“My love and support forever”
– Arsène Wenger
These were the final words of a statement which has stunned not only the world of football, but of the whole sporting community. After nearly twenty-two years in charge of one of Europe’s biggest football clubs, Arsène Wenger will be stepping down as Arsenal manager when the season comes to an end next month. Being a die-hard Arsenal fan myself, the news came with mixed emotions. Whilst the last few seasons have been somewhat clouded with deep frustration having failed to reach specific targets, this is the man who made me fall in love with football, sport, and, of course, the Gunners. Despite never being able to meet Mr Wenger, I have been able to recognise, through close personal affiliations and connections, the sheer grace, charm and generosity of not only one of the Premier League’s greatest ever managers, but one of sport’s greatest ever men.
In 1996, both Arsenal and football were in a period of stagnation. The Premier League was under the threat of being dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United while English football was plagued with a drinking and smoking culture amongst players, making the beautiful game almost an unhealthy and lethargic pastime. One of the most ‘unathletic’ clubs was Arsenal, with the infamous ‘Tuesday Club’ organised by club captain Tony Adams making headlines for all the wrong reasons. After the sacking of Bruce Rioch twenty-one-and-a-half years ago, many Gunners fans wished for names such as Johan Cruyff or Kevin Keegan to take the manager’s role. Little did they know that when an unknown Wenger arrived in North London in September 1996, a new hero for the next few generations of Arsenal fans would change the face of football forever.
Having spent most of his managerial career in his native France, as well as a brief career in Japan, Wenger brought over a new culture of football which is now common logic amongst even the most amateur of footballers. Out went the drinking culture, in came a new and improved eating diet; football became an athletic sport again. On top of this, Wenger brought over the idea of training sessions being timed and monitored by a stop watch to improve efficiency, whilst the phenomenon of positional play, and training without the ball, was another of the Frenchman’s innovations. The Arsenal manager also proved himself to be a complete perfectionist, with former defender Sol Campbell stating that Wenger specifically ordered the Arsenal players to stir their cups of tea in a certain way for those who used milk and sugar.
These innovations caused Arsenal to play some of the most eye-catching football the league has ever seen, creating new heroes such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, and while the new football ‘modernisms’ raised a few heads, the North London side challenged Manchester United’s domestic dominance. Red Devils manager Alex Ferguson reacted to Wenger’s appointment saying that “he comes from Japan, he knows nothing about football”. The accuracy of this quote was tested when Arsenal won the 1998 League and Cup double in Wenger’s first full season in charge. From that moment on, Arsenal and Wenger created a rivalry with United and Ferguson which enticed football fans from all over the world. A second domestic double arrived in North London in 2002, a feat which was topped by Wenger two years later in a truly remarkable season; the Invincibles campaign. Arsenal went the entire of the 2003/04 Premier League season without losing a single match, an achievement which had not been made since 1889. The first eight years of Wenger’s reign had already put him at a legendary status in English football. It was the next eight years which really tested the Frenchman’s resolve.
After the Invincibles season, the Gunners threatened to conquer European football, becoming the first London side to reach the Champions League Final in 2006. However, a controversial defeat to FC Barcelona in Paris became the last great Wenger achievement for almost a decade. A ground move from the historic Highbury Stadium to the modern and swanky Emirates Stadium in Ashburton Grove put a strain on Arsenal’s finances. Several loans from various banking companies meant that the main method of paying back those funds was through player sales and profit in the transfer market. On top of that, Arsenal’s reputation in domestic football was under serious threat with Manchester City and Chelsea receiving oligarchic funding from Dubai and Russia respectively, meaning even more competition for domestic trophies. With all this in mind, the Arsenal hierarchy gave Wenger the target of reaching the top four Champions League qualification places in five of the first seven seasons at the Emirates Stadium. Guess what, he finished there seven times out of seven. In fact, Wenger can boast the record of qualifying for the Champions League for TWENTY consecutive years, a feat only managed by Real Madrid and Barcelona. A nine-year trophy drought, caused by the Gunners’ financial struggles, was ended in dramatic style with three FA Cup wins in four years between 2014 and 2017. The Frenchman’s managerial ability to consistency keep Arsenal at the top of the football pyramid cannot be underestimated.
More than just a manager
Wenger’s record in football is somewhat poetic, but attention must also be paid to his personality and his likeableness in the sporting community. As previously mentioned, barring a few ‘fanboy’ handshakes with him at a couple of Arsenal home matches, I have never properly met Arsène Wenger, but there will always be a personal moment for me which I will never forget regarding the Frenchman.
My sister’s former school – which looks after kids with severe autism – was chosen to be Arsenal’s Charity of the Year in 2008, and I remember my mother going to a talk which was attended by none other than Mr Wenger himself. She recalls him speaking very clearly about the importance of children with disability in society, and that we should embrace these childrens’ unique mind-sets and acute logic, a statement which summarises Wenger’s personality. A great believer in the power of human beings, this well-mannered philosophy has shone through over his time here in England. Upon hearing of the Grenfell tragedy last summer, he cancelled all his commitments to help raise funds with a local footballing organisation. These are only but a few of the Frenchman’s selfless and exceptional character and temperament. Arsenal may hire a better manager in the years to come, they might also hire a less-talented one, but it is highly unlikely they will hire a better human being than Mr Wenger.
His Arsenal career is not yet over, with a Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid being the main focal point of the rest of the Gunners’ season, as they attempt to win a European trophy for the first time in twenty-four years. Another record for Wenger to chase. Whether that is achieved or not, it will not tarnish the career of one of football’s greatest ever characters, and one of sport’s greatest ever legacies created.
To the man who made me fall in love with football:
“My love and support forever”
– Sam Blitz