Saturday, April 21, 2018

The manager and the man who I’ve grown up watching Arsenal with

So this is the blog post I always knew I’d have to write, but didn’t really want to think about writing.
There was a sense that this season could have been the end of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. As someone who has been desperate for him to reinvigorate the team and to achieve success at the club again, this season has been the point for me where I couldn’t see how he was going to improve the team. The back-to-back defeats to Manchester City, with the second played out in front of a barely half-full Emirates Stadium, and the following defeat to Brighton was the week when it felt like the end for me.
But even though his decision to stand down at the end of the season is the right one, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness when it was announced on Friday. Despite the signs during the season that it could be the end, the sudden announcement caught everyone out. It felt un-Wenger like. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Sitting at my desk at work, I couldn’t just burst into tears or spend time trying to process it and read all the tributes that were flooding social media.
I don’t want to seem over dramatic about it as it is just a football manager leaving a job. There are much more important things in the world to be worrying about. But in reality he isn’t just a football manager. For me personally, and I’m sure for many others of my generation of Arsenal fans, he is the only manager I’ve known at the club. From around the age of five, he has been a constant in my life as a role model and someone who created something that I was inspired by.
I count myself incredibly fortunate that my Uncle took me to Arsenal and sparked my interest in the club at a young age. But as a child, it is easy to drift off and become interested in other things because you’re finding your way in the world and attaching yourself to things you associate with. Arsene Wenger was a large part of why I got hooked on football and specifically on Arsenal. This came from what he did footballistically (that word will always be one of my favourite Wenger-isms!) and how he was as a human being. Because of how things have faded footballistically, I think it’s important to consider the two elements of Arsene separately.
Arsene Wenger as the football manager undoubtedly revolutionised English football and took Arsenal from being a traditional club with success in patches during its history, to regularly competing at the top end of the English game, playing a style of football that was the envy of teams across the world. In years to come, friends and family will be fed of me regaling them with stories of the double winners and the Invincibles, of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, of the battles with Manchester United, of Martin Keown screaming at Ruud van Nistelrooy, of winning the league at White Hart Lane.
The earlier successes almost created the problems for Arsene Wenger later in his reign because of the supremely high standards he’d set with the teams in 1998, 2002 and 2004. The stadium move felt like a necessary one, but the trophies that we hoped it would bring haven’t quite followed. As Arsene Wenger had to take the longer-term view and put faith in youth, the footballing landscape was being skewed around him with money starting to flow into the game from foreign investors and broadcasters.
As can happen with anyone who stays in the same job for over two decades, the times change and others have caught up and overtaken Wenger. Watching Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team rip Arsenal apart only emphasised this. But he has still been able to bring some triumphs to the club, and the three FA Cups in four years shouldn’t be downplayed. From my perspective, those finals have been three of my best days of going to watch Arsenal. Given that it is unlikely that a manager will last at a top club in England for anywhere near as long again, Arsene Wenger’s unrivalled record of seven FA Cup wins looks a pretty safe one.
But the standard of football has dipped and the same mistakes are being made on the pitch. The current league season has been disastrous away from home, and it has been clear that he can no longer manage the team as successfully as he’d like. But what could never be doubted was his commitment to the club and his desire to win matches. Yes, he wanted to win them playing beautiful football, but every defeat hurt him. He always carried himself with dignity, which leads me on to Arsene Wenger, the man.
It feels strange to have such affinity to someone who I’ve never met, but he’s always come across with so much warmth, class, intelligence and been committed to not just creating great teams, but enabling players he worked with to express themselves. You need an ego to survive in a top managerial job as long as he did, but he always praised his players and made it about them when things were going well and took the heat off them when it was going badly. It was always about the team’s achievements and not his own.
I can’t help but feel inspired when I read about him and George Weah, or the loyalty he showed towards players when they were injured. I did get choked up on Friday on hearing Bob Wilson speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, and how Wenger looked out for him at the most difficult time in his life. From my observations watching Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal is a club and a team that welcomes people in regardless of background, upbringing, religion or race and united them through football.
Arsenal was a great club that had strong values before Arsene Wenger arrived, but he respected them, enhanced them and was someone I was proud to have leading the club. While a new era under a new manager is exciting and hopefully will bring an upturn on the pitch, I hope that the new manager is also someone who can be a representative of the Arsenal and do things in the right way. The famous David Rocastle quote flashes up on the big screen at the Emirates before every game: “Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.” Arsene Wenger has always done that.
This was also reflected in his typically dignified statement when announcing he would be leaving the club and it brought a tear to my eye: “To all the Arsenal lovers take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever.”
Thanks for everything, Arsene. Hopefully see you in Lyon for the leaving party that you deserve.