Dial Square FC: Revolution or Grift?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, for much of the last decade, Arsenal supporters have been amongst the most disgruntled in the Premier League. It’s common for those of us who support teams from outside the rarefied air that clubs of this size to complain about the “entitlement” of such supporters and yes, it’s definitely true to say that other, smaller, less media-friendly clubs have been through genuine existential crises over the same period of time which make complaints about, say, not regularly qualifying for the Champions League seem a little hollow. Not finishing in the top four in the Premier League, it shouldn’t need to be said, is not the same as seeing your club plunge down through the divisions, into administration, or out of existence.
For all of that, though, the frustration of the club’s supporters is understandable, in a way. The club’s supporters pay through the nose for their season tickets, and while paying more money for a season ticket doesn’t entitle anybody to see their team win every week – this is a sport, with two competing teams on the pitch at any given time – it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Arsenal supporters have not been granted anything like the future that was sold to them when it suited the club to do so. Go back a decade and a half, and we were told that the future belonged to Arsenal. A brand new 60,000 capacity stadium would create extra revenues which would further strengthen an already wealthy club and, it was strongly hinted, take them to a new level of success even greater than the last few years before they left Highbury.
To a point, this was a PR move. Highbury was so linked to the central identity of Arsenal Football Club that “build a new stadium so that we can cream off even greater profits from it” was never going to fly with the club’s supporters. “Build a new stadium so that we can take that final push forward an establish ourselves as one of Europe’s elite clubs”, however, was a mission statement that could get everybody on board. When the team made its Premier League debut at its new home against Aston Villa in August 2006, Arsenal were coming into the new season off the back of having made their first Champions League final in Paris, three months earlier. Almost fourteen years on, though, supporters are still waiting to reap the rewards that were so heavily implied with the decision to relocate in the first place.
Frustration, then, is understandable. For several years, Arsene Wenger became the target for growing unhappiness at the lack of direction that the club was demonstrating. Wenger had outlived his usefulness, it was believed, and change was needed in order to refresh the club for the new challenges presented by the petro-dollars of Manchester City and Roman Abramovich’s gas-fuelled money at Chelsea. Of course, the problem with this was that Arsenal had changed as well, and Wenger’s departure hasn’t brought an upturn in fortunes. The club’s relative parsimony in the transfer market became a standing joke, until such a point that it became clear that Stan Kroenke, who completed his takeover of the club in 2011, at a time when it was valued at £731m, seemed happier to sit back and take his dividends every year while the team continued to stagnate on the pitch.
Last week, stories began to emerge someone taking the ultimate action that supporters can – forming a breakaway club. There is, of course, precedent for this. Unhappiness with the leveraged buyout of Manchester United by the Glazer family and a general disillusionment with the culture of Premier League football led to the formation of FC United of Manchester in 2004, and that club continues to thrive in the Northern Premier League, having managed to crowdfund a new stadium, Broadhurst Park. In Liverpool, meanwhile, supporters unhappy at the sale of the club to George Gillett and Tom Hicks and at increasing ticket prices formed AFC Liverpool in 2008.
Both of these clubs are owned by their supporters, with ownership structures that allow for one member one vote over deciding the directors that steer it. Considering that the entire reason for these club’s existences was deep unhappiness at the way in which these clubs were being run, this is hardly surprising. So, when the story of a potential new club for disgruntled Arsenal supporters broke, it would be reasonable to assume that this new club would be owned and run under a similar structure. There is, however, nothing to suggest that this new club will be run along the same lines.
Dial Square FC – the original name of Arsenal – certainly seemed to know which buttons to push in the media to get the story of their arrival notices, with news articles appearing in The Sun, The Mirror and The Evening Standard, amongst others. Almost immediately, though, there were questions concerning what this new club might look like. The man behind the plan, Stuart Morgan, told The Athletic that:
The club has lost its identity in so many different ways. This Arsenal team, the club, the set-up, the stadium, is nothing like it was in its heyday. It’s so commercialised, I sit in club level. It’s soulless, it’s lifeless, it’s not Arsenal Football Club. The reason I wanted to do this project is to go back to beginning, to try and get back to that original Arsenal.
Well, okay. It’s easy to spout these platitudes about “soul” and “life”, but what would this club actually look like? Morgan states that the club will be temporarily based in Surrey until they can secure a new ground in the club’s “original home” of Woolwich, and it’s at this point that the whole venture starts to look a little less enticing. For one thing, Arsenal may have been formed from the Woolwich munitions factory, but the club never had a “home” in Woolwich. Prior to moving to Highbury, they played their home matches in Plumstead, a mile and a half from Woolwich. And even if we write the difference between Woolwich and Plumstead off as semantics, the truth remains that Arsenal left South London for North London in 1913. The south banks of the River Thames. In short, there’s no-one left alive who’d actually be able to remember the club playing there.
Things start to get murkier still, the more we dig. In 2014, Morgan formed the club Addlestone United in Surrey. The club had a badge similar to Arsenal’s pre-revamp design, and wore red shirts with white sleeves. They were nicknamed “The Cannons” and they carry the motto of “Victoria Per Labore” (“Victory Through Effort”), while Arsenal’s is “Victoria Concordia Crescit” (“Victory Grows Through Harmony”). The club had a groundshare with local club Abbey Rangers and joined the Guildford and Woking Alliance League. We can’t tell you what, exactly, happened to Addlestone United, but we can tell you that they don’t play in that league any more. It will come as no great surprise to learn that Dial Square FC will be looking to play its home matches at… Abbey Rangers. The question of how a brand new club, playing at the very bottom of the football pyramid – the club intends to join the Combined Counties League next season, nine divisions below the Premier League and four below even the National League – would ever get the money or planning permission to build a ground in Islington, Woolwich or Plumstead.
Still, though, the fundraising has started, although at the time of writing a crowdfunding exercise has, despite the high media profile attracted over the last day or two, only raised a rather feeble £30 of the £50,000 it has targeted. And this is the point at which questions have to be asked. If commercialisation is such a huge issue for Morgan, why hasn’t this club been set up as a mutual organisation from which no individual can profit? Have well-respected organisations such as the Arsenal Supporters Trust or the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association been contacted about this and/or offered their support for it? Will there be consultation with supporters who may be interested in such a breakaway? Why is Go Fund Me being used to raise money for what is, at its root, a private commercial enterprise? Have any supporters whatsoever been consulted about this? Is there anything bar platitudes to confirm the will or means to move the club into London? And why should they trust this particular person to run it successfully?
Until such a time that these questions are answered, it’s difficult to consider Dial Square FC to be a great deal more than some form of grift, even if the intentions of its founder are genuine. Setting up and incorporating a football club is fairly easy. Choosing the kit, colours, nickname and motto is fun. But, as the thousands of volunteers who are intimately involved with the running of football clubs the length and breadth of the pyramid will attest, what happens after this is not usually glamorous or exciting work. Thanks are thin on the ground, and the day-to-day minutiae of running such an organisation can be frustrating, especially with the financial constraints that so many small clubs operate under. If Arsenal supporters do wish to give up their hard-earned money in order to get this club off the ground (and there’s little evidence to suggest that they do), then that would obviously be their prerogative, but until something above media-friendly platitudes emerges from this particular venture, the best advice that we can give is caveat emptor – buyer beware.