The rise of Venkate­sham: how an oil trader be­came a key fig­ure at Arse­nal

Man­ag­ing direc­tor at the Emi­rates ad­mits he is not a foot­ball ex­pert, but that has not halted his rapid climb to the top

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By Sam Dean

Of all the places for Vi­nai Venkate­sham to be found on a frosty De­cem­ber morn­ing, the back page of a tabloid news­pa­per was hardly the most ex­pected. Arse­nal’s man­ag­ing direc­tor is far from be­ing one of foot­ball’s most high-pro­file ex­ec­u­tives but, for one day at least, it was his im­age that was plas­tered all over the press.

Un­be­known to them at the time, Venkate­sham and Arse­nal’s con­tracts ex­pert Huss Fahmy had been spot­ted out­side the Manch­ester home of Mikel Arteta in the small hours of a Mon­day morn­ing. A few clicks of a pho­tog­ra­pher’s fin­ger and, just like that, Arse­nal’s pri­vate pur­suit of Arteta had be­come a pub­lic en­deav­our, with Venkate­sham emerg­ing as the un­ex­pected face of the story.

Within a few days, af­ter Arteta’s ap­point­ment as head coach had been fi­nalised, Arse­nal’s ex­ec­u­tive team were able to see the lighter side. The images were cer­tainly not ideal from a PR per­spec­tive, yet some of the club’s se­nior fig­ures could not help but chuckle when they learnt of the neg­li­gi­ble fee be­ing charged for the pic­tures by the agency in ques­tion.

The episode brought a rare fo­cus to Venkate­sham, who had largely flown un­der the radar, in terms of me­dia cov­er­age at least, since his ap­point­ment as man­ag­ing direc­tor in Septem­ber 2018. Work­ing along­side Raul San­llehi to lead the club af­ter the de­par­ture of chief ex­ec­u­tive Ivan Gazidis, Venkate­sham was the busi­ness brain to go with San­llehi’s foot­ball ex­per­tise.

While San­llehi briefly be­came a mi­nor de­ity in the eyes of Arse­nal’s fans – “Don Raul” was mobbed out­side An­field ahead of a game against Liver­pool last Au­gust – Venkate­sham has mostly op­er­ated away from the pub­lic gaze, which is just how he likes it.

Fol­low­ing San­llehi’s sud­den exit last week­end, Venkate­sham is now the pri­mary leader of one of the big­gest clubs in the sport at the age of just 39. The re­struc­ture con­tin­ues a hugely im­pres­sive rise for a man who was ap­pointed Arse­nal’s head of global part­ner­ships in 2010 (he was in­ter­viewed by Gazidis on trans­fer-win­dow dead­line day) with­out any pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence in foot­ball. He started his ca­reer as an oil trader in the City be­fore be­com­ing a strat­egy con­sul­tant at Deloitte and then join­ing the com­mer­cial team of the Lon­don 2012 Olympic Games.

Venkate­sham’s po­si­tion at Arse­nal makes him one of the most prom­i­nent Bri­tish Asians. In the 2020 GG2 Power List of the 101 most in­flu­en­tial Asians in Bri­tain, Venkate­sham came in at No34, the high­est rank­ing of any­one in sport. It is un­der­stood that, within the club, he has long been push­ing for greater equal­ity and di­ver­sity, know­ing full well the im­por­tance of var­ied view­points and ex­pe­ri­ences to Arse­nal’s suc­cess.

“I know this role comes with a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Venkate­sham said in an in­ter­view with the club’s web­site at the week­end. There is also plenty of pres­sure to pro­vide fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity for a club who chose the year of a global pan­demic to pro­duce their worst league per­for­mance since 1995.

Venkate­sham read­ily ad­mits he is not a foot­ball ex­pert. For that he has Edu, the club’s tech­ni­cal direc­tor, and Arteta. With­out San­llehi, Fahmy will also be­come more in­volved in trans­fer plan­ning and ex­e­cu­tion. In the club’s new hi­er­ar­chy, they all now re­port to Venkate­sham.

Those who have worked with Venkate­sham de­scribe him, first and fore­most, as supremely in­tel­li­gent. One does not climb the ranks of an in­sti­tu­tion like Arse­nal with­out con­sid­er­able agility of mind. In­deed, he is one of the more long-serv­ing se­nior fig­ures at the club.

“Very bright, very per­son­able, very ac­count­able,” says one source who has worked in­ter­mit­tently with Venkate­sham for years. “He has good in­stincts for how a club should be run.”

Venkate­sham is seen as a clean-cut op­er­a­tor, a man who will say the right things at the right time. San­llehi, the charis­matic deal­maker, was more of a mav­er­ick. As a duo there was an in­ter­est­ing bal­ance there, even though it al­ways felt strange for the club to have two lead­ers rather than one. Now that Venkate­sham sits alone at the wheel, it can only be hoped for his sake that the next 12 months are more straight­for­ward than the pre­vi­ous year.

Rarely have clubs en­dured a cam­paign as event­ful as Arse­nal’s, which started with their cap­tain go­ing on strike in­stead of the pre-sea­son tour and a knife at­tack on two first-team play­ers.

An on-pitch col­lapse, the strip­ping of the cap­taincy from Granit Xhaka, the sack­ing of Unai Emery, the coron­avirus cri­sis, the fail­ure in the league and then a glo­ri­ous FA Cup vic­tory: it never stopped for Arse­nal or for Venkate­sham, who has no doubt earned a fam­ily hol­i­day – when­ever he can take one.

Lead­ing the way: Vi­nai Venkate­sham cel­e­brates Arse­nal’s FA Cup tri­umph

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