players we have brought in but how they have supplemented the fantastic youngsters we already had who came through the ranks at Hale End, like Bukayo, Emile, Eddie, Ainsley and Flo.
Developing players through the academy has always been a really important part of the club. I can’t tell you how proud it makes me to see two of the boys who have grown up with us at Hale End, wearing two of our most iconic shirts in No 7 and No 10. It sends a really powerful message around the world about what we stand for at this football club. Hale End is in as good health as it has ever been with Per and his team doing a fantastic job. It was another special night for the academy, and all at the club, when we saw Charlie Patino not only make his debut but also score in our last home game, against Sunderland.
There’s a positive momentum. We are also trying to be much more proactive in how we communicate, so we’re clearer to our fans about what we’re doing and why; and of course the Amazon documentary is part of that. But ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that the players on the pitch are playing to a high level. Words about how we want to get back to where we belong are one thing, but when we see evidence of it on the pitch, it really galvanises all of us.
I want to remind everyone of the start we had to the season – even if we would all rather not remember it! We knew it was going to be difficult. It was Brentford’s first game in the Premier League and a first in their new stadium, and then Chelsea and Manchester City, who are Saturday’s visitors at the Emirates. Knowing it was going to be difficult is one thing, but I don’t think anything really prepares you for staring at a league table when you are bottom, on zero points with a -9 goal difference – and having plenty of time to stew over it on an international break.
But when I look back at that period, even in all of the gloom and the pressure, I saw a really important positive. Around London Colney I saw a group that were hurting but also had complete belief that we would turn it around and go in the right direction – and I can tell you that that’s not often the case at a football club’s training ground, when you have had three losses on the spin in really challenging games. For me that was an important moment, as it was another proof point that Mikel is building a really strong culture within the playing squad and staff and a real belief. That strong culture and belief is what helped pull us through that period and enabled us to turn around a very difficult start.
We’re the youngest team in the Premier League, but also a much changed team, and it is inevitable there will be other bumps in the road too. We have to recognise that, though it doesn’t make defeats any less painful. Part of my job is ensuring we don’t get too carried away in the good moments and not too low when we have a difficult time. When it’s good, we can’t believe everything’s perfect, or in the bad times that everything’s broken. You have to have a clear plan and execute against it, you can’t be blind and not recognise when it needs adjusting, but you can’t allow yourself to be easily blown off course.
In contrast to the men, our women’s team had a fantastic start to the season right from the first game – and remain unbeaten in the Women’s Super League, sitting top of the league. I am very fortunate and grateful to the longstanding commitment this club has had towards women’s football, of which I’m a huge advocate.
When Joe Montemurro left Arsenal, we had a big decision to make. Joe had delivered so much during his time with us, and we had worked really well together so we knew that the process for bringing in a new head coach wouldn’t be easy. Alongside head of women’s football Clare Wheatley, Edu and Rich Garlick, we saw some fantastic candidates for the role of head coach, but Jonas Eidevall really was the stand out.
Things have gone incredibly well for Jonas and his team in the WSL and we’ve qualified for the knockout stages in the Champions League, all helped by a busy summer where we significantly strengthened the squad. There have been some disappointments, such as the FA Cup final and some of the results in Europe, which show how competitive women’s football is.
I’m particularly grateful to the players, who we have an open and regular dialogue with around how we can keep pushing forward and improving on and off the pitch, as the game continues to develop at real pace. All of us at the club were especially proud to see Kim Little’s 150th goal for the club, Viv’s 100th and winning BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year, Leah Williamson captaining England and Jen Beattie winning the Helen Rollason Award at the Sports Personality of the Year awards. We have some outstanding characters in our playing group.
This last year has also provided many special memories away from the pitch. Such as the outpouring of support for Bukayo after the Euros, not just from Arsenal fans but many, many supporters of other clubs. Then there’s the work that unsung heroes do at our club, people like Lynne Chaney who is in touch with families who are bereaved or experiencing great personal difficulties, of which I’m afraid Covid has seen a real surge in numbers. She ensures they find comfort and support from the club by way of messages from players or letters, and the way she has stepped up and other staff like her has made me so proud.
Fans may have also heard about our steward Rebecca Meek and Luke Howard in the community team combining to make sure a young fan, who was having a difficult time at his first game, against Leeds in the Carabao Cup, ended up watching the second half of the game in our sensory room, designed to help fans with autism. Their actions turned a negative experience into a positive one, which that supporter and his family will never forget.
I’ve also been really pleased at how we’ve helped local businesses when they’ve needed it the most: The Tolly, Autoparts and JNF Haircutters have all benefited from the exposure we’ve been able to give them, with more to come in 2022. We have also continued to maintain a strong focus on our community work during these very difficult times, both locally and abroad, such as in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan in partnership with Save The Children. Helping others – however we can do it – is such an important part of who we are and how we can change lives.
Of course, 2022 will bring us challenges; we are still grappling with the effects Covid has on our sport – the fact we play the first game of the year without Mikel on the touchline is immediate evidence of that – and have the unique experience of a World Cup midway through the 2022/23 season, which we are already preparing for; but across our men’s, women’s and academy teams we have much to be positive about.
Thank you all for your amazing support, we never take it for granted and it pushes us forward both on and off the pitch every single day.
Copyright 2022 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.