Thanks for your quality: 10 examples of the exceptional Arsene Wenger
I don’t claim to know Arsene Wenger very well but I have greater knowledge than the vast majority of people who will read this piece.
It is just a shame that it took his last game as Arsenal manager to afford me the space to write it.
You see, Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest people I have ever met.
Not the greatest football manager.
Not the greatest person I have worked with.
But one of the greatest people I have ever encountered.
It was my privilege to talk to him for 15 minutes or so every week for Arsenal’s club media for more than a decade. So, my own small claim to fame is that I might have interviewed him more than anyone else*.
However, this is not a piece basking in the reflected glory of a famous person. I did not really want to commit it to virtual print. Given the wild emotions it creates, I avoid commenting on Arsenal these days, a subject I started writing about soon after I started school. However, I could not let this moment pass without giving Arsene Wenger his due - personally and professionally.
It seems to be an increasingly unpopular viewpoint right now but I have always believed football is about more than just winning.
Arsene was not the most successful manager of his era. At different times, he was pipped by brilliant Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City sides. Despite the virtually unique Invincibles season, his team never truly had an omnipotent era. The titles tended to shift towards the clubs with the greatest resources and Arsenal were never No1 on that list.
That said, former vice-chairman David Dein used to say that everything starts with a “winning team” and Arsene delivered that. Those who think he did not should look at the club’s history for the wake-up call of comparison. The bar was raised by Wenger himself, before he was beaten over the head with it in his later years.
But as I said, a club’s appeal must go much deeper than on-field results to explain the grip it holds on hearts and minds. It delves into identity, history, locality and family.
Assuming he wins enough games to keep his job, a manager needs to understand and represent the culture of a club then fashion a team that embodies it.
They need to give supporters something of which to be proud.
For me, that is what Arsene Wenger did at Arsenal.
Call me a blinkered or biased, call me a fanboy, I don’t care. And yes, Arsene’s halo slipped every so often in response to the angry, abusive and sneering world of football.
At times, he paid for his principles with stress, derision and having to hear disgraceful songs based on utter lies.
Yet the transformation of Arsenal has been stunning in the last couple of decades. I have worked at the club through most of it and the majority of the credit must go to ‘The Boss'.
In my opinion, Arsene was a great Arsenal manager, a great Arsenal man and remains a great human being.
And, though we sometimes gloss over it, the third quality is the most important one.
So here’s 10 stories, anecdotes, issues, decisions and remarks that illustrate the Arsene I know (a bit). They are in no particular order and I have kept plenty back – good, great, funny, sad and bad. That’s because the Frenchman was a man of honour and deserves to be treated in a similar fashion. You are only getting a few illustrative highlights here but I hope it serves its purpose.
I remember one day on early trips to Asia, when we were with Arsene all day for different events. He spoke to children in the morning, fervent Asian fans in the afternoon and hard-to-impress business leaders later in the day. I recall vividly how he charmed each group in different ways because he has the humanity to understand people and always found the right words to leave a positive impression. The same thing happened year after year at the AGM where doubters often left charmed by Wenger’s unscripted speech.
2. Bold decisions
The resolution to play youngsters in the League Cup. Arsene did something different, got bitterly criticised for it (especially after that 5-0 humbling by Chelsea at Highbury) but persisted. In the end, not only did most the other big sides follow suit but these nights became a highlight of the season for many reasons. Firstly, a different set of supporters could watch as it was not part of the season ticket package and prices were dirt cheap. Secondly, many children got their first experience of Emirates Stadium at these games so the enthusiasm, not to mention the shrill of the crowd, was much higher. Thirdly, these were perhaps the only games of the season in which the weight of expectation was not a burden. It was wonderfully refreshing. Fourthly, the young players nearly always responded and Arsenal reached the latter stages with regularity. Yet Arsene was mindful of “not cheating the crowd” so, to manage expectations, these were the only games in which the squad was announced before the game.
Jermaine Pennant was loaned to Leeds in 2003 and, in such circumstances, almost every manager stipulated that the player could not feature against their mother club. Arsene thought the opposite. “When I loan them, I loan them”. Their education was the most important thing. It was an example that his principles came above anything else. It was the same over the endless stories run over his new contracts. Once there was a verbal agreement it was done. Putting pen to paper was an issue only others cared about.
Those 15-minute interviews were the highlight of my week. For the most part, he knew what questions were coming and we both knew I had to ask them. So to keep the dance lively, I’d dig out a few left-field statistics or anecdotes that would inspire something different. Arsene’s knowledge was so deep, you had to ignite a spark. Once, for a magazine piece, we discussed the mighty Hungarian team of the 1950s. He had no prior knowledge of the topic but knew everything and enthused so much that this was one of the rare occasions I had to stop the interview as I ran out of time. He wanted go on.
5. Insistence on progression
On tour in Japan, Arsene was questioned by a gaggle of eager local journalists. Achingly polite and genuinely inquisitive, they peppered the former J-League coach for more than an hour. When they had gone, he turned and remarked “you see, all their questions were about one thing – how does my country improve?”. Arsene’s thought process has always pointed the same way, hence his cultural fit in the country.
When then West Ham manager Alan Pardew criticised Arsene for fielding too many foreigners (a very old chestnut that, like the League Cup issue, seems to have disappeared), Wenger responded immediately that Pardew did not seem to mind when he took Jeremie Aliadiere on loan. It was perhaps the only time that I saw a journalist clap an answer.
7. Appreciation of history
During one press conference, Arsene remarked that Arsenal had never won the Uefa Cup. Unwittingly, I grimaced at the statement and, knowing my red-and-white credentials, he added the verbal asterisk that Arsenal had won the Fairs Cup in 1970. I also remember that before the final game of the 2014-5, I talked about the fact this would be Arsenal’s last game in red and white at Highbury, given that the team would be wearing redcurrant for the “Final Salute” campaign. Wenger had not realised and, after they defeated Everton 7-1, some of the players said it had cropped up in the manager’s pre-match speech.* *
8. Grace under fire
After a game at Rosenborg in the Champions League there were stories of a fight on the team coach. At the next press conference, a young Norwegian reporter came over and pressed the boss very hard. He constantly interrupted Arsene’s answers. The boss calmly bided his time for a few minutes and after talking about learning lessons he then pointedly told the reporter “…and you must learn not to interrupt people”. Game over. ***
There are lots of examples but one stands out. Cameramen prepare diligently ahead of a press conference as they know they will struggle to fix a technical error once the questions start. One time, a microphone failed and, mindful of not obstructing his colleagues’ shot, a videographer started crawling along the floor from the back of the room to the front with a replacement. This was while the manager was talking and in full view of the room. Amid the absurdity, everyone managed to maintain the their poise until Arsene ended one of his answers on the upcoming game’s opponent with the deadpan quip “and as you can see… the dangers can come from anywhere”.
Forgive me but this final one is purely personal. When I bade a tearful goodbye to Arsenal, the manager invited me into his office one last time. It was slightly odd to chat about life rather than the far safer topic of football. At the end, I asked him for a signed shirt. I expected little more than the usual scribble but he wrote something much better and very obviously Arsene.
“Dear Richard, Thanks for your quality, Best Wishes Arsene”.
Those four extra words make it one of my most prized possessions and will be the best job reference I ever receive.
It had meaning, thought and a respect that was so typical of the man - and so rare in football, or indeed life.
Arsenal Football Club have so much for which to thank Arsene Wenger, many people, including myself, learnt lessons that continue to help their careers, knowledge and bank balance****.
So, for one last time…
Thank you, boss.
And Merci Arsene.
As I said, I really was unsure about writing this piece. Frankly, there is too much of me in it. But Arsene Wenger has dominated too much of my sporting and working life for the past 20 years – I started covering the club in 1997 for one of the local papers and ended up Managing Editor (TV, Digital, Print) at Arsenal – to let this moment go by without some sort of tribute. I was not sure whether to write it and not publish it, publish it and not aggregate it or not reply to any feedback, good or bad.
Right now, I think it will be the last of those. We’ll see.
* That honour almost certainly goes to myself or someone else at Arsenal Media Group.
** This is not a look-how-clever-I was, it was not even my stat, a colleague gave it to me. My point is about Arsene’s sense of history.
*** Yes, there are numerous examples of Arsene ‘biting’ and reacting but a YouTube clip of 10 Wenger flashpoints does not tell the story of 1000+ games at Arsenal.
**** I am writing this piece on a plane travelling back from Indonesia, where I am consultant Content Director for the country’s top-flight Football League. It is a crucial contract that I won because of my Arsenal connections and the success Arsene brought to the club.