Fifteen years on from an unceremonious ousting from Arsenal that also cost him a host of other high-powered roles in football, David Dein is still feeling bruised.
The club’s former vice-chairman, who rose to the same role at the Football Association, was one of the architects of the Premier League and became president of leading European teams’ lobby group the G-14, suffered a painful parting from the club he loves in April 2007.
Dein also brought Arsene Wenger, the club’s greatest modern-day manager, to north London in 1996. Wenger, who remains his neighbour and close friend, would be awkwardly ushered out against his will in 2018.
“I think we were both treated, I can only use the word brutally,” Dein tells City A.M. “I had 24 years at the club; he had 22. I would have expected both of us to have had more of a duty of care after that.”
Dein, now 79, says he was never given an explanation for his ejection but suspects “jealousy and fear” were the motivation. “Jealousy because I got too high-profile perhaps, and fear because I felt the club needed extra finance.”
The latter led him to sound out potential investors in private, a move that aroused suspicions from other board members. English football had been turned upside down by Roman Abramovich’s lavish spending at Chelsea. “I didn’t want to see us falling behind,” he says. Arsenal have not won the Premier League since.
Dein details the painful episode in his memoir, Calling the Shots, published this week.
The book is a treasure trove of anecdotes which include: the secret plotting that led to the formation of the Premier League; Abu Dhabi’s interest in Arsenal before buying Manchester City; witnessing former Arsenal star Charlie Nicholas bring a fan round from a coma; losing £15m of his own sugar-trading fortune to a fraudster; and asking Jackie Onassis to use her boat for an impromptu wedding.
One of the most colourful tales involves visiting Alisher Usmanov on the oligarch’s yacht to discuss buying Dein’s Arsenal shares. Dein writes that Usmanov demonstrated his fan credentials by naming all of the club’s 1971 double-winning team. “True,” he says.
On whether he regrets selling to the now-sanctioned Usmanov, he responds: “We can all be clever with hindsight. If you ask a Chelsea fan about Abramovich taking over the club – they were virtually bust. And don’t forget Arsenal were in financial difficulty.”
Dein helped Arsenal become a major force again but his wider legacy is the Premier League which he, then-television boss Greg Dyke and executives from Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton cooked up 30 years ago.
It has become by far the biggest football league in the world, and Dein remains bullish about its prospects. He also rejects suggestions that the growing gap between it and its rivals – not to mention England’s lower divisions – threatens the game.
“I always think of the Premier League as the fastest train on the track,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful you don’t slow the train down. People underestimate how much money goes down to the lower divisions.”
Dein cites his support for the football pyramid among his objections to the failed European Super League. “I used the word abhorrent. I think it was ill-conceived and it was right to be consigned to the waste paper basket. I think the clubs made a bad mistake and I’m sure they regret it now.”
One of the English clubs to support it was Arsenal, who ironically now belong to Stan Kroenke, the US multi-sport owner Dein was kicked out for courting. He has mixed feelings about the Kroenkes, who later declined the chance to buy Dein’s shares and reinstate him at Arsenal.
“It’s very difficult for me to say because they are very financially muscular owners. My only comment, which I think is factual, is they have a lot of other interests,” he says.
“Football clubs are different from anything else. They need tender loving care. And I just hope there will be personal interest put into it.
“I think they’ve turned the corner. This season they appear to be doing much better, the club seems to be stable and they’ve got a good youth development programme. It’s looking rosier.”
Dein stayed away at first but now attends Arsenal matches again. Wenger has never been back, however, more than four years on from his reluctant departure.
“Rather like me I think he’s still bruised. I know he’s bruised. They are talking about having a statue for him. I think there should be and I hope he accepts to unveil it,” says Dein.
“He deserves nothing less for what he achieved. Three championships including two doubles, seven FA Cups, the Invincibles, 20 years in succession in the Champions League. I wish that the club could do that again. Probably not in my lifetime now, but I hope we see it.”
Calling the Shots: How to Win in Football and Life by David Dein was published by Constable on 15 September.