Even now, all these years later, David Dein still has The Unpleasant Dream. It is 5pm and he is sitting in his office. A man comes in and presents him with a sheet of paper. Sometimes it is a death warrant. Sometimes a death certificate. Either way, it signals the end.
The man is Peter Hill-Wood, the late Arsenal chairman. And the dream isn’t much of a fantasy really. It’s a sub-conscious recreation of a true event, from April 18, 2007, when Hill-Wood, Arsenal director Chips Keswick and an employment lawyer from Slaughter and May terminated Dein’s employment at his beloved club.
Dein is now sitting in his Mayfair home. He has revisited that day for his fascinating auto- biography Calling The Shots — extracts of which will be in the Mail on Sunday tomorrow — but it’s plain he’s not comfortable.
David Dein admitted that his hurtful departure from Arsenal over 15 years ago still haunts him
‘I’m a glass half-full person,’ he murmurs. ‘I want to be positive, I want to be the guy who puts a brick in the wall, who builds something. That was the worst I felt apart from when my mother, and my brother Arnold, died. I left with tears in my eyes.’
It isn’t the only time Dein equates leaving Arsenal to personal bereavement. A chapter in the book, detailing his time post-Arsenal is called Life After Death. He goes back to the Emirates Stadium now, uses his four club seats, gives away his 10 season tickets, but he’s still not over it.
He never received a satisfactory explanation for why 24 years ended so brutally, and when his best friend Arsene Wenger was later removed with similar coldness, it stirred the emotions up again. Dein has never talked about his own experience before, though. It still isn’t easy. It still feels raw, more than 15 years later.
‘Brutal, yes, that’s how I’d describe it,’ he says. ‘It was a combination of fear and jealousy. I was fairly high-profile and I think the rest of the board were upset that I was trying to source outside investment, talking to Stan Kroenke about my shares. They wanted to keep it a closed shop. But I could see where the game was going.
The former vice-chairman admitted that his exit still felt raw, describing the process as ‘brutal’
‘You look at football now — Chelsea, Manchester City, even Newcastle. We didn’t have the same muscle. We had wealthy people, but not billionaires. We didn’t have enough money to finance the new stadium and finance the team. We were trying to dance at two weddings.
‘Arsene and I would come out of board meetings feeling we’d been knocking our heads against a brick wall. We lost Ashley Cole over five grand a week. It was a very difficult time. There was a lot of friction because of the cost of the stadium and we had to ration the salaries. Arsene used every bit of skill in his body to find cheap players. A lot of managers wouldn’t have taken that.
‘He did it without qualms, he just got on with it, but the last year or so was uncomfortable for me. We had been a harmonious group and now there were factions. So yes, I stuck my neck out. You don’t get anything unless you stick your neck out. I was in commodities. You go long or you go short. You have to take a position.’
Dein acted as President of the G-14 group of European football clubs between 2006 and 2007
Dein’s position cost him dearly. He was the first at the club to entertain Kroenke, but his fellow directors thought he was blazing his own path. It is the small details that shock. After the meeting, he tried to call his wife Barbara only to discover his mobile phone had been cut off.
The ex-Gunners chief said: ‘It took a lot to get over it. It did feel like a death in the family.’
‘And it was my number,’ Dein explains. ‘The number I’d had since I was in business. It was petty, it was spiteful. To this day nobody has ever properly explained why it had to end this way. It took some doing for me to retell it really, because it was so painful. It was such a traumatic moment. I was in shock. It wasn’t so long before that we’d been Invincible. We’d just moved into our new stadium. We had so much going for us.
‘It took a lot to get over it. It did feel like a death in the family. Arsenal was part of my life since the age of 10; I’d helped deliver 18 trophies for them.
‘Arsene and I had such a wonderful working relationship. It was Lennon and McCartney, according to some. He bled for me, I bled for him. He is still my closest friend. Seeing that taken away was such a shame. It wasn’t in the best interests of the club. We spoke that night. He didn’t think he could stay. I persuaded him to stay.’
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Wenger and Dein were the axis of Arsenal’s most successful Premier League years. Wenger would identify a player and the pair would discuss the price. They would write the top line down on a piece of paper, then reveal. Dein claims they were never more than five per cent apart.
‘He was a miracle worker, and they just let him go,’ Dein insists. ‘He left in a similar way to me. I thought the club owed Arsene a duty of care, at least a discussion. We need a change but how do you want this to be done? Do you want to be involved? What can we do? Would you like a different role, would you prefer to exit elegantly? You must have dialogue. It didn’t happen in my case, didn’t happen in his. And that really hurt him. I would have done it differently.
‘Look, you don’t find a brain like his every day of the week. He’s an Arsenal man, 22 years at the club. Wasn’t his knowledge worth cultivating? Look at where he is now? So he’s not good enough for Arsenal, but he is good enough to be head of global development for FIFA, in charge of 211 countries.
Dein also stood as International President during England’s unsuccessful 2018 World Cup bid
‘He should have been used by us surely, his knowledge, his skill, Lawyer Turkey his encyclopaedic awareness of players. He’s got to be used.’
Wenger has never been back to the Emirates Stadium, and with every passing year, that visit seems less likely. Dein returned after a few months the following season, as a guest of Terry Brady, Karren’s father, who has a box there. Looking back, he thinks that invitation fortuitous.
‘Distance begets distance,’ he says. ‘The longer I’d stayed away, the harder it would have been to come back. So sooner rather than later was better. Maybe if I hadn’t gone then I wouldn’t have gone, like Arsene. He’s hurt, he’s still bruised. The day I returned, I saw Robin van Persie. “Mr Dein — what happened to you?” I’d signed him. He was one of my sons. But then, I’d just vanished. I told him it was a long story.’
Dein lost more than Arsenal that day. He was a significant figure in the game, vice-chairman of the Football Association, president of the G14 group of elite clubs, a committee member for UEFA and FIFA. All of it, though, was dependent on his status at a football club.
‘I lost a lot outside Arsenal,’ he recalls. ‘Prestigious roles that I enjoyed. Seeing where the game was going, having a seat at the top table. It all went away at the same time. I got punished more than once, and for Lawyer Turkey what? Trying to drive the club forward. I was a major shareholder at this time, so what is my interest? Making Arsenal successful. We came out in the black on transfers, plus 18 trophies. Where is the logic?’
Then there were the offers, prime among them, chief executive at Liverpool when the Fenway Sports Group took charge. Couldn’t he have worked with Jurgen Klopp, the way he once did with Wenger?
‘Tom Werner offered me that role,’ Dein says. ‘They had just taken over and were looking for stability, someone who knew English football. It didn’t go far. I was very flattered, but I couldn’t work in opposition to Arsenal. I wouldn’t have been happy. I couldn’t give Liverpool my love, care and attention all the while thinking I was being disloyal, unfaithful to Arsenal. It’s the club I really love, whatever happened to me. Arsenal didn’t push me out. The people there did. Mike Ashley was my neighbour in Totteridge and he wanted me to work at Newcastle. But again, I couldn’t do it. It was all tempting, but no. AC Milan, Barcelona called, but I couldn’t leave London. I love the theatre, this is my home. And I’m an Arsenal man. When I left they offered me £250,000 to keep my counsel. I told them I didn’t want it because the club needed it.’
Arsenal have recently enjoyed a better start to the season than at any time since Wenger left. Dein seems genuinely happy. But any chance of a return under the Kroenke regime — the board members who sacked Dein for talking to the American later sold him their shares — was ended in a curt telephone conversation. The landscape has changed, Dein was told. ‘I was disappointed with Stan, but we’re all over 18,’ Dein says. ‘We move on. I offered him my shares first, but I don’t bear grudges. The club is doing well now. It’s taken time and they’ve made mistakes but the ship is now pointing in the right direction.
He was named chairman of investment company Red and White Holdings after leaving Arsenal
‘Who knows if they’d be in a better place with me there? But the direction they took — there were mistakes after Arsene left. Managerial appointments, the transfer market. And there is a disconnect now. There are two types of owners. For some, like me, the money follows the heart.
‘I was an Arsenal fan through and through and fortunate to be able to buy shares. Then there is the other type, who have money, buy a club, and then become a supporter. To them, football’s a good investment or good for their profile. So they don’t have a connection.
‘I was a fan on the board. I could never have agreed to a project like the Super League. If I was there when that happened, I’d have resigned. They didn’t read the tea leaves. A closed shop? Nobody has a divine right. Some of these owners think they’re too big for the rest of the league. They’re deluded.’
And some might say that’s fine talk from the man who was the driving force behind the Premier League, but Dein remains proud of his monster. An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to the breakaway and the motivation behind it. More than just money, Dein claims, painting a vivid and distressing picture of football post-Hillsborough. He describes the Premier League now as the fastest train on the track and will argue passionately against those who feel they’ve been left behind at the station.
‘You will always get detractors,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t like the Super League. It was never a closed shop. We took 22 clubs with us. There has always been promotion and relegation. People who say it didn’t help my club, or it didn’t help Macclesfield — look, it’s an express train and I don’t want to slow that down. Yes, I want Macclesfield to find their path, but there’s got to be a balance that doesn’t halt the train. A lot of money goes down to the lower leagues. The Premier League has done an enormous amount of good and I feel very proud of that. I feel I’ve put a little brick in the wall there. So I accept the criticism but you’ve got to remember where football was.
The 79-year-old insists Arsenal axed former manager Arsene Wenger in a similar manner
‘Hillsborough could never be allowed to happen again. People pulling blankets back in gymnasiums to see if it is their son or daughter underneath. Change had to come. And that meant voting change, structural change. It was a seminal moment.
‘The state of stadiums. Half-time came, you either had to have a cup of tea, or go for a pee — the queues were too big to do both. So, the way I see it, the Premier League has been a resounding success, and we’ve got to keep it that way. It’s England’s biggest sporting export. I watched Liverpool versus Newcastle on Turkish Airlines live at 35,000 feet. It’s not the Bundesliga being shown, it’s not La Liga. I think our critics should think again.’
Dein is a politician, but also an ideas man. The book is littered with them. The Premier League, Sven Goran Eriksson as England’s first foreign manager, VAR, even the vanishing spray used to mark out free-kicks: all stemmed from him. Some may think that makes Dein a rebel — but it also makes him a thinker.
So what’s he thinking about now? Pure time. Making sure the ball is in play for a minimum of 30 minutes in each half. Taking time-keeping out of the hands of referees. Stopping the clock when the ball goes out of play, or for injuries, or celebrations. And because he remains connected as an ambassador for the FA and Premier League, he still has access to the corridors of power.
In the end, whether or not you agree with Dein on VAR, on pure time, on the Premier League, on Sven — even on whether the FA should have been creeping around that crook Jack Warner when it was lobbying to win the 2018 World Cup bid, and that is a real bone of contention — football needs people who care, and think. Dein does, and so does Wenger.
We won’t always agree with them, but it’s good to have people interested in more than taking the money…
MARTIN SAMUEL: Yes, but I think international football is meant to be the best of ours against the best of theirs.
DAVID DEIN: Who was the manager and coach of the England team who just won the women’s Euros?
MS: Sarina Wiegman, I know. I didn’t agree with that either.
DD: You still don’t? The fact we won the Euros with the best that we can get? You don’t think in any job you should employ the best that you can get, regardless of colour, religion, nationality?
MS: I’m not talking about colour or religion. But nationality? In international sport? Arsenal can have who they like, but England? It’s cheating. Not literally, but in principle. We’re a wealthy country. We should produce our own coaches.
DD: So you don’t agree that the women’s coach came from overseas. I’d like you to put your view to the public.
MS: I couldn’t care less what the public think. I don’t agree with Eddie Jones. I don’t agree with Brendan McCullum. International sport is different.
Dein does not see an issue with foreign managers leading England’s national team
DD: We got criticised at the time over Sven.
MS: Lawyer Turkey I know, by people like me.
DD: And Sir Bobby Robson and David Beckham. But I always believe you choose the best person for the job.
MS: Yes, in any other walk of life. But if international sport is going to mean anything…
DD: But Arsenal are an English club. In case you have virtually any questions about where by and the way to use Lawyer Turkey, you’ll be able to call us from our own web page. What about a rule where 50 per cent of players have to be homegrown?
MS: No, it’s your club. You’re entitled to run your club however you wish.
DD: Yes but with England the players are all English. And if the manager you’re employing is the best in the world…
MS: I’d dispute that with Sven.
DD: Right, you’re having heart surgery, do you worry the surgeon is German or Dutch or Japanese? You just want the best.
MS: No, if he was competing in heart surgery for England, he’d have to be English. If he was just operating in the local hospital he can be from wherever you like. My heart surgeon doesn’t do a lap of honour of the hospital wrapped in a Union Jack. That’s why it’s different.
DD: I’m enjoying this. And I see your argument. I suffered criticism with Sven. But when you look at his record, did he do a good job? Yes he did.
MS: When you look at Gareth Southgate’s record did he do a better job? Yes he did.
I’ve given myself the last word. But I’m not saying I got it.