The rise and fall of Arsène Wenger: An insider’s account of how the historic success of Arsenal’s greatest manager ultimately contained the seeds of his own downfall.
History tells us that Arsene Wenger was not the first Arsenal manager to embrace visionary principles and turn the club into serial winners.
That progressive template was first laid down under the inspirational leadership of Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. Chapman came with a track record from Huddersfield and soon made his mark in North London, transforming the club into the classiest joint in England.
The best players from England, Scotland and Wales were recruited, with no less than seven Arsenal players playing for England in 1937 alone. Highbury was developed into the best stadium in Britain.
Marble halls, underfloor heating in the dressing rooms and two Art Deco stands put it way above any other football arena — indeed, so far ahead of its time was the ground that, when I joined as a 15-year-old kid in 1971, it was still up there with any stadium anywhere.
Throw in the name-changing of the Tube station Gillespie Road to Arsenal, and it was one more sign that Chapman had done even more than oversee the rebirth of a football club — he had created a sporting institution.
Herbert Chapman died prematurely in 1934 and, with the oncoming World War, the club’s dominance waned.
Success in the league and cup in the early 50’s marked a return to winning ways but after that, the club treaded water and new silverware was conspicuous by its absence in the trophy room.
But while Arsenal struggled in the late 1950s and ‘60s, the club never lost its intrinsic appeal and sense of style.
Bertie Mee as manager and Frank McLintock as captain restored past glories, winning the European Fairs Cup in 1970 and the league and cup double a year later. The Gunners were riding high again but not for very long.
The North of England took over, with Liverpool developing into by far the best team in England while Arsenal, with a young side including myself, finished in the bottom half of the First Division three years on the trot.
Under the management of Terry Neill, Arsenal became a good cup team yet claimed only one trophy, winning the FA Cup Final in 1979. We just didn’t have the manager or the squad to compete for the league title.
That all changed when George Graham became manager in 1986. He knew the club, its traditions and reputation inside out, having been a player in the double-winning side of 1971.
He brought back the good times by winning the league title in 1989 and 1991, his team consistently challenging the Liverpool of Kenny Dalglish and the Manchester United of Alex Ferguson. More cup silverware was added, including the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994.
His team comprised of astute signings such as Dixon, Bould, Keown, Winterburn, Seaman and Wright, blended with homegrown talent like O’Leary, Davis, Thomas, Rocastle and Merson.
George Graham’s years at Arsenal were successful but came to an abrupt end when the board discovered he had taken a financial gift from an agent. He was removed immediately. Stuart Houston became caretaker manager and was followed quickly by Bruce Rioch.
But then, out of the blue, Rioch was sacked at the beginning of the 1996/97 season. The word on the street was that the players, particularly star striker Ian Wright, made their feelings known to the board, through vice-chairman David Dein, that Rioch was not the man they wanted as manager.
This came as a complete bombshell to me. I had been appointed as head of youth just a month earlier and assumed I would be working with Rioch.
With Stuart Houston leaving out of loyalty to Rioch, Pat Rice and George Armstrong took over the reins until the announcement came, in October 1996, that the new manager of Arsenal would be a man called Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchman was such an unknown quantity in England at the time that London’s Evening Standard famously greeted his appointment with the headline ‘Arsene Who?’ But David Dein had clearly done his homework and deserves enormous credit for convincing the board to hire the new man.
In a very short time, Wenger changed everything. He respected the traditions of the club but wanted to win in a style that hadn’t been on show since the days of Herbert Chapman. George Graham’s functional tactics and defensive organisation became a thing of the past.
Wenger told Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown and Winterburn to buy into his style of play. To do this he needed midfield players to receive from defence and make the play and so he brought in Patrick Vieira and Manu Petit. Players who weren’t prepared to entertain his ideas on diet and training were quickly moved on.
Denis Bergkamp, who had been brought to the club a season earlier, thrived amid this new emphasis on attacking football. Signings, like that of Marc Overmars — the super-quick Dutch winger who brought such pace to the attack — turned Arsenal from a team that was hard to beat into a winning side with whom very few others could compete.
The manager’s ambitions were boundless. In my dealings with Arsene, he told me we should scout talented young players from all over Europe and bring them to the club. To prove his point, he signed Nicolas Anelka from PSG.
Winning the Premier League and FA Cup in style convinced the board to 100% buy into his vision for the club. The changes were root and branch. For example, Wenger simply couldn’t believe that the club didn’t have its own training ground.
We used to hire facilities from University College London and the college dictated to us on its use. Plans for a new training ground were drawn up, the board forking out over £10m to create the best coaching facility in Europe.
The manager also insisted on having the pitch at Highbury in the best possible condition, so an end was put to playing reserve games there. Airplanes flew the team to games up north, replacing the uncertainty of trips delayed by motorway jams.
The best hotels became the norm for the first team. Contracts of the stalwart players that he inherited were greatly improved.
Players like Pires, Ljungberg, Kanu, Henry and Gilberto Silva were added to the squad. Older players were phased out and replaced by Lauren, Cole, Campbell and Toure.
An untouchable Arsenal would win the Premier League in 2004, going unbeaten in 38 matches, and then would narrowly miss out on winning the Champions League two years later, their ten-man side losing to Barcelona in the 2006 final in Paris.
By now, Arsene Wenger had everyone on board. The fans saw him as a messiah. He was at the very top.
He had accomplished and eclipsed what Herbert Chapman had achieved in a different era: created a club which led the way in football methods and won with style.
He challenged Manchester United, the dominant force in English football, and competed on equal terms with Alex Ferguson, their all-conquering manager.
More than any other individuals, those two men helped transform the Premier League into football’s biggest global brand.
But this, in a perverse way, was also to be the beginning of the end as, unwittingly, Wenger became the architect of his own downfall. Such was the seismic impact of his role in elevating the English game, that the Premier League began to attract the attention of some of the world’s richest businessmen.
Roman Abramovich appeared out of nowhere to transform Chelsea. The American mega-wealthy Glazer family bought Manchester United. The Abu Dhabi sheiks would eventually come to own Manchester City.
Our next door neighbours Spurs would become stronger under the ownership of Joe Lewis.
But, of most significance for Arsene Wenger’s management, his own club fell into the hands of the American billionaire businessman Stan Kroenke.
The day that happened things began to change for Arsène. David Dein lost his position as vice-chairman when he looked to sell his shareholding without telling the board.
And so, what had been a hugely successful partnership of Dein doing the transfer deals and Wenger selecting the players, came to an abrupt end.
The other consideration in the forefront of the club’s mind was the building of the Emirates stadium in the same Islington borough as Highbury, a project for which the club would have to borrow £400m from the bank.
It had to be done if we were to compete in the long-term. But, in the short-term, we couldn’t compete with the soaring wages at Chelsea, United and the biggest European clubs. We began to lose star players.
Vieira, Henry, Cole, Van Persie, Nasri and Fabregas all moved on. Fans were told by our American CEO Ivan Gazidis to be patient as the new stadium would ultimately make the club as powerful in the player marketplace as any of our competitors. But this never happened and disenchantment began to infect the support base.
The club and Arsène were being criticised for not winning the league or challenging in the Champions League. Wenger’s contrasting view — that finishing high enough to qualify for European club football’s most prestigious competition should still be counted as success — was ridiculed.
But on that, he has been proved right. Managers at Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have all been sacked for not delivering Champions League qualification.
There were two or three years when Arsenal did mount a challenge for the title. I remember five years ago Arsène telling me that we would have Luis Suarez before the new season.
The prolific striker might have made the difference — after all, he nearly did it for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.
But Arsène didn’t get him and was let down by incompetence in our transfer negotiations.
Fan protests at matches started to surface. Gazidis introduced changes to the working environment at the training ground. Scouting by analytics and a bigger emphasis on sports science began to encroach on Wenger’s territory. Gazidis wanted a director of football installed; Arsène didn’t.
It was all coming to the end. We weren’t going to qualify by league position for the Champions League. Massive spaces began to appear in the stands at the Emirates as our fans boycotted matches. But I’m not sure the protests were directed only at Wenger.
I don’t think the supporters are happy about the commercialisation of the club. I don’t think they are convinced that Kroenke is the man to take Arsenal back to the top. I think they think he’s in it for just the money. Soon time will tell if that’s the case.
Arsenal Football Club will embark on a hugely important period in its history in the coming weeks and months. There won’t be a manager anymore. There will be a chief coach. It might be Low, Enrique or Allegri.
Whoever it is, he will have to work with the director of football.
That process will give us a fascinating insight into how the business is going to be run by Kroenke and Gazidis. The bridges which have collapsed between fan and club will also have to be rebuilt.
There is no doubt too that mistakes have been made in assembling the current squad. The league table isn’t a liar. When Wenger arrived at the club in 1996, the foundations were strong.
That’s not the case now. Then a strong board was in place, Dein was ahead of the game and Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Parlour and Wright were proven winners.
Even as a new era in the history of the club is unfolding, Arsène Wenger and the players are endeavouring to win the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League.
Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at the Emirates makes that doubtful but I believe every football lover in England wants to see Wenger do it, apart from those at White Hart Lane.
I pray he does. I had the pleasure of knowing him and the honour of working with him.
Another glittering prize would be a fitting end for the greatest manager the club has known.
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