High and dry

James Appell looks at Arsenal's struggles with their former ground, now echoing to marketing rather than crowds

On September 24, Arsène Wenger took an afternoon off from fielding questions about Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal celebrations, Eduardo’s lack of balance and such like, and headed down to the site of the old Highbury Stadium. There, lining up alongside a team of other Arsenal greats – Bob Wilson, Frank McLintock, George Graham and, er, Perry Groves – he cut the ribbon to formally open Highbury Square, a new housing development built on the site.

Highbury Square has obvious appeal for the nostalgic Arsenal fan, and for current season ticket-holders at the Emirates it is, conveniently, a mere three-minute walk away. Property journalists have been similarly impressed. A series of flashy articles, decorated with colour photo panoramas of the site and fronted by yet more Arsenal “legends” – Alan Smith in the Telegraph, Ray Parlour in the Sun – sung the praises of Highbury in both its old and new guises. There is much talk of the construction of a swimming pool and gym on the site. Even former Gunner Robert Pirès and ex-Blackburn and Turkey midfielder Tugay have bought a flat each. All in all, one might consider the development as something of a media coup for Arsenal.

However, behind the art deco façades of the renovated flats, rumblings of discontent about the financial implications of building Highbury Square have been mounting. It may look good, but the financial crisis has put paid to many potential buyers’ dreams of owning a property in the development. With prices ranging from around £250,000 for a one-bed flat, right up to penthouse apartments costing over £1 million, buying one of the stadium flats was costly even before the recession. Once the property market contracted and mortgages became hard to come by, not all those who initially bought flats off plan were able to complete on their purchase agreements.

Under these circumstances, sales have been modest. According to Arsenal’s latest financial results, by May 2009 the club had received full payment for only 208 of the 655 flats. The Guardian reported last month that in the last 13 months the club managed to complete on just two flats. The old North Bank still stands hauntingly empty.

While the slow take-up of new homes in Highbury Stadium might not necessarily keep Arsenal fans awake at night, the cost to the football club of the project is a worry. The club has reduced the bank loan taken out to fund the Highbury Stadium project from £133m to £47m. The terms of the loan, due to be repaid by April 2010, have been renegotiated to extend the repayment period to next December.

Arsenal have consistently maintained that the debt on Highbury has had no impact on Arsène Wenger’s transfer budget and that the money invested in the project is “ring-fenced”. “We’re seeing sales progressing well and the development is on a sound financial footing,” chief executive Ivan Gazidis stated at last month’s official opening ceremony for Highbury Square.

But one wonders whether Wenger’s reluctance to spend money over the summer, relying instead on promising but inexperienced youngsters, has been in part influenced by the club’s off-field financial position. The Arsenal manager has firmly toed the party line, maintaining after the recent league victory over Wigan that his squad is strong enough without the need for further investment. “We won 4-0 and on the bench I had Bendtner [while] Walcott, Arshavin, Nasri, Denílson and Djourou were not playing,” Wenger said. “Do we have the squad to compete? I say yes.”

However, the mask slipped somewhat in May this year, when Wenger was drawn on rumours surrounding his relatively modest transfer outgoings. “I do not accept people to think that I’m stupid enough that I have £100m and put it in the bank because I am scared to spend it,” he stated rather cryptically. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans have grown exasperated with the ongoing uncertainty over the club’s finances. As one poster on the Arsenal Mania forum wryly noted: “If everyone on Arsenal Mania pitched in to buy a flat, do you think Wenger would spend some money for us?”

The jury remains out on whether the investment in Highbury Square has created a financial burden on the football club. Whatever the case, Wenger has found himself caught between statements made by the club concerning the team’s financial security, and the pessimism of supporters who feel they are not being told the full story. “There is still something special I feel when I come here,” Wenger said at the opening ceremony. After the controversy over the club’s struggle to keep the development financially stable, the Arsenal manager could be forgiven for being happy to see the back
of the place.

From WSC 273 November 2009