Alisher Usmanov, the Russian billionaire, yesterday signalled his intention to buy Arsenal – but said that he may have to do so without the club's former vice-chairman David Dein.
Speaking for the first time about his £120m investment in the club, Usmanov also said he would meet soon with managing director Keith Edelman and chairman Peter Hill-Wood and issue a "joint communique". Usmanov insisted that he was not "pushing" for any shareholder to sell to him – he currently has a 23 per cent stake and intends to increase that to 25 per cent as soon as possible. He is already precluded from making a bid for the next five months through the undertakings he has given to the Takeover Panel. However, when asked about his intentions, Usmanov said: "Intention we have. But we do not have the capacity today. This is business and life changes. If there are changes to the current composition of the board it would be a new environment. What we cannot do today, we can do tomorrow.
"My current intention is to have a large shareholding. But we are not pushing for anyone to sell to us. I did not buy it to make a quick return, to sell it. But I will not set any limits on myself."
The Arsenal board, who hold just over 45 per cent of the shares, have entered into a lock-down agreement not to sell before next April and are confident they can fight off any takeover. They have already said they intend to prolong the agreement – with Usmanov yesterday saying that he, too, may be willing to take part in a "lock-down". "I'm not against taking similar obligations myself," he said. "What I can say is that the club is in an excellent state. Today."
That qualification was telling and though Usmanov insisted he did not want to make a hostile bid he confirmed that he would continue to buy shares. The businessman, who has a box at Chelsea as well as the Emirates Stadium, also revealed how he chose to invest in Arsenal. "The only way for us to buy a stake in Arsenal, the person who could open the door at Arsenal was the man shown the door by Arsenal," he said.
That man was Dein who sold his 14.6 per cent stake to Usmanov for £75m. As part of the deal Dein is now chairman of the company, Red & White Holdings, which manages Usmanov's stake in Arsenal. However Dein's departure from Arsenal was highly acrimonious with Hill-Wood recently saying he had no intention of welcoming him back.
"I'm grateful to David Dein that he decided to sell his shares to me and not somebody else," Usmanov said. "But I don't want a personal relationship with the current board to affect my relationship with the board. For our side we will try to convince David Dein to be less hostile to the current board and try to pacify the board and their relationship with him. What we heard about David Dein and the board at the outset of our Arsenal adventure and what we can say now are two different pictures. But we won't be hostage to any hostility that exists between him and the board."
Usmanov said he had no intention of removing Dein, but the inference was clear: if matters don't improve his relationship with the former Arsenal vice-chairman may be a short one.
Usmanov's business partner, Farhad Moshiri, met with the Arsenal directors last week. "Since we have spoken there is more and more understanding between us," he said. "We have spoken with Mr Edelman and I am planning to have a meeting between him and myself and then issue a joint communique."
Usmanov said he had been planning to invest in British football for some time. "We studied a proposal from a UK banker to invest in Tottenham and Mr Moshiri was in talks with Liverpool," he said. "They are a great team with a great manager but there was something that stopped me. I always used to say to Farhad, 'You are a Man Utd fan, I love Arsenal so why are we going for a third club? Why not be a shareholder in a club we really love?'"
Usmanov was speaking in his vast office, at the Moscow headquarters of Metalloinvest, the Russian mining firm, where there are huge widescreen televisions monitoring world events, tickers tracking the stock markets, an enormous map of Europe and a coterie of advisers, lawyers and PR people. But, despite having all this information to hand, it didn't help him answer a question fundamental to his credibility in the eyes of Arsenal supporters. Can he name, as Dein boldly claims he can, the last Arsenal Double-winning side?
"The big guy, Vieira," Usmanov said, looking towards the ceiling. "Gilberto, Lehmann, Wiltord. I love Pires. My real love. Clichy also, but he did not play. Ljungberg. It was a very good team."
It's a pretty poor effort – among those forgotten is Thierry Henry – but Usmanov made no apologies. He is a fan of Arsenal, he says, of football and, above all, of Arsène Wenger who he lauds as the best manager in the world.
The 53-year-old is holding his first major interview since his investment hit the headlines. Though not especially tall, he is a bear of a man with a dominating presence. He professes to be bemused at the interest – and angered by allegations that he is a "gangster and a racketeer".
"It is beyond my disgust to respond to all these allegations," he said."You can see a big amount of prejudice material and sometimes actually going into open libel and insult. I'm tired, exhausted by the law suits and court cases. I'm not a vengeful man but I am not a whipping boy either."
He is determined to convince people that he is neither a threat nor some kind of shady entrepreneur. He bridles at being described as an "oligarch", insisting that he made all his money by paying "full value" for his investments.
Born during the Soviet era in the small town of Chust in Uzbekistan, he now has Russian citizenship, returning to his homeland once a year to visit his parents' grave. He graduated as a lawyer, dabbled in business but fell foul of politics, spending six years in jail, from the age of 27, after being convicted of fraud, corruption and theft of state property.
"I was a prisoner of the Uzbek KGB," he said, dismissing the convictions as trumped up and false. "And I have spent 20 years fighting for my name. Money is nothing to me against my name." Which, given he is worth an estimated £5bn, is saying something.
But he maintains there was always an interest in football, too. "I truly fell in love with the game in 1966 when the Great Britain national team [sic] won against the Germans to win the World Cup," Usmanov, speaking through an interpreter, said. "From then it was my dream to go to Wembley one day. I remember there was a game between the England team and the world team with the goalkeeper for the world team being a Russian Lev Yashin. For Soviet people British football was in the same league as American basketball or Canadian ice hockey. I wanted to get to know the game more closely.
"So from the late Eighties to early Nineties the Premier League became the best league in Europe and was watched by everyone in Russia. I followed Arsenal very closely. I remember some great players, real Gooners... Tony Adams. I used to love that team. The coach was George Graham and then Tony Adams also played for Wenger. And then I really fell in love with Arsenal, ever since Arsène Wenger took over." His favourite current player? "Fabregas. He's a future superstar."
He will fly to London next month to attend only his second game at the Emirates, when Arsenal face Manchester United. Whether he gets a good reception remains to be seen.
Share value: Who owns Arsenal
The Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov recently increased his stake in Arsenal to become the second largest shareholder. Working with London businessman Farhad Moshiri and with David Dein as chairman, Usmanov accrued the shares under the guise of Red and White Holdings in August, before increasing his share last month.
Who owns the Gunners:
Danny Fiszman 24.11%
Alisher Usmanov and Farhad Moshiri (Red and White Holdings) 23%
Nina Bracewell-Smith 15.9%
Stan Kroenke (KSE UK) 12.19%
Richard Carr 4.35%
Peter Hill-Wood 0.8%
Other Board Members 0.2%
Small Investors 16%