By Liam Twomey
As he ponders where he can go to restore his battered reputation, Henning Berg may well take a moment to scold himself for not trusting his instincts.
When questioned about the possibility of becoming Blackburn manager on Norwegian television earlier this year, Berg dismissed as “madness” the idea that any credible manager would consider working under the club’s erratic Indian owners, Venky’s. By the end of October, however, he insisted the inside view had convinced him of their integrity and ambition.
Barely two months and 10 matches later, a union which never looked likely to blossom has ended prematurely and acrimoniously.
Admittedly, the decision to part ways has a sound basis in logic. Rovers had won just one of their 10 matches under Berg, and lost five of their last six. In the process, they had slipped from fifth in the Championship to 17th, seven points above the relegation zone and eight adrift of the play-off places. Change was most certainly needed.
Yet even at this juncture, there is more than a hint of farce in proceedings. Berg’s reportedly irate reaction to being encouraged to dance on stage at the club’s Christmas party wearing a stocking and a Michael Jackson wig has been mooted as a factor in his dismissal, while several reputable bookmakers are offering a price on Shebby Singh – the former television presenter who has somehow landed a yearly salary believed to be in the region of £400,000 as Venky’s ‘Global Advisor’ – succeeding Berg himself in the managerial hotseat.
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There are few more stable clubs in world football than Arsenal. They boast a manager in his 16th year in charge of a young team in an aesthetically stunning and financially lucrative stadium, 15 consecutive years of Champions League football and yearly pre-tax profits which shame their superiors as well as their rivals.
Yet the consensus remains that this is a club in a crisis, of identity as much as anything. Paying top dollar to watch a steadily declining team celebrate achievements once considered the bare minimum, some Gunners fans are struggling to accept their place in the new Premier League order. They cannot understand why they no longer regularly compete for trophies with the billionaire-fuelled behemoths of Manchester City and Chelsea, when in fact Manchester United, with their gargantuan commercial revenues and the peerless Sir Alex Ferguson, are the only ones who can.
When the disillusioned masses chant “We want our Arsenal back”, they are referring to the teams which wooed them with Premier League titles, domestic cups, dramatic Champions League nights and long unbeaten runs, all achieved with the breathtaking style to which Wenger slavishly aspires.
Alisher Usmanov understands this, and has played his cards well. Granted no voice on the Gunners board despite his 29% stake, the Uzbek-born oligarch has established himself as something of a rallying point for those who have lost faith in those who wield the power at the Emirates Stadium.
Boasting a personal wealth believed to be somewhere in the region of £11 billion, Usmanov is easily capable of putting Arsenal back on level footing with the world’s biggest spenders. But for those who would see him oust the exasperating and inscrutable Stan Kroenke, this should not be the only concern.
While he may be one of the wealthiest men in football, is Usmanov necessarily a football man? It is a key question, for if the rewards of the sugar daddy model are great, so are the risks.
Aston Villa are still paying the price for Randy Lerner’s loss of appetite for investment. QPR are facing the dire consequences of Tony Fernandes’ inability to say no. In Spain, Qatari-owned Malaga’s astonishing Champions League adventure is papering over the cracks of a leadership crisis.
Even the success stories are littered with caveats. Manchester City’s spending has yielded a first league title since 1968, but also legions of mediocre players content to see out monumental contracts. This is the most successful period in Chelsea’s history, but there remains little to admire in the chaos, unbridled ruthlessness and short-termism which prevails at Stamford Bridge.
At the other end of the scale, there is evidence that smart clubs can at least fight the tide of remorseless spending. At Everton, David Moyes has built his strongest ever squad with a succession of self-generated transfer budgets, while surprise top-four rivals West Brom have the second lowest wage bill in the Premier League.
If he ever were to take control of Arsenal, Usmanov might prove as generous and successful as Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich, or as cynical as Tom Hicks and George Gillett, or as clueless as Venky’s. Whatever the answer, it is a question Gunners fans should be cautious about asking.
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