It all started while I was sitting in the sunshine at Sopwell House, the hotel in Hertfordshire used by England before we flew out to Portugal for Euro 2004, when an eager voice called out, “Ashley!” Mr Dein was stood there. He told me I wasn’t earning enough and my salary was going to be increased. My face- cracking smile told him all he needed to know. I was buzzing, really buzzing. His tone soon wiped the smile from my face. I felt his attitude suggested he was doing me a favour, like I was a 17-year-old trainee.
The deal he offered was a £10,000-a-week increase to £35,000. A hell of a lot of money. But, when taken in the context of football wages and his own estimated value of me of £20 million, and when placed next to those other Arsenal wages of between £80,000 and £100,000 a week, his offer was a piss-take. It was a slap in the face, not a pat on the back.
By the time José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich came to Highbury for a thrilling 2-2 draw in December 2004, I’d already told my agents what I wanted in terms of a new deal. They thought I’d lost my marbles. But I loved Arsenal, couldn’t imagine playing for another club and wanted to stay. “So get me £60,000 a week and I’ll be happy with that,” I said.
The next thing I know, on December 20, Jonathan (Barnett) is on the phone with good news: “Ash, I’ve just met David Dein for breakfast at Claridge’s; we’ve shaken on £60,000 a week.” As it turned out, the Arsenal board had other ideas about rubber-stamping Mr Dein’s recommendation. At a board meeting held two days before our 1–0 away defeat at Bolton in January, it was decided the maximum offer should be £55,000 a week. I don’t believe the board gave a damn about keeping me. It preferred to haggle over a difference of £5,000.
IT WAS A GOOD JOB I WAS WELL AWAY from it all, driving to Mum’s house in Chigwell as agent and vice-chairman locked horns in an office in Central London later that month. Somewhere along the A406 North Circular Road, one telephone call changed everything about how I viewed and felt about Arsenal.
“Ash! Are you listening?” said a virtually hyperventilating Jonathan. “I’m here in the office and David Dein is saying they aren’t going to give you £60k a week. They’ve agreed £55k and this is their best and final offer. Are you happy with that?”
When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. “He is taking the piss, Jonathan!” I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on. I’d trusted Mr Dein to push the deal through.
The next month I met Mr Dein at his house, set back off a dark, leafy road on the outskirts of North London, about 15 minutes’ drive from me. He tried turning the screw on the salary. I told him that I thought someone on the board had it in for me, didn’t like me or wanted to see me go. How else could he explain the squabble over £5k?
I just laid it on the line. “I feel betrayed and let down by a club I’ve given my heart and soul to.” I told him I had wanted to re-sign for Arsenal, but the whole thing had left me feeling upset and confused.
One week later, I got a call on the mobile from Jonathan. “Did you tell David Dein that you wanted to re-sign for Arsenal?” I’d said I had wanted to re-sign for Arsenal, “had” being the operative word, and the vice-chairman had somehow twisted my words.
It seemed to me he was letting me down at every turn. And if he thought relations had soured because of the infamous Chelsea incident at the Royal Park Hotel in January he was mistaken. Relations had soured the moment that he went back on a verbal agreement in December.
TWO DAYS BEFORE I WAS OFFICIALLY interviewed, on tape, by the FAPL investigators, Arsenal played Bolton at the Reebok on Saturday, March 12, in the sixth round of the FA Cup. I was relegated to the bench. This felt like a punishment dressed up as fatigue and that’s what pissed me off.
The last person I wanted to see after the match was Mr Dein, who was going to the dressing-room as he did after every game. “You OK, Ashley?” he said. “No, I’m f***ing not OK, Mr Dein! Does it look like I’m OK?” The look on Stu Taylor’s face when he saw me let rip at the vice-chairman like that! I’ll shake Mr Dein’s hand if he reaches out to shake mine, but our days of friendly conversation are over. Given the choice between saying ten words or one to him, I’ll go for the one.
It was while I was on holiday in the summer that a deal was done to keep me at Arsenal, brokered by my agent and Mr Dein. It was a compromise. We agreed that I’d stay for one more year, extending my contract until June 2008, and the club finally paid me the £60,000 a week I’d asked for in the first place. I’d gone from “for ever” to “day by day”.
To make matters worse I was out for most of last season with injuries and was surprised when my comeback was pencilled in for the home match versus Middlesbrough on January 14, 2006. I could hardly run, let alone kick the ball, and was out of action with a thigh strain for another five weeks. It was that injury that led to a bizarre conversation that proved to be a turning point regarding my future with Arsenal.
I’D JUST COME IN FROM TRAINING AND fitness coach Tony Colbert was stood near the doors as I walked inside to go to the changing-rooms. “You OK, Ash? Feeling OK?” he asked. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Feeling good,” I said, because I was. But one minute this thigh sensation would be there, the next it would be gone. In the physio room, these twinges came back. I turned to Gary Lewin (the first-team physio) and winced. “I’m feeling it a bit now,” I said.
At that minute Tony walked in and heard my groaning. “So why didn’t you tell me that outside? You said you were fine a few minutes ago,” and looked at me like a kid looking to get out of class by throwing a sickie.
That’s when he said it. “What do you expect me to do, Ash, when you tell me you’re OK and then come in here like you’ve just been shot? Be honest with me, are you just making out that it’s worse than it actually is because you’ve got an eye on the World Cup?”
That was it. I blew my lid. “What!” I shouted, barely able to keep a lid on it, “I need to play for Arsenal to go to the World Cup, so why the f*** would I hold back . . . The more I hold back, the less chance I’ve got of going to Germany! And you are insulting me.”
For me it was one more person at the club doubting my loyalty. And it was the final straw. I’d had a vice-chairman and board who had thrown my loyalty back in my face, fans who’d questioned my faith for a year, a dressing-room I didn’t recognise any more and now someone seemingly doubting my professionalism. “Why am I even bothering? What future have I got at a place like this?” I moaned to my agent and family that evening.
Arsenal’s final game at Highbury on May 7 was an emotional day for everyone, but even more so for me. “I can’t believe this is going to be my last game in England wearing an Arsenal shirt,” I thought as our coach pulled into the famous marble halls. There was no future left for me at the club any more. I knew that. Cheryl (Tweedy, his wife) knew that. Mum knew that.
MY WORST FEARS WERE CONFIRMED when, as Thierry (Henry) and I sat in the centre circle after the final whistle, his name was sung from the rooftops while my contribution was recognised by a deafening silence. As his chants faded away we waited for mine. And we waited. And there was nothing. “They’re not bothered about me,” I said, resigned to the fact. It was like I was the invisible man.
That night I went out and got hammered at the Embassy nightclub but, unlike other years, no other Arsenal player joined me. Instead, I found myself at the end-of-season Premiership bash with John Terry, Joe Cole, Carlton Cole, Damien Duff and a few of the other Chelsea lads. The champions were out on the town, celebrating and sticking together; the kind of camaraderie that used to bind Arsenal together.
Thierry signed a new four-year contract two days after the Champions League final, but our situations were different. The club made Thierry feel wanted and special, wooing him, wining and dining him, speaking in public about how much they want him to stay, going on a deliberate charm offensive to win their man. But me? I didn’t have one dinner, one meeting or one phone call from anyone. No one took time out to discuss the club’s ambition and vision with me. That’s not sour grapes, it’s just a sad truth. My love for Arsenal was soured by what I see as neglect and resentment. Even after the Thierry deal had been sorted, Arsenal still didn’t approach me. The truth is I felt that the Gunners had done jack-shit all season to hold on to me.
On May 26 I found myself sat at London Colney with the boss. He deserved an explanation, even if the board didn’t. “Look, boss, I’d like to keep playing for you,” I said as I choked up. “I just can’t see myself playing for this club — they’ve ruined it for me. Thanks to the board, my own fans still hammer me. I don’t want to be at a club where I get booed, where everyone thinks I’m greedy, where everyone doubts my loyalty. I want to play football and enjoy my football and I’ve become miserable here. I’ve not even made up my mind where I’m going to go, but I know, in my heart of hearts, that I can’t keep playing for Arsenal.”
He listened like no one had listened since February 2005 and he took in every single word. Both sides reached a reluctant understanding. “It’s hard, Ashley — it’s like a divorce, I suppose,” he said. Just like with his team talks, the boss found the right words to sum it all up.
I never for a minute expected to return to Arsenal’s training ground for the 2006–07 season as I’d made it clear to the boss I’d be leaving, but nothing had been sorted when I returned home from my honeymoon. Back at our meeting in May, the boss had asked if I’d thought of a club I wanted to join. He floated some names: Real Madrid? Barcelona? Chelsea? Yes, he mentioned Chelsea. So we spoke about those clubs and that’s when he said Chelsea shouldn’t be ruled out. As much as he didn’t want me to join them, if they paid the right money and I wanted to go, he said “the club wouldn’t stand in my way”. Those very words would become important later on.
When I got back it became clear that Arsenal were late to open up negotiations, Madrid were nowhere and all the paper talk was about Chelsea. Peter Kenyon made a £16 million offer but David Dein wanted £30 million; the same man who had told the FAPL inquiry that my value was between £15 and £20 million.
I FELT LIKE A BARGAINING CHIP, with the stakes too high. It felt to me that Arsenal had done nothing to keep me and now it seemed obstacles were piling up at the exit door. Arsenal did not want me to write this book, too, withdrawing permission for me to use official club photographs which did nothing more than capture great memories from my time at Highbury. Their behaviour puzzled me, to be honest. It felt like Arsenal were toying with Chelsea, toying with my future. It got to the stage where I wanted to phone Mr Abramovich myself and tell him how much I wanted to leave.
My frustration came to a head when I met Mr Dein on Monday, July 31. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t happy with the handling of negotiations with Chelsea. “You’re asking too much, you know they’re not going to pay it,” I said, knowing the boss had earlier said the club wouldn’t stand in my way. “You’re taking the piss by asking for £30 million because I thought you only rated me at £20 million.”
“Well, Chelsea have to pay more,” he said, and went on to explain that Arsenal were losing one of their best players, one of their best assets and, as a result, were making Chelsea better. I said: “Well, whose fault is it that you’re losing me? It’s not my fault, it’s your fault.” He disagreed — again — and said Chelsea will pay. “What happens if they don’t, Mr Dein?’ I asked, and that’s when he said that I’d have to stay at Arsenal and see out the two years left on my contract. I decided to spell it out for him. “I’ve told you I don’t want to play here no more. It’s not fair on anyone if I stay — not me, not the manager, not the players, not the fans.”
He made it clear that he’d sell me quicker than he could click his fingers if it was Real Madrid or Barcelona. “But I don’t want to go abroad any more,” I told him. What he didn’t realise was that me and Cheryl had spoken a lot on our honeymoon about a life in Madrid. We’d also discussed Chelsea after the boss told me not to rule them out. Somehow, while lazing in the sun in the Indian Ocean, the switch from north to west London didn’t seem so bad.
“I’ll get hammered if I go there, the Arsenal fans will never forgive me,” I said to Cheryl one evening. It took her to point out the blinding obvious: “They’ve hammered you anyway and they’ve never forgiven you for the past 18 months . . . so what’s the difference?”
Mrs Cole had a point. She said it was like the jealous husband who forever falsely accused the wife of cheating. In the end, so fed up with the accusations, she just goes and does it anyway because the grief couldn’t get any worse. I couldn’t have put it better myself. That’s what we’d discussed and that’s what I explained to Mr Dein. I also needed to remind him why we were here in the first place. “Regardless of whether it was you or someone else on the board, one of you didn’t want me to re-sign for Arsenal. I didn’t ask for 90 grand a week. I didn’t even ask for the same wages as other players. I asked for 60 grand!”
It was clear there was no future for me at the club, but by mid-August the scary thought crept into my mind that I’d have to walk back across a broken bridge and stay at Arsenal. The thought depressed me and it probably didn’t do much for Arsène Wenger, either. As every day passed without progress, I felt chained to Arsenal. It seemed like the personal nightmare was going to continue, but just before training with England on August 31, my mobile rang. Finally, both clubs had reached an agreement.
The deal was a straight swap with William Gallas plus £5 million. By the time all the paperwork had been completed in London, the deal was done with minutes to spare before the transfer deadline shut. Talk about cutting it fine!
Of course, I’ll get absolutely caned by the Arsenal fans and that’s something I’ve got to deal with, in the same professional manner that Sol Campbell dealt with his move from Tottenham to Arsenal. The Arsenal fans will think I’m disloyal, but it’s my life and I wasn’t happy there any more. I’d given it a year to see if the situation improved and it hadn’t. It was a miserable, forgettable year for me — apart from the Champions League final.
I never thought I’d see the day when I’d actually leave Arsenal. I just hope the fans understand where I’ve come from, the reasons for leaving and the reasons for doing this book.
I’m not asking for sympathy — just an awareness of what’s gone on, how I didn’t want to leave and how I feel the board messed things up. Not me. This situation couldn’t have just been my fault. I’m not disloyal. I’m a loyal and honest person and I’ve got principles. I can wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror knowing that I’ve done no wrong. I tried to be fair. I tried to be decent. I wonder if the Arsenal board could say the same?