Arsenal yesterday unveiled a bust of their manager Arsène Wenger at the Emirates Stadium, half an hour after he had told the club's supporters that they were not providing enough vocal backing for his young team.
The annual general meeting at the stadium heard that the credit crunch was not expected to have any serious impact on finances or sales of 650 new flats being built on the old Highbury ground, and would have no effect at all on the football side of operations. But Wenger made it clear that he was more interested in greater appreciation for his squad than money to improve it.
His opening remark to shareholders was: "You are very quiet – like the Emirates on Saturday." One dissenting supporter had taken the microphone earlier to ask whether money should be spent on Arsenal's back four rather than property and another wondered aloud when the next trophy might arrive after three years without one.
Wenger insisted that he had faith in his players and added: "I don't feel this team gets the support it deserves from the media or our supporters. This team will deliver but the younger you are, the more you need support. The structure of the team is very young and tomorrow we will be better than yesterday. When you go to Fenberbahce with a midfield where the oldest player is 21 and deliver that kind of performance [a 5-2 win] then you have to be positive. We are in a strong position to qualify in the Champions League again and in the Premier League we are four points behind the leaders with enough opportunities to come back." Wenger could not resist pointing out to the audience that when he joined Arsenal 12 years ago, their shares were worth £400 each and that the price is now more than £7,500. He also told them that wherever they went in the world they would receive respect as Arsenal fans because of the culture of the club and "the quality of our game". A questioner who asked about the departure last summer of midfielders Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb was told: "We want to get players to love the club and not want to move on. I'd like to show you letters from players who left us and how much they'd like to come back."
Sitting next to Wenger throughout was Stan Kroenke, the American billionaire now on the board after growing closer to chairman Peter Hill-Wood, who originally said of him: "We don't want his sort and we don't need his money." That money has now been welcomed, as wages soared to more than £100m last year, with debt increasing to £318m as a result of the Highbury development. But turnover was up to £223m – higher than Manchester United's latest figures – and pre-tax profit was £36.7m.
Ken Friar, the veteran executive who is standing in as managing director until a new appointment is made, said the sales position on the Highbury flats was "comfortable" despite the current state of the market, and Hill-Wood said: "Maintaining a very good football side will not be affected by whatever happens in the property market." He said dialogue would be maintained with Alisher Usmanov, whose Red and White Holdings are only just behind Danny Fiszman as largest shareholder, with almost 24 per cent after buying out David Dein last year. "We are prudent people," Hill-Wood said, which seemed to go for most of those in the room. Wenger would just like them to be a bit noisier.
Wenger enjoys select company in criticising supporters in recent years. After a narrow home victory over Birmingham last season Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson compared the atmosphere inside Old Trafford to a funeral.
Ferguson's former captain, Roy Keane, is another manager not averse to verbally attacking his club's fans. "One or two supporters were abusing me and that is something I won't tolerate," the Sunderland manager said after a penalty shoot-out League Cup victory last month. "Our players were poor but so were the crowd. I heard enough people complaining and I won't tolerate them abusing me. Some people were targeting me but that's something I've not come into the job to accept. There was one idiot here three or four weeks ago, too, and you remember those things. We have some bloody brilliant supporters but you always remember the idiots. People have short memories."
* Eduardo da Silva could play for Arsenal again in three weeks, Wenger said yesterday. The Croatia striker suffered a fractured left leg and dislocation of his ankle against Birmingham City in February and there were fears at the time that the injury could be career threatening. "Eduardo is three weeks away from playing competitive football," Wenger said.