Arsenal’s Haves & Have Nots

by | Aug 5, 2020

In the 1980s, Friday nights on News At Ten would include a list of companies making redundancies and a list of companies taking on more staff, with the redundancies showing in red and the new jobs in green. The final total was seldom, if ever, in green. It’s easy, in times of rising unemployment, for many to fail to see the human cost of it. Just as Stalin said of deaths, one redundancy is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. And whilst there are arguments to be had over how unemployment figures are gathered and, some might argue, massaged, the speed with which the Covid-19 pandemic has torn through the economy has left no doubt that numbers are increasing quickly and drastically, with the already poorest likely to take the brunt of further cuts. Ever was it thus, some might argue.

Still, though, in a febrile socio-political atmosphere, reading the room has never been more important for those people redundant, in no small part because the speed of social media can ensure a backlash within hours or even minutes of being made. Such a fate seems to have befallen Arsenal this afternoon, with their decision to publicly announce the redundancies of 55 backroom staff on the same day as the news emerged that they have made a substantial offer to Willian to tempt the player from Chelsea, with Barcelon and Inter Miami breathing down their necks, with the figure of £120,000 per week having been thrown around. There’s also been talk in the 24 hours that Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang could be tempted to stay at the club with an offer of around £300,000 per week. Mesut Ozil continues to hang around The Emirates Stadium, still costing the club £350,000 a week to do so.

It’s not known exactly how much the 55 redundancies will save Arsenal every year, but if we’re very generous and suggest that the average salary of those losing their jobs is £40,000 per year, it would be a little over £2.08m. If Arsenal have offered him £120,000 per week, that would be £6.24m – exactly three times as much. Arsenal made £148.2m last season from prize money and TV income. None of these amounts are very precise, but that doesn’t really matter. You could double the amount of money, but it would still be a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall revenue of the company as a whole. It’s all a harsh reminder of the sharp inequalities between the few who have and the vast majority who have not in the 21st century.

Some, of course, consider the players to be “greedy” and that the buck stops with them, but it is the players that ultimately provide the spectacle that makes so much money in the first place. For decades and decades they were treated as little more than chattels, and it’s only been in the very recent past that they have started earning the sort of money that some of them do nowadays. It takes extraordinary dedication, ability, physical condition and single-mindedness to get there, and all players are only ever one serious injury away from the end of their careers.

If they’re lucky – very lucky – they’ll keep picking up lucrative contracts until they’re in their mid-30s, and when the game finally does spit them out, unless they’re lucky enough to find a coaching job or another position within the media they’re on their own, often without any qualifications whatsoever. For all the benefits, being a professional footballer can be an insecure, rootless life. If anybody has to make millions from professional football, it should surely be the players.

So let’s not go getting too critical of Willian, Mesut Ozil or Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang for seeking to maximise their earnings during their moments in the sun. None of them know how much longer they’ll be able to earn this sort of money, and the obvious reason for why they do is that someone is prepared to pay them that amount of money in the first place. Indeed, it might even be argued that players are used as deflectors, pushing attention away from others who make very large amounts of money from football without even stepping onto a pitch.

Stan Kroenke, a man about whom the best thing that can be said is probably “at least he’s not Alisher Usmanov”, is estimated to be worth in the region of £8bn. Is it too simplistic to say that a man worth his much could have afforded to save 55 jobs? Probably. Is it realistic to expect it? Probably not, and therein rests the heart of this issue. This is inequality run rampant. It’s the one thread that ties every element of this particular tale together, and it doesn’t stop there, either. Football could, if it chose to, pay everyone who works in it a living wage – players considerably more than that – and secure the future of every single professional football club, if it wanted to. Football, and in particular the high net worth individuals who run the game and its buggest professional clubs choose not to, and that is a conscious decision.

It’s similar to the ongoing conversation over clubs paying the living wage to all staff. As of this time last year, the Living Wage Foundation, which campaigns for all employees to be a voluntary rate of £9 an hour (£10.55 in London), had only succeeded in persuading four Premier League clubs – Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea, Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham United – to commit to paying all staff this amount, whether they’re directly employed or through third party agencies. When we consider the millions of pounds that leak out of the game in agents fees, “consultancy fees”, and other key signs of an industry in which rather too many people hav become a bit too comfortable with throwing large amounts of money around to little effect, it’s unsurprising that people start to get angry about it.

So, this time it lands on Arsenal, and with typical Arsenal panache they completely Arsenaled it, making it public on the same day as the Willian story, at the same time as the Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, and just a few days after supporters had the pleasure of winning the FA Cup. But to suggest that they are the sole problem here would be wide of the mark. Indeed, the problem would seem to be endemic nowadays, stretching well beyond the weirdly insular world of professional football. As a society, we constantly allow ourselves to fall prey to divide and conquer tactics, squabbling amongst ourselves while very wealthy men quietly get on the job of making themselves even wealthier. If society can find a way of tackling this inequality, then so might professional football.

Until then, Arsenal’s behaviour today is little more than a symptom of a far, far greater problem.