ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
Kandy Times  

Arsenal’s Friar was here

By Dr. S.W. Perera

On the 21st of April, a man who has been associated with one of the most famous football clubs in the world for fifty years, arrived quietly in Sri Lanka and left just as quietly two days later. Kenneth J. Friar, O.B.E., has served Arsenal Football Club’s Secretary, Managing Director and in other capacities. He has worked with famous managing directors such as, Bertie Mee, Terry Neill, George Graham, and Arsene Wenger and effected the transfers to or from Arsenal of International stars, like Malcolm Macdonald, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, and Denis Bergkamp to name a few. He thought he had retired from the club in 1999 but was asked to remain with Arsenal to oversee the move from historic Highbury to the modern Emirates stadium. He remains a member of the club’s Board of Directors.

Author of this article Dr. S.W. Perera with Kenneth J. Friar when they met in Sri Lanka

When still in school, in 1975, I sent a letter to Sir Denis Hillwood, then chairman of AFC, asking for information about the club. I was being presumptuous, of course, but supporting an International soccer club in Sri Lanka then was a frustrating exercise because the local media provided almost no coverage of European soccer – this was long before TV and the Internet were introduced to Sri Lanka. I did not really expect a reply so I was pleasantly surprised to receive a big package of material from AFC three weeks later with a personal note from Hillwood saying that Ken Friar, the secretary of the club, would be communicating with me from then onwards. The brash schoolboy is now a university professor and Mr. Friar, as mentioned earlier, has served the club in different capacities ever since. But the steady exchange of airmail letters and emails has continued without interruption for 31 years! Thanks to Mr. Friar’s generosity, I was sent a free ticket to watch Arsenal versus Manchester United at Highbury when he learned that I would be staying in London for a few days en route to Canada for my graduate studies in 1985; had an article of mine included in an Arsenal match-day programme; and given a tour of the stadium with former Arsenal star Charlie George during another stopover in London in 2005.

Mr. Friar’s visit to Sri Lanka had nothing to do with soccer, however, like many top European clubs, Arsenal does an enormous amount of work for charity in the UK and abroad. In a communication sent in early 2006 he asked me to suggest an orphanage or a home for children which the club could help in some way. That Sri Lanka had been affected by the tsunami was one reason why Arsenal wanted to reach out to our part of the world. I supplied the names of four institutions and the club agreed to set aside a sum for one after examining the project descriptions – the bulk of the money was reserved for an institution in Acech. Mindful that the intended recipients do not always benefit when money is seen from abroad, he decided to visit Sri Lanka in person to find out exactly what the institution needed and whether Arsenal would be in a position to help. During this brief stay, he discussed the modalities of providing support with those who administer the charity and also visited the two orphanages. By the time he left, he was thoroughly satisfied with the project and the bona fides of the individuals involved. This meeting with my ‘pen pal’ confirmed al the positive attributes that I had associated with him after corresponding for over three decades. He was compassionate, gracious, and genial. Despite holding a top position in one of the richest clubs in the world, Friar is by no means the ‘stiff upper-lipped’, pompous, Colonel Blimp-like character we sometimes associate with people in authority in the UK. He was patient and poised whether he was discussing budgets with members of the organization chatting football with me or amusing the children in the two orphanages. It should be added that Friar kept to his word and arrived in Sri Lanka despite negative security alerts given by the Foreign Office and a major crisis that shook the club a few days before his departure. Clubs, like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, are now under foreign ownership, a trend that Arsenal has resisted. Although details are still hazy, it appears that Arsenal’s powerful vice Chairman David Dein was forced to leave the Board of Directors for promoting an American takeover of the club. Friar could very well have excused himself and remained in the UK to help overcome this boardroom crisis bur decided to honour his pledge to visit Sri Lanka.

Since this brief visit was undertaken for a specific purpose, Friar was unable to meet anyone in the local football scene. However, once the project gets underway, he, or others associated with Arsenal, will travel to Sri Lanka regularly.

This could provide opportunities for relevant officials in Sri Lanka to begin a dialogue with Arsenal and establish other exchanges as well. In his first ever letter to me, Friar hoped that one day it would be possible for an Arsenal Football team “to visit your beautiful country,” Let’s hope that this wish will become reality in the near future.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.