“Arsenal, Arsène, David Dein and Me” – An Interview with Alex Fynn

Ahead of an event with Alex Flynn, author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre on Monday 28 November, James Fisk from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics interviews the author

arsenals-business-strategyThe book provides a comprehensive overview of the modern era for Arsenal, what led you to write the book?

Most of my career was spent in advertising and then, subsequently, I moved in to sports marketing. In advertising I had been successful because I was comparatively honest and would tell clients what they should hear, rather than what they wanted to hear. Comparative honesty was a huge liability in football marketing with it being a cut-throat business. It was a difficult role to have. I enjoyed working for a number of clubs in the Premier League, the Football Association and the Football League, but to some extent I was a fish out of water. I advised people on what they needed to hear and so many of my consultancies were rather short-term. This was then exacerbated by UEFA and the Premier League who centralised control of marketing and I did less and less consultancy work.

I wanted to be involved in the game and so turned to writing about it, something I do because I enjoy it and have access to that milieu and, essentially, that’s why I’ve written about Arsène and Arsenal. Indeed, I was one of the first people in England to meet him, having met him in 1985 when he was still the manager of Monaco… and I’ve known David Dein for 50 years or so. The book was written because I had access to all the main protagonists and it’s an intriguing story to tell, something I did with co-author, Kevin Whitcher, who is a big Arsenal fan. I look at it from an objective point of view, whilst my co-author, who  is the editor of the fanzine ‘Gooner’, provides a far more subjective view. He has an unrivalled depth of understanding about his club and I have a breadth of experience working for other clubs and organisations in football so it makes for a good partnership.

What influence do you think the appointment of Arsène Wenger has had on English football?

An enormous influence! He was a revolutionary, changing the way the game was played, changing the way players prepared and trained. His influence on the contemporary game in England really cannot be underestimated. I think that the problem has been that other managers and clubs have copied his innovations and then evolved and advanced them in their own ways. Arsène can be stubborn and, perhaps, in this respect, hasn’t moved on as fast as he should have done. Although, I would consider him a football genius, as with any genius they can occasionally get things wrong; they need to be challenged and to have quality personnel to back them up – something many of the key Premier League managers he’s faced have had. Arsène’s not had substantive back-up, certainly not in the way Sir Alex Ferguson had at Manchester United.

Wenger introduced a paradigmatic shift within the English game, but where do Arsenal go from here? There are recurring jokes within the football fan community that Arsenal fans call for Wenger’s resignation periodically, following defeats to other big clubs. What does the future hold for Arsène and Arsenal?

Well, you’ll have to wind back a few years. You have to accept that the policy of the club is made by the owner and, this owner in particular (Stan Kroenke) really believes  in self-sufficiency – you spend only what you earn. This means not going into debt to win trophies and, for context, the last time Arsenal made a loss was back in 2002. They could have spent much more than they have done in recent times. Arsenal have somewhat reluctantly accepted that paying higher wages and transfer fees gives them a chance of success.

Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that, until recently, success for Arsenal was finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League competition. But the bar Arsenal set in those early years of Wenger’s tenure was much higher, so today fans are left disappointed. HOWEVER, this season is the first in a long time that Arsenal have every position covered, something they’ve often lacked in previous campaigns, although they still lack enough World-Class players. I think it’s down to Wenger’s obstinacy, his desire to be successful without breaking the bank and fitting in with the owner and the boardroom culture at Arsenal. Whilst other clubs tend to prioritise prizes over profits, I think at Arsenal profits come before prizes.

The appointment of Wenger heralded an influx of foreign management talent into the Premier League. How do you think he’s influenced the FA and their appointments of the England national team manager?  

I think, in this context, it’s actually far more appropriate to discuss David Dein. He took the initiative to find Wenger and bring him to England. I think you could say that without Dein you’d have no Wenger. With no Wenger perhaps the Premier League wouldn’t have undergone the changes it has – at least not this quickly. Wenger really was revolutionary in those days; he was a target for the FA when they were looking for a manager. Of course, Dein’s remit was first and foremost Arsenal, but he is a big fan of English football and, when the FA came calling, he tactfully directed them away from Arsène Wenger and on to Sven Goran-Erikson, which wasn’t actually a bad move for the FA.

Now Dein is no longer at Arsenal and by Wenger’s side (although they are still friends and talk regularly). English football, and Arsenal in particular, have really felt the loss of David Dein. Arsenal have felt the loss in as much as Dein would have challenged them, his driving ethos was always to get a winning team. The irony, of course, is that to have an optimum business you really need a successful team.  And success means winning trophies and titles, or at least making a good fist of doing so

With regard to England, Dein has always been passionate about the national team, supported by strong club sides and in this respect, his loss has been that of both Arsenal and the England team. At the moment, the Premier League is not an English league, it’s an international competition that happens to be in England. We won’t ever have a strong national side as the league is dominated by foreign owners, coaches and players who, quite rightly prioritise their clubs.

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