CRAIG Whyte has managed to enrage fans of another club after selling off a historic share holding in Arsenal held by Rangers since the beginning of the last century.
Fans of both sides have united to register their dismay at the sale of 16 shares acquired by the Ibrox club in 1910, with one member of the Arsenal Supporters Trust yesterday accusing Whyte of destroying the history between the clubs for his own personal gain.
It emerged yesterday that Whtye had sold the shares for £230,000 shortly before the Ibrox club went into administration. The sum was not paid into the Rangers bank account, Instead, it remained lodged in one of his companies, Pritchard Stockbrokers in Bournemouth. Pritchard’s assets have now been frozen on the orders of the Financial Services Authority.
For Rangers supporters, the sale of the shares, coupled with the uncertainty over whether the Ibrox club will ever see the sum gathered, is yet another betrayal of the club’s past by someone who has already mortgaged off Rangers’ future courtesy of the notorious season-ticket deal with Ticketus. For Arsenal fans, as well as cutting a bond between the clubs, the move also impacts on an ownership bid being prepared by the Uzbekistan-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who is understood to have bought Rangers’ stake in Arsenal for around £15,000 per share.In the view of both the Rangers and Arsenal fans, they were not Whyte’s to sell. For supporters of the English club, the outrage was compounded by the swiftness, and secrecy, with which the deal was done. Arsenal shares are at a premium and are traded infrequently on PLUS, a specialist market.
Whyte chose not to offer the shares to the Arsenal Supporters Trust or the Arsenal Fanshare group, which would have at least ensured that the historic stake came back under supporter-control. Instead Whyte struck a deal with Usmanov, who is now just a fraction away from amassing the 30 per cent share stake which permits him to a place on the Arsenal board and also grants him access to important financial data.
Although small in number, the sale of the shares that were once owned by Rangers could have a significant bearing on Arsenal’s future, with Stan Kroenke, the club’s majority shareholder, under pressure to increase investment. Arsene Wenger’s side look likely to complete a seventh successive season without a trophy. Usmanov has been regarded as persona non grata by the current Arsenal board, but, having agreed a deal with Whyte, he is now just an estimated 50 shares short of reaching the magic 30 per cent mark.
“Every single share is one share closer to 30 per cent, when we might see some pressure brought to bear [on Kroenke],” said Nigel Phillips, of the Arsenal Supporters Trust. Usmanov is reported to be in favour of ending Wenger’s 16 year reign as manager.
“From the Arsenal supporters’ point of view, we are disappointed not to have had the chance to try and buy them, having made representations to both the previous ownership, under David Murray, and having registered an interest with the administrators last week,” he added.
Martha Silcott, an Arsenal Fanshare board member, contacted representatives from Duff and Phelps last week, just hours after she heard Rangers had gone into administration. “I wanted to know whether the shares were still in the possession of the club,” she said. “I said: look, I know you will be leafing through a pile of paperwork, but I wanted to let them know that we [the Arsenal Fanshare group] exist, and we would be interested in buying the shares, if they were ever to be sold.”
The administrators told Silcott that they would be back in touch once they had managed to get a sufficient handle on the finances. But Silcott hadn’t heard back by the time she was stopped dead in her tracks yesterday, when a fellow Arsenal fan phoned to inform her of the sale.
“I was walking through St Pancras Station, and I just froze,” she said yesterday. “I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. It is so disrespectful. It is not as if he (Whyte) didn’t have options.” Indeed, not only does the sale build up Usmanov’s holding in the club through his Red & White consortium, it ends one of the longest associations in football. As recorded in The Scotsman in 2006, Rangers acquired two shares in the London club in 1910. George Morrell is the person who is believed to have facilitated the exchange. Morrell had worked at Rangers before becoming manager at Woolwich Arsenal, as they were then known, in 1908. The clubs played a friendly between each other in April of that year in Glasgow and the English side, who were then based in south London and on the brink of liquidation themselves, later transferred two shares to Rangers in what is believed to have been a thank you gesture. When there was a share split in 1991, both these shares grew into a stake of eight shares each.
Knowledge of Rangers’ share holding in Arsenal only became public knowledge six years ago, after Phillips contacted then Rangers owner Sir David Murray and David Joliffe, the club’s financial director, to ask why they were not listed in Rangers’ accounts. It had become an issue due to the recent rise in value of the shares. Only 62,217 have ever been issued, with the London club now valued at £1.1 billion. “I got a copy of the shareholders’ register from pre-computer days, an old printed paper, it was over 150 pages long,” recalled Phillips yesterday, when asked how he came to learn of the existence of the shares. “I went through and it and there was an entry saying Glasgow Rangers.”
It is not unique for one football club to own shares in another club. Indeed, Fergus McCann was surprised to learn that Celtic owned some shares in Rangers when he took over the Parkhead club in 1994, and swiftly sold them on.
But the Rangers stake in Arsenal was a symbolic one, as much as anything. “It is a great pity,” said Robert McElroy, the Rangers historian. “It’s a part of the heritage of two clubs.”
His view was supported by Silcott, who seethed at the actions of Whyte yesterday.
“This is about a lot more than money,” she said. “It’s about history and the close relationship between two clubs. In one fell swoop, it has been swept aside for personal again. It goes against everything the shares stand for.”
A solid metal cannon, a gift from Arsenal to mark Rangers’ centenary in 1973, is said to reside in the Ibrox club’s Blue Room. Someone had better go and check that it is still there.