I remember the day in September 1996. I walked into my local, the Kentish Yeomen in a small village called Seal just outside Sevenoaks in Kent. Duncan the landlord was just pinning a poster behind the bar, right under his sign that said “Prices subject to change depending on customer’s attitude”.
Like myself, Duncan is a diehard Gooner and only weeks earlier, we had been lamenting about that Bruce Rioch fella who had to go. So imagine the confusion with his Wenger poster and him telling me “That’s the geezer we got”. My friend Pete simply said the fella looks like a teacher, does he even know anything about football?
I must admit, even after being corrected about the pronunciation of his first name, I thought Arséne got the job because his name was similar to Arsenal. Then came the game against Leicester (Sheffield Wednesday – know it all Ed) I believe, when Ray Parlour got injured and some fella called Paddy made his debut for Arsenal.
Everyone was excited because of the buzz that this Paddy fella was a Wenger signing an we wanted to know what he was all about. Vieira didn’t just grab the game by the scruff of the neck, he announced himself as a midfield general who would leave a mark on the team for generations to come. One punter in the pub kept insisting he was definitely Irish, with a name like Paddy, he had to be.
“Is you crazy? Surely we can’t do it”
Fast forward to January 1998 and we’re still wondering where this Arsenal team will take us. There’s clear daylight, a 12 point gap between Man United in the lead and Arsenal. To this date, I still don’t understand how Wenger and that team pulled off a swing of over 13 points in the second half of the season against United to win not only the league, but the double in Wenger’s first full year in charge. It was seasons like that which gave you the belief that Arsenal was onto something.
Then the players started coming in, some of them kids that you had never heard of before. There was this young one called Anelka bought at some bargain basement price. Then there was this other fella who wasn’t doing too well as a winger at Juventus. I believe at the time, one commentator famously proclaimed, “Thierry Henry will never be a world class striker, he’s a winger through and through”. Shock on him. Don’t forget ‘ole Sol, stolen from right under the noses of them lot up the Seven Sisters Road. Treason they called it.
Wenger the Sage, Wenger the Man
In one of his final interviews, Wenger said (I paraphrase here) “There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. There is no humiliation in setting a high target and failing to achieve it. What is tragic is setting a target and not doing everything you can to try and achieve that target”.
Ask the journalists who laughed Wenger out of the room early in the 2002-2003 season. Wenger proffered that it was possible to go through a whole season unbeaten. Of course it didn’t happen that season, and they laughed through gritted teeth as they wondered whether this French fella had lost the plot. Mind you, that wasn’t a bad season at all.
For me, one of the most poignant moments of Arséne’s career was after the last game of the ‘Invincibles’ season. We had just drawn 1-1 with Leicester and Arséne was by himself, walking quietly on the Highbury turf, contemplating the sheer magnitude of the madness Arsenal had just achieved by going through a whole season unbeaten. There were hairy moments of course, especially the draw at White Hart Lane, but those images of Wenger walking the turf told a story of a thousand words. About a man who had inspired a mesmerising group of individuals to do the unthinkable.
All Good Things Come to an End
Economists and statisticians call that moment the point of diminishing returns. That’s the point at which you start thinking whether a change is as good as stickability. Wenger and Sir Alex had tenures that spanned decades at their respective clubs. That will never happen again in football. We all know that Arsenal’s stickability with Wenger muddied the waters a bit towards the end. That should however not negate the impact Wenger has had at the club, making him Arsenal’s greatest manager of all time.
Arséne reflected yesterday that his biggest achievement was leading the move from Highbury to Ashburton Grove. It wasn’t about the glamour and the trophies; it was about the balancing act that kept the club at an even keel while paying off significant debts in the first 8 or 9 years of our move. As a strategist, I find myself totally agreeing with Wenger. Very few managers in the world would have been capable of working with that straight jacket, while maintaining the values and principles of the club. As a fan, that period was frustrating for most part, the constant loss of talent to other teams in Europe making you wonder where we were all going with this thing. Some good names passed through the club; some you’d forget in an instant and wonder what the hell Wenger was smoking when he signed those players.
There are many Arsenal fans, especially the Millennials who have only known Wenger. You mention old Bruce, George and Bertie and they’ll look at you funny. Perhaps Wenger was a victim of his own success, achieving so much early in his Arsenal reign. That would explain a lot of the frustration, especially in the last 8 or so years. But in the cold light of day, our position in the wilderness of the top flight, being also-rans for most part is something many older fans can identify with from the 60’s and the 70s.
It was time for Wenger to go, and I think the balance of letting him finish the season with dignity vs firing him in the middle of a season was the right balance for all concerned. Thank you Monsieur Wenger. Like many younger fans, you have also shaped the understanding and appreciation of other older fans to a value system and a style of football. We will keep the memories we have and wish you the best in whatever you go on to do.
And goodbye from me for the season
So, I hear there’s a game on Sunday against Huddersfield. Shame that my new favourite Arsenal player will miss it. I like that boy Dinos Mavropanos. I hope the new manager uses him from the word go next season. There’s just something about him; a no-nonsense attitude and approach to defending. How many times have we screamed for a defender with that work ethic. This fella doesn’t look like one who takes prisoners. Of course he’ll get a red card once in a while, it comes with the territory; some might even argue that it’s a rite of passage.
Finally this will be my last weekly post for the season. It’s been a pleasure spending time with all of you, and thank you to YW for the privilege of sharing my musings on this wonderful blog. It was a pleasure giving you a break every Friday. How you have done this every day for 12 years 3 months, I have no idea.
Until next season.