AISA’s report on the October Supporters’ Forum

By Drew Gray

AISA representatives regularly contact and meet Arsenal directors and senior staff to discuss issues that are of key concern to our members. In this article I take a look at the most recent Fans Forum meeting on 10 October.

The Arsenal Fans Forum

The Fans Forum has been run for a number of years by Arsenal FC as an opportunity for representatives of various groups of supporters to be able to raise issues that are of concern to those individual groups.

The most recent meeting included various supporters including myself from AISA. Those from Arsenal FC included Raúl Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and Mark Gonnella, Mark Brindle, Ivan Worsell and Tom McCann. 

The Fans Forum photo in the Highbury bar

A quick tour of the new Highbury bar

Tom started by showing us around the newly revamped Highbury bar on club level. He explained that following this summer’s expansion of club level they recognised a need to provide extra space for supporters and guests. He spoke about the careful ‘Arsenalisation’ of the Highbury bar, which is a homage to the old stadium, complete with art deco features, cannon motifs, and an installation of 93 lights (for our 93 years there) of which the 13 larger lamps represent the 13 league trophies we won whilst at Highbury. 

We were also shown round the main Camden Brewery bar (sadly shut!) and Tom explained that the brewer (Jasper) is a massive Arsenal fan. I’ve never needed an excuse to drink Camden Pale Ale but I might hunt it down more often now. So, now on to the meeting itself.

Ticket Exchange issues

Ivan briefly outlined improvements to the ticket exchange system. Users may not see much change, as most is behind the scenes but they are working to future proof the system. However, starting from the Brighton home fixture, the new system will enable you to exchange your ticket up to 3 hours before kick-off, a big improvement and something which AISA has called for many times. Arsenal are also working with Apple to link season tickets to your iPhone wallet. This should speed up entry and they are hoping to roll it out by December. This might also help with touting issues.

Ticket touting

Ivan Worsell explained that he sees touting as a big problem and his team have been working really hard to counter it.  Tens of thousands of tickets are redistributed over the course of a season, and so trying to track touts (who are very sophisticated) is difficult. He spent some time outlining the actions Arsenal are taking to combat it, including buying up tickets for away games. AFC have a huge database and are using data analytics to catch genuine members who sell on tickets and touts that buy them by pretending to be members.

There are also teams in stadium who are checking tickets. He has a dedicated investigations officer and a touting team for match days, which is working with the police. Since 2017/18 they have banned 6,500 members (mostly at Red level). They are also talking to Ticket Master and getting their help to catch bots and touts, and the club is also working closely with other PL clubs.   

The message Arsenal want to get out there is that if you are ST holder or away scheme member who sells on your ticket they will catch you, and ban you. 

VAR

I had tabled a question about VAR and the Arsenal reps team did their best to answer it. I wanted to know what rules have been agreed about sharing information with supporters in the ground when a VAR check is underway because there seems to be a lot of confusion.  Premier League clubs have agreed a procedure for VAR, which recognises the difference between a ‘check’ and a ‘review’. This is how it was explained:

Checks happen dozens of times during the game and we might only notice them by the referee holding his finger up to his ear (as he listens to the advice from the VAR centre at Stockley Park). However it is only when a decision is made to review that the screens in the stadium will indicate this is going on. On Sunday (vs Bournemouth) a check was made to see if it was penalty for the ‘foul’ on Pepé but it was inconclusive so there was no review. The TV screens will only show a clip of an incident if a decision is overturned.

This prompted a lot of discussion but I think the bottom line is clear now: if the referee decided to review it he will stop play and do so. At that point we get a VAR symbol on the screens and then – if the original decision is overturned – a video clip that shows why. Otherwise the game goes on with minimum interruption. I asked if there were plans to put up further big screens (as some seats have a restricted view of the two we have) but Mark and Vinai said that new screens would be expensive and would necessitate a reduction in seating, so probably no.

Safe Standing

Vinai led here saying that the club has been working on the practicality of safe standing. The core issue is probably capacity with most assumptions being that safe standing would mean cheaper tickets and increased capacity. In reality all of the research they’ve done so far at the Emirates suggests the opposite. Because of the way the ground has been built there is very little opportunity to increase capacity. We cannot use the Upper tier and the Lower tier is so shallow that, without rebuilding, this is problematic too.

There some other issues as well. For example setting aside an area for standing would inevitably mean reallocating some season ticket seats, which is unlikely to be popular. In short then it is pretty challenging to create a safe standing space at the moment, but they are not giving up; they like the idea and are committed to exploring it. Vinai finished by saying that they are bringing in an independent consultancy firm to look at it through fresh eyes.

Raúl talks about the transfer window

Before the business part of the meeting began Raúl made an opening introduction, talking about team matters (which are not the normal subject of these forums). He spoke about the summer transfer window in the context of the disappointment of how last season ended. He wanted to be clear that Arsenal have now got a structure in place, and a clear plan for the future. Signing up Edu was the last piece in this jigsaw and the team (him, Vinai and Unai Emery) have already started working for the next window.

Looking back to the summer he said that they had a clear plan, with options. Three main positions were targeted – the wing (essential he said to Emery’s plans), centre midfield (to replace Ramsey), and central defence. He was at pains to stress the support they had from the owners – especially from Josh Kroenke.

The main objective was to give the manager a better team so we can achieve CL qualification this year. Raul knew Ceballos, and had wanted to sign him for Barca so when he got the opportunity he brought him to Arsenal, even as a temporary move. Saliba, he said, was a very tactical signing, a young player with potential who is part of a longer strategy. Pepé was the big signing and the main focus (to give Emery the width he asked for) but there was lots of competition for him.

Tierney was a good opportunity, also very tactical signing and while it was clear we were going for him all window, we were only able to confirm him when Monreal was allowed to leave. So this was a carefully planned and well thought out window (not a reaction to supporter discontent) and this is perhaps demonstrated in the sale of Iwobi.

By accepting an offer for Alex, Arsenal demonstrated what the academy does for us. Raul said that developing academy players has multiple benefits: – in the dressing room it reminds other players of the Arsenal identity; on the pitch it augments the squad (as we can see with Willock, Nelson and Smith-Rowe); and it brings very useful income which allows us to spend where we need to. He felt it was the right time to sell Alex; he had a very good season but might not develop here. His sale helped us finance the signing of David Luiz on the final day, a useful defender with bags of PL experience.

A positive outlook ahead, say Raúl and Vinai. Raul is very excited about the youngsters. Willock is he says, at ‘a different level’. He is also really impressed by Martinelli, Nelson, and Saka, as I think we all are. We will also stronger with returning players like Bellerin and Rob Holding. Inevitably he was asked about Mesut Özil and he didn’t duck the question. Ozil works hard but but he needs to contribute 24/7, so perhaps there was an implication here but he didn’t want to criticise Özil and doesn’t think Emery has anything against him, it is just that others deserve their place in the team more at the moment.

It was a very positive introduction which Vinai chipped in to at the end, emphasising that they have a plan and a team to implement it – from youth, to Under 23s, to the first team, which includes Emery, Edu and the senior management team. I got the impression that Raúl believes they have given Unai the tools he needs to get top four this season.

It was a long meeting – over two hours – but very interesting and it is to Arsenal’s credit that they give their time in this way to listen to supporters. There was a discussion of the pre-season fans event where Edu was introduced, but I’ll save a report of that for another day. Or ask me at the AGM.  

Most of these issues are matters that AISA has long been campaigning in and continues to do so. If you would like to raise an issue with us please email campaigns@aisa.org or if you want to know more about how to join us then please contact us at membership@aisa.org or look for details of how to do that here.

AISA also runs the AISA Arsenal History Society, which has its own website which is available to members and non-members alike.

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