LARRY RYAN: In memory of certainty and unbelievable belief

In a beautiful column for sportsjoe.ie last week, Dion Fanning wrote of the joy that has exploded at home courtesy of his four-year-old son’s discovery of football via the hair and then the magic of Mo Salah, writes Larry Ryan.

Dion didn’t think football mattered to him like it used to and he felt maybe that was no harm, all things considered, given the investment of time and agitation it typically demands — especially in a household where it sounds like Liverpool are on the box quite a bit.

But just when Dion thought he was out, football sucked him back in again, as it tends to do.

There is something magical in seeing a small boy or girl bitten by the bug for the first time.

But who will think of the cynical old codgers? What if Arsene Wenger was the only thing keeping us hanging on, sucking us back in?

There was sadness yesterday, not least because it is traditionally a time of great certainty and enlightenment, the week after the Premier League has been mathematically clinched. A time of clarity and unbelievable belief.

We get enlightenment at other times during the season too, particularly in those revealing weeks after a Premier League manager has been sacked. That is when we learn that a dressing room is generally lost not through tactical blunders or poor selection decisions but by more mundane calls, such as taking ketchup off the tables in the canteen.

That is when we learn where to go wrong, but these are the days we find out how to do things right. Thanks to Pep Guardiola, we now know that a Premier League winning manager walks around the training ground in his stockinged feet, keeps the grass cut to 23mm and divides the pitch into 20 zones.

Arsene Wenger used to give us that kind of certainty and enlightenment. We once knew that winning the league required endless stretching and steamed chicken and water served at room temperature.

We knew because Arsene knew. ‘Arsene knows’.

And even when he took away the ketchup and the sweets and the pies and the beer out of the players’ lounge, he wasn’t sacked, rather he inspired men and he brought great joy.

In memory of certainty and unbelievable belief

At the turn of this year, a bulletin came out of Arsenal about the club’s ‘significant investment’ in sports science that would propel it into a new era of success. The centrepiece would be a virtual reality suite where a player would wear a headset allowing them rewatch a match in 3D to explore the different options they might have taken on the ball.

It is possible to imagine Alex Iwobi spending all his days and nights scratching his head in that suite in the place Arsene Wenger built with the sale of Nicolas Anelka.

And once we would have been told how Arsene had handpicked even the tiles on the wall. But now the man with his fingerprints all over the new ‘player performance centre’ was Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis.

A new team of directors would be arriving to add their knowledge to the mix in what was described as the biggest “behind-the-scenes change since Wenger arrived in 1996”.

It marked the corporatisation of belief.

The replacement of one man’s vision by ‘structures being put in place’. The erection of a scaffold for a project manager to come in and carry out his three-year cycle.

And maybe it eroded Wenger’s last sense of purpose. The sense of purpose that kept him going long after he fielded his last great team; the purpose that brought him back to the Champions League over and over again with players like Denilson and Bendtner and Senderos.

The purpose that left Highbury behind and maybe with it the soul of a football club.

Maybe that sense of purpose was gone since he survived those years and came out the other end with the goalposts shifted. A soul sold for what?

And with that sense of purpose gone, why wouldn’t Mustafi occasionally get caught on his heels at the near post, and why wouldn’t Xhaka forget to track his runner. And why wouldn’t Ozil pick his moments?

In memory of certainty and unbelievable belief

And why wouldn’t a club that went unbeaten away all season during two of Wenger’s title wins be unable to muster any resistance at all on the road?

“What is the most inspirational thing someone has ever said to you,” Arsene was once asked, in one of those long, wide-ranging interviews that generally touched on the discovery and encouragement of man’s potential.

“I trust you,” was his simple answer.

It is sad that he is not trusted anymore, the last of the great visionaries. It was impossible to be entirely cynical while there were men around who would sow for a distant harvest.

You would always be sucked back in.

We can be thankful for visionaries like Pep, who will provide us with enlightenment and certainty. Even if we know they are only lending it to a host organism for a few seasons until the next project comes along.

We can admire the vitality and energy of men like Pochettino, even if they are being lauded for the kind of over-achievement Wenger made routine.

And there is something magnetic about Klopp’s sense of destiny, the kind of thing that might beguile a small boy even after Salah’s magic wears off.

Liverpool are big on destiny. This week, Klopp provided the voiceover for the kind of overwrought promotional message they specialise in.

They have a stadium, we have a home. They have songs, we have an anthem. They have a manager, we have a guardian. They have supporters, we are a family.

With the guardian of their destiny on his way, it is up to Arsenal’s new directors to provide a fresh sense of purpose. Will it be driving social media interactions, like Manchester United’s since Fergie?

“You don’t find a replacement for Arsene Wenger. You find a new path forward,” Ivan Gazidis said yesterday.

They could start by prioritising dignity and decency when they choose his replacement. And then trust that man.

The small girl in this house hasn’t really been bitten by the bug yet, though she seemed to trust him. “Does that mean the old man gets to stay,” she asked last summer when he won what might be his last Arsenal trophy.

Yesterday, as the long goodbye started to roll on Sky Sports News, maybe she became acquainted for the first time with the agitation football will guarantee.

Though she seems capable of rolling with the punches. “Who will they get to replace him,” she soon wondered.

Her twin brother, meanwhile, was delighted with his new Harry Kane Match Attax card.

It is a cruel game, alright. Maybe I will be sucked back in, but it could be some time.


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