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How AST promoted the notion that Arsenal had a budget of £40m for transfers

By Tony Attwood

Way back on 21 October 2014, the Evening Standard ran the story that “Arsenal have £42m to spend in January, claim ‘frustrated’ Supporters’ Trust “

That may look a rather familiar tale given that through this summer we have been hearing that Arsenal only have a £40m (or sometimes £45m) transfer kitty.  But it really was almost five years ago that the saga started.

At the time of the 2014 “revelation” the figures were denied by Arsenal at the AGM.  But the AST stuck to their figures, suggesting that they had carried out an independent analysis of the club’s accounts ending 31 May 2014, revealing a major cash surplus which could be spent on transfers but which was not being used.

Now that figure is rather interesting as it is so very close to one that has been bandied around this summer, although from a different perspective.  In 2014 AST used it to say Arsenal had money to spend and strengthen the squad, while Arsenal themselves dismissed the notion that they were deliberately sitting on a huge sum of spare cash and not spending it.  This summer virtually the same sum of money is quoted by AST only this time they have reversed the story to suggest the £40m is woefully inadequate if Arsenal is to compete to get back into the top four.

In both cases the figures have come from AST’s own analysis of Arsenal’s accounts by one of their own members.  I’m not sure what their analyst member does for a living but as we know all such analyses and projections should be taken cautiously because much of the time there are as many economic projections as there are economists and as many economists as there are economic theories.  (If you are unhappy about this view you might like to read “10 reasons why economics is an art not a science” in the Washington Post, written just a little while before AST did their “cash surplus” piece.)

But the AST seems to take itself and its economic “analyses” very seriously indeed.   For on 17 October 2018 the Arsenal Supporters Trust published a document  in which it makes a series of estimates under the heading “Arsenal’s Financial Position for 2017/18 assessed”.  And “assessed” is quite a strong word here – it has the implication that Arsenal are not telling us the truth about their figures, but the mighty AST can help us poor mortals sort out the truth from the perfidious Arsenal’s lies.

It concludes “At the end of the current 2018/19 season we forecast cash available for player purchases of c£40m.”   (The “c” is economics jargon for “about” from the Latin “circa”.  They are educated chappies at the AST, we have to give them that).

This was the first mention anywhere of the £40m figure that I can find for the current era.   It was picked up by the blog “The Sports Rush” on the following day who dignified the guess with these words… “Arsenal transfer budget: The club’s official supporters trust has predicted the budget for transfer window in 2019, and the figures aren’t inspiring.”

On the same day Football 365 said:

“AST reportedly have accountants advising them by drawing up a projection of the club’s accounts and forecasting next summer’s transfer budget.”

The implication now is that the club’s accountants cannot be trusted to tell us supporters the truth, so AST have to bring in their own men or women to do the job.   And we might agree, Arsenal’s accountants might be spinning a tale.  Although it is interesting that while the Guardian was fulsome in its attacks on the auditors of Carillion when they went bust with debts of approach £1bn they seem to give AST a much easier ride.  Why is that I wonder?  

Anyway it was all doom and gloom for Arsenal.  No Champions League football revenue and a rise in the club’s wage bill – owing to Mesut Ozil’s new deal and the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – to AST it all looked like doom, gloom and no spare cash.

On 17 October 2018 the Daily Telegraph continued the reporting under the headline “Arsenal Supporters’ Trust will voice concerns to chairman over expected financial losses,” and thus gave the story national coverage, and by getting the apostrophe in the right place made those of us who take note of such things feel this was your “proper reporting”.

Even then AST had the chance to backtrack on its guesswork or at least make it clear that it was constantly running a set of guesses that were not proving to be accurate.  But it did not, stating instead on 12 February 2019, “At the end of the current 2018/19 season we forecast cash available for player purchases of c £40m.”

The story then stayed in the headlines as on 5 February this year the Sun said, “Arsenal have just £40m transfer budget this summer if they don’t reach Champions League.

“The Gunners manager wants to overhaul his squad by bringing in at least FIVE players….”Yet Emery is facing a restricted budget from Emirates chiefs unless he can finish top four after two seasons in the Europa League.” That looks increasingly unlikely with the Gunners sixth in the Prem.“Even if they did, his budget would only be about £60m…

So the story continued, and in April this year the Daily Mirror re-produced the story that Arsenal would be limited to £40m transfer fund unless the club managed to get into the Champions League next season.

John Cross, described as Chief Football Writer on the Daily Mirror website, wrote (and sorry about this, but in the Daily Mirror every new sentence does start on a new line):

“Arsenal transfer budget revealed as Unair Emery faces tough summer in wages fight.

“But the biggest issue in terms of signings is keeping contracts under control and that may mean they having to sell players in some areas of the squad to keep the wage bill down.

“Emery wants a new wide forward player with Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser topping his list of transfer targets in that department and the Scottish winger only has one year left on his contract.”

Beneath that headline was the secondary note: “Arsenal chiefs are looking to bring the wage bill down meaning Unai Emery must cut his cloth accordingly this summer.”  

The article continues “Unai Emery will have to budget for his summer rebuilding plans around a purge on Arsenal’s wage bill.   

“Arsenal boss Emery will be afforded around £40million to spend this summer which could go up if they reach the Champions League next season.

“They also want a box-to-box midfielder with Aaron Ramsey on his way out on a free transfer to join Juventus this summer.

“Emery is keen to strengthen his leaking defence but that will almost certainly mean shipping out players to make keep the wage bill under control.”

The story was picked up by virtually all the blogs and newspapers and reported as absolute fact, although the Mirror gave no source for its story.  You will have noted that the story was “revealed” but who by… we don’t know.  But after all the above AST must be a prime suspect.

The story of the £40m transfer budget thereafter became a dominant feature of the media, and gained a huge boost when AST released a statement on 11 June this year concerning Arsenal’s financial position.  Reading it one thing becomes very clear – the use of the word “estimate” is still central – it pops up nine times in the short document.

The figure was seized on by the media of course, and it became part of the sloganising as AST got in touch with various groupings of Arsenal fans such as the Black Scarf Movement – most of which groupings don’t seem to have paid up memberships, but which can and do get a lot of publicity.  A number of blogs supported the “analysis” that said a) Arsenal has only £40m to spend, and b) that is not enough.  In the end the media claimed around 16 groups were involved, but that was as fanciful as the story itself.

The headline, “Why can’t Arsenal sign anyone? The financial issues behind Unai Emery’s transfer woes” on the Football.London site (owned by the Daily Mirror) on 10 January 2019, was typical.   There were, it is true, a few doubters on Twitter who questioned the assumptions made by AST,  But no one seemed to notice the coincidence that the £40m figure kept on popping up across the years, as through its careful, and we must admit, very clever PR manipulation, AST kept the story in the headlines – the media of course loving this sort of thing.

Then last month AST put together a statement under the title “We care do you”.   It was a document that was highly critical of many aspects of Arsenal, and was ultimately supported by a number of supporters groups, although one leading supporters’ group very firmly stood aside and would not sign up to the criticism – or the numbers.

Within the statement was this comment

“As Arsenal Supporters, we care deeply. We would like to hear from our club and see actions that demonstrate that they do too. The first opportunity comes when the Managing Director and Head of Football speak to invited supporters on July 25th. We urge them to address the issues raised here. We will watch with interest.”

Now it must be remembered that by this time virtually every newspaper and thousands of blogs were reporting that Arsenal only had £40m or £45m to spend this summer as a fact, but never once (at least in the articles I read) were they saying where they got that figure from.

And so it was that on 25 July the question was put to Arsenal directors at the fans forum meeting, as to why there was only a £40m budget.   The reply at the meeting held at the Emirates Stadium was to the effect that “I don’t know where the £40m figure comes from.  I can tell you it isn’t true.”

Unfortunatley no one stood up and said “AST told us it was £40m” – which is a shame because a lot of AST members were at the meeting.   But there we are.  Maybe that would be expecting too much.

Most “outlets” as they are now called (meaning newspapers, blogs, radio stations and the like) quickly dropped the story realising they had been had, although the Daily Express did try to keep it going by suggesting that Pepe could be bought for £70m because the fee was being negotiated to be paid over several years.  But eventually even they abandoned the pretense and the £40m claim of AST has been washed away.

What hasn’t been mentioned much however is how AST got its figures so wrong, nor has there been any explanation as to the strange coincidence of an estimate of £40m to spend popping up year after year from 2014 onwards.  Maybe they just like £40m, or maybe it was a conincidence.  But of course we know why the press will report AST’s numbers as facts – because it makes a good story for a day, but that does not make anything that AST says about transfer budgets true – as we are currently seeing.

It would be nice if AST put out a statement saying that they have consistently got their estimates wrong – and there would be no harm in them saying that. As noted above economists, like big firms of auditors, get it wrong all the time. They used an economist or accountant or someone like that to derive figures, and economists, accountants and people like that generally get their forecasts wrong.   But still, they’ve had a lot of publicity, so I expect they are happy.

Indeed it has been a clever and well-worked tale that has served their anti-Arsenal management assault well for five years running.

They’ve probably picked up some new members, got a lot of publicity, and above all created a story themselves and persuaded the media to treat it as fact, so much that when the story was shown to be palpably untrue the Express still kept on supporting the AST figures.  (Mind you they are always a bit slow at the Express).

It is in effect one of the most brilliant anti-Arsenal-management publicity stunts of recent years, and for that AST should be congratulated.  They have bought themselves publicity that would have cost £millions in terms of advertiisng – and all by having one “economist” or “accountant” (depending on which report you read) give his version of what the Arsenal accounts mean.  Then using the media to spin a  story is clever – and to do it all the way through from the opening “Arsenal have £40m but are refusing to spend it” to “Arsenal have £40m and it is not enough” while getting people to believe it, is clever.

Although in truth the only people who have come out of this with credibility are Arsenal’s team of negotiators who have ignored them, and the one main supporters group that refused to be part of the hyperbole.

However we have all learned one thing.   Next time AST tell us about some figures relating to Arsenal, and all the media go bonkers repeating these figures year after year, a certain amount of doubt might be in order.  

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