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June 2021
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Should Arsenal’s owners give out shares to the club’s fans?

By Tony Attwood

Allowing Arsenal fans to have shares in the club, or perhaps giving a supporters’ group a golden share, is one of the key demands of some fans.  Some also demand a seat on the board of the club to represent fans.

Of course this is nothing new for Arsenal – because the club was originally set up as a co-operative by the working men of the Dial Square factory at Royal Arsenal (the entrance of which is pictured left).  The club quickly expanded into Royal Arsenal FC with a committee elected by the members running the club.

Even in those early days, splits appeared between the members of the club, most particularly over the payment of players and admission to the Football League.  Those opposed to professionalism lost, but then tried every dirty trick in the book in an attempt not just to stop the move to professionalism, not least by attempting to cause the personal bankruptcy of some of the committee members in favour of paying the players.

Ultimately the rebels set up a rival team (Royal Ordnance Factories FC) playing opposite the Woolwich Arsenal ground.  ROF played in the Southern League before ignominiously going out of business part way through their third season.

When Woolwich Arsenal FC (as Royal Arsenal became on joining the League) ran out of money in 1910, Henry Norris rescued the club, paying off all its debts and then offered the club back to the supporters who were able to buy shares in the club.

Norris also made it clear he thought the club needed to move if it was to survive, which local supporters opposed, so Norris then gave his word that the club would stay in Plumstead for two years to give the fans time to buy the shares.  They didn’t and as far as I can tell the local supporters’ group never handed over the money they had raised to help the club stay in Plumstead.

A substantial part of Arsenal’s problem was that after the Boer Wars the army reduced its level of recruitment, and hence employment at the Royal Arsenal declined.  The final blow came in 1910 when the government moved the torpedo factory to the deeper waters of the Clyde.  Employment levels sank, and so did Arsenal’s crowds.  

In 1910-12 some supporters did buy shares in the rescued club, but unfortunately not nearly enough to keep the club running without constant financial support from Henry Norris, and so in 1912, after the two year hiatus on moving the club had ended, Norris started looking for a new ground – and found it in 1913 – in Islington.

There was huge opposition from Islington residents to the move, and protests from Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton Orient, but the League had no objection, the Highbury stadium was built, and the club moved forward.   As a result the size of the Arsenal crowd increased massively from under 10,000 in the final year in Plumstead to over 22,000 in the first year at Highbury.

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By 1924/5 Arsenal had the highest average crowd of any club in the League – 29.485.   This was more than double the average first division crowd that season!

Yet despite this fans were still resistant to buying shares in Arsenal.  Finally, in 1927, the Hill-Wood family who were opposed to Norris’ democratisation programme of ownership, forced Henry Norris (or Lt Col Sir Henry Norris as he was by then, the military rank being given in the first world war, and the knighthood for his organising and paying for the recruitment and training of three football regiments), off the board.  He retained his personal share holding, and asked some very pertinent questions at the AGMs, but the Hill-Wood family and their supporters had the club.

Eventually they sold their shares, as of course they were fully entitled to do, to the Kroenke family who then bought out everyone else again in accordance with legal requirements.

So although it might look a little like “our club” has been taken away by the Kroenke family, in fact the club run and owned by Arsenal supporters was lost when fans in the early 20th century were given the chance to buy the rescued club, but simply showed no interest.

But let’s remember what it was like when the Hill Wood clan ran the club.  Individual share holders were able to be at the AGM, but had no other rights.  I attended some of those AGMs; we could vote against motions that we didn’t like – but of course the board and its allies with their vast majority of shares could pass any motion they wished and defeat anything we tried to put forward.  Shareholders made their voices heard, as Sir Henry had done after he was deposed, but it never made any odds.

The one time I really had an influence on the club was when as part of the supporters’ group AISA I went to the club with the plan for statues around the ground, both to celebrate our past heroes, and to reduce the crush at the entrances by encouraging fans to meet their mates at one of the statues.

So personally, I can’t quite see the point of the Arsenal Supporters Trust campaign for a voice at Arsenal and a seat on the board, given some of their previous statements and their activities in meetings and the like.  Besides the sad fact is that history shows, Arsenal fans did own their club, but couldn’t make it survive as the local demographics changed.   Trying to undo that now is rather like a little child throwing his food on the floor, being told there isn’t any more, and then crying, “I didn’t mean it.”

If you would like to learn more about Henry Norris’ time at the Arsenal there is the most detailed account published available on the Arsenal History Society Website

Meanwhile…

For the last two thirds of last season, Arsenal were a top two club

The audacious tactical change that sent Arsenal charging up the league table last season

Figures from Football Observatory at the end of the season showing Arsenal players dominating the statistics.

2 comments to Should Arsenal’s owners give out shares to the club’s fans?

  • Brickfields Gunners

    It would be fun to see who thinks that they are entitled by some quaint or antiquated virtue ( Am using the tern very ,very loosely ), or other to a seat with the owners. Maybe they just love the taste of prawn sandwiches ! Or that they qualify by virtue of having X million followers on some social media grouping or internet site . As for the owners , why would they want to give away good free seats to morons ? Why , they could just invite the press in , to give them advice ! I of course am willing to buy a share , just to be part of this club . I have no need for any special consideration whatsoever . A cute little certificate would suffice . Up the Gunners !

  • Goonergerry

    When the major shareholder is in effect the owner , a single person,is a financial investor only,, living thousands of miles away- rarely visible and does not tend to communicate through the media, how are fans to understand what the owners plans are for the club are- and whether they share the same ambitions as the fans and whether those ambitions and plans are achievable or lead to decline?

    I do not have confidence in this ownership model-it is more akin to life in the 1920’s- anti democratic, secretive, elitist and insecure. To the American owners buying Arsenal shares is like buying a high street shop – fans are passive recipients of a product – whose only choice is to consume unconditionally or go elsewhere and like some of the major contributors on here, fans pay their money to support and nothing else and should pay up, shut up and swallow the Boards marketing rhetoric without question.

    The pure commercial business model of football run by billionaire owners for billionaire owners – needs to change- its what led to the fiasco of the abandoned ESL This demonstrated that owners both individually and collectively may not share the same interests or ambitions as the fans, The Board may at times feel that fans are a nuisance, whose opinions are not wanted or an interference in their affairs. Perhaps the Board as currently constituted is not the right vehicle to make all the decisions about a football club with half a million world wide supporters. My suggestion to the family owners who hold such views is-Try running a club with no paying fans.

    Football in this country is tribal-For football fans the choices will never be to support a rival team when yours are not reaching expectations, but to want to improve which leads to, disillusionment and anger when this does not happen and sadly that is where too many fans of Arsenal are at the present time-because we are under-achieving. Unhappy fans who do disengage may not go back if they improve.

    The lack of transparency about what is really happening in a football club also directly feeds into the endless media speculation which in most cases generates misleading stereotypes and sews confusion and conflict.

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