When Arsene Wenger announced he’d be leaving Arsenal, we were treated to the unusual sight of the Frenchman being serenaded by opposition supporters who in years gone by had made a habit of barracking him.
From Old Trafford to the King Power, they rose and they applauded. For Arsene, a man who steadfastly refused to look backwards, the penny seemed to drop that he’d done something pretty special in his 22-years at Arsenal.
He relaxed a bit. Soaked up the love. Cracked a few jokes for the press. And that wry grin of his came to the fore.
Football waits for no man – #MerciArsene has quickly made way for #WelcomeUnai – but Wenger’s legacy will live on. Not just for Arsenal supporters, but also for the fans of those clubs with which we so regularly locked horns.
Below Laurie and David Shaw, brothers who support Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, reflect on what Arsene Wenger symbolised for them.
I used to have this recurring nightmare. It starts in the last minute of an FA Cup semi-final. Ray Parlour bursts into the penalty area and is scythed down by Phil Neville; without hesitation, the referee points to the spot. Dennis Bergkamp steps up and… blasts the ball into the bottom corner. Arsenal win the game and my dream of the Treble is no more. Then I wake up…
I know this is meant to be a tribute to Arsene Wenger, but I’m sorry: I’m a United fan and I had to start somewhere.
Wenger versus Ferguson was English football’s greatest and longest-enduring managerial rivalry. From Wenger’s arrival, through the ‘Invincible’ season, war raged between Arsenal and United, a sustained conflict of an intensity that we have not experienced since. The auld way versus the new wave, every match seemed to be about so much more than the points. As a spectacle, it was football at its best. Perhaps it was fitting that the first words of Arsene’s Emirates farewell were of support to his old adversary, a testament to his character.
When he arrived, Wenger was only the third non-British or Irish manager in the Premier League; there has since been over 50 more. Every fan must agree that Wenger had a huge impact on professional football in this country, imposing diets and discipline, applying science and psychology. He personally expanded England’s footballing horizon, using his knowledge and contacts to scout and recruit exceptional talents at relatively low cost from abroad, particularly France. Anelka, Vieira, Petit, Henry, Pires and Wiltord: he imported and developed French talent just as France was dominating international football.
It wasn’t Ferguson that eventually caused the trophies to dry up. By investing in the Emirates, Wenger was preparing Arsenal to compete in the long-term. Then the ground shifted beneath him. No prudent financial planning could compete with the billions that subsequently poured in from Russian and Saudi oil. In the ten years that followed the Invincible season, both Man City and Chelsea spent a net total of nearly £500m (which would be considerably more in today’s market), and United over £200m. Arsenal, in comparison, just about broke even. If Abramovich and the Abu Dhabi Group had never arrived, I wonder how many more titles Arsene might have won.
However, some EPL titles are worth more than others. I doubt any Arsenal fan would exchange the Invincible season for a few additional Premier League wins. Wenger’s teams have given fans memories that money can’t buy. Like watching Leicester win the title, it’s something that everyone should be glad about. Will a certain “specialist in success” be remembered as fondly?
Here’s to you Arsene, and thanks for all you’ve done (except the nightmares).
Laurie Shaw is the brains behind EightyFivePoints – a fascinating football-orientated data blog
I too have a recurring nightmare. It starts on an unseasonably warm day in May 2001. Arsenal’s svelte and stylish midfielders swarm forward against a stolid Liverpool. In the 17th minute, Patrick Vieira – having his own personal field day against a buzzcut Stevie G – slips a cute pass through to Thierry Henry. He rounds Westerveld and seems certain to score…only to see his goal-bound shot elbowed away by Swiss slogger Stephane Henchoz.
In classic football parlance, it’s an absolute stonewaller. It’s duly awarded, Henchoz is sent-off, and Henry slots home. 1-0 down, down to ten men, and already hopelessly outclassed, Liverpool succumb to a 5-0 hammering against a rampant Arsenal. In despair, my callow, 18-year-self spends the rest of the evening trying to go drink-for-drink with a maniac who once downed a pint of rum in 10 seconds, and ends the night slumped outside the University of London Union in a pool of my own vomit.
Ok, so that last bit did actually happen. But the rest didn’t: waking in a cold sweat, I remember that the referee inexplicably missed Henchoz’s handball, Liverpool kept 10 men on the field and, despite deservedly falling behind, eventually won the game in classic smash and grab fashion thanks to two late goals from part-time helicopter salesman Michael Owen. We won the 2001 FA Cup, the second trophy in our very own treble. It wasn’t quite 1984, but for a trophy-starved club, it felt like Heaven. It felt like the start of something.
As it turned out, it was a brief LFC highlight in an era otherwise dominated by Arsenal. At Liverpool, we had our own French maestro, Gerard Houllier. He did well for a while, but his safety-first approach and disastrous forays in the transfer market – El Hadji Diouf, anyone? – produced football that was, well…how can I put this? You remember Valdano’s shit on a stick? It was, truly, shit on a stick. Houllier’s innate lack of imagination, his defensive proclivity and his disastrous taste for Hubris (“we’re 10 games from greatness”) saw Liverpool slide into gloomy, angst-ridden mediocrity. Arsenal, meanwhile, went stellar.
Not only did they win trophies, they did so in the most exhilarating fashion, slicing teams asunder in displays graced with exquisite technique and copious helpings of Gallic insouciance. Panache, joie de vivre, savoir-faire, je ne sais quoi…call it what you will, Wenger’s Arsenal had it. They won, and they won beautifully. At their best, Arsene’s Arsenal were glorious. At their worst, Houllier’s Liverpool made you want to go home and stick needles in your eyes.
Henry, Vieira, Petit, Van Persie…league titles, FA Cups, rain-soaked tragedy in Paris…they had it all.
And now it’s all over.
Perhaps, ultimately, Wenger succumbed to his own personal Hubris. Undying fidelity to an aesthetic ideal, however heroic, will eventually lead to your demise. After all, “Show me a hero…
But Arsene Wenger was a hero. And not just an Arsenal hero. A footballing hero.
And it is as a hero that he will be remembered.
David doesn’t have a blog. But he does really like Liverpool.