Arsene Wenger – The Smoking Gun
(Posted on 10/05/18)
It’s October 1996, a time where sheep were cloned, Oasis were headlining Knebworth and Three Lions were on a shirt.
Football and music was at its peak with Manchester dominating as many league titles as they were UK number ones, the English capital needed someone to rival the likes of Noel, Liam, Becks and Fergie.
Arsenal were certainly one of the big boys, but by the summer of ’96 during fever pitch for the British game had gone five long years without a First Division or Premiership title, and the board had acted. In August they’d relieved Bruce Ricoh of his tenure at Highbury following a fall out with the board over transfers.
They looked across the world at who would take over the North London outfit and turn them into world beaters. Spain, France Germany et all with names such as Johan Cryff all in the mix, but nobody could see where the outcome lay, Japan.
Arsene Wenger was an experienced manager even in 1996, having been at the helm at sides in France and Japan for 12 years at that point, he’d delivered success in both nations, Monaco standing out. But when announced as Arsenal chief it’s fair to say there was some hesitancy.
"At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He's not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?" – that’s not Arsenal Fan TV as you’d expect when giving verdict on Wenger, that was club captain Tony Adams.
He quickly outlined a vision for the future, again to the scoffs of some outdated footballing aficionados: “I like the spirit round the game and at Arsenal I like the spirit of the club and its potential” he said.
Across his tenure he didn’t just deliver some of the finest football we’ve seen in the modern game, but introduced us to the game we know and love today. He adopted a troubled child at Highbury, more a gaggle of inebriated gamblers than world beating soccer stars. Paul Merson, Tony Adams and co were known to have their issues off the field, and yet Wenger’s persistence paid off in unimaginable ways.
It took him just a year to get off the mark, instant success almost in his first full season delivering an outstanding double in 1997/98, becoming the first manager from outside of the British isles to win the English top flight. The battle between him and Sir Alex Ferguson had begun pipping the Scot to the two titles with his new look side consisting of the personel so troubled in the past.
As he developed his philiosophy he began to bring in players that would leave North London with the greatest honours, legendary status and one in particular with a statue. Some of the English games best individuals were all products of the keen eye of Wenger.
As the years progressed the Gunners did too, with Manchester United continuing to dominate alongside and taking a famous treble in ’99 and Liverpool looking reinvigorated with home-grown talent to take the FA Cup in 2001.
But it was the 01/02 campaign in which Wenger would reap the most reward, with five major honours over the next four years.
After picking up a league title and two FA Cup’s heading into the famous 2003/04 season, things had really been put into place in North London. It wasn’t just a short term vision of winning the next match, it was putting in the work for the marathon of a season and implementing the changes required to blow away the likes of United, Liverpool and the new found riches down the road in Chelsea. The North-West had dominated the game for the last 20 years, with only Arsenal taking the title to the South. This time they wanted to put out a statement and make history like Wenger promised in his press conference the day he stepped foot into Highbury.
Across the campaign with his elite squad of Henry, Vieira, Ashley Cole, David Seaman, Robert Pieres etc they took the game to anyone they faced. They treated every game like it was theirs to be won, and ended up going all 38 that season unbeaten. They won the title in the most satisfying way possible, away to arch rivals Tottenham Hostpur.
However, that joy would have to be savoured, because it would turn out to be Wenger’s third, and last.
Nobody thought that has the potential to go 50 league games without defeat would possibly spell the end, but when travelling to Old Trafford Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney sealed a 2-0 win and the dominance met it’s downfall.
That season saw the fued with SAF meet it’s ultimate, with the likes of Vieira and Keane at war with eachother, a tale in it’s own right of one of the games bitterest personal battles. It was a rivalry to be the toughest, to be as dominant over the other as possible and as an end result, to win.
In 2006 Highbury said farewell after 93 years of football, and the super arena of the Emirates was opening its doors. Not only was this a metaphorical shift in direction for Arsenal, but over time would prove to be a catalyst towards their step backwards. Other sides had caught up at this point and implemented the change made by Arsenal almost a decade previous, and after winning the FA Cup in Cardiff in 2005, they would go on to win nothing for nine long years.
In those nine years their biggest names departed replaced by sub-par coasters and drifters. Some left for the likes of Barcelona whilst others sloped their way up to Manchester, City this time for the new found riches of the Sheik. As each season went by for Wenger, the echoed whispers of ‘Wenger Out’ grew to cries, screams and eventually banners on planes.
As social media went from checking your e-mail if you were lucky in 1996 to the instant 24/7 news ticker of Sky Sports and further more the Twitter reveloution in the early 2010’s, the pressure amounting grew.
The FA Cup became Wenger’s solace as in 2014 he would finally climb the steps to the new Wembley to pick up that silverware he’d been missing for almost a decade. Another two in 2015 and 2017 were of little comfort in the grand scheme of things as the groans and moans on the now viral ‘Arsenal Fan TV’ spouted more ‘blud’ than a scouse bouncers knuckles on a Friday night.
In the end the legendary Frenchman would step down, 22 years after first making his entrance as a chain smoking PE teacher, ending his tenure with silverware and acclaim for not only changing the face of Arsenal but of football the world over.
The astute footballing prowess of Wenger lives on across all continents and will be sorely missed by the Premier League. No matter if he was a rival or hero, nobody in 2018 is asking ‘Wenger who?’.
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