Across the desk from a giant of the game

Arsene Wenger will still talk animatedly about almost any subject, but he has definitely grown more guarded and reserved, sometimes tetchy, in recent seasons, believes the man who once wrote his column for the club magazine.

Across the desk from a giant of the game

This is not a dispassionate analysis of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s 999-game tenure. I reported on the day he was unveiled at Highbury in 1996 and I will be covering his 1000th match in charge at Chelsea today. Maybe we’re both in a rut? Either way Wenger has helped keep me in a living of sorts over the past 17 years, and though the Arsenal years have been kinder to him physically and financially, there is a great deal of personal admiration for a man who has helped transform the way football is regarded in England.

He is not beyond criticism and admits he has made mistakes along the way, but the facts clearly set him apart as Arsenal’s most successful and influential manager: the 11 trophies alone do that, but the new training ground and internationally-acclaimed stadium are achievements leaving a legacy long after we are both pushing up daisies.

He believes keeping Arsenal challenging at the top in the decade of financial restriction amid the building of their new stadium, coupled with the influx of petrol dollars at Chelsea and Manchester City could be regarded as his greatest achievement once he has retired.

And he says reaching the 2006 Champions League final without losing a game and leading Barcelona until the last 13 minutes is a greater claim to fame than had they won the League Cup that year.

His best players? Patrick Vieira played the most games for him (402), Thierry Henry the goals (228). They both owe a lot to him too, as does the old English rearguard of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, now Wenger’s managerial assistant, who enjoyed extended careers and honours beyond reasonable expectations.

He has been around so long, Gedion Zelalem, a January debutant in the FA Cup, was not even born when Wenger was taking charge of his first game. The next Wenger wonder kid a la Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere is already playing the Arsene way.

There were barely a handful of us in the old training ground cubby hole Arsenal felt sufficient to lay on for the media when the mysterious Frenchman walked in a good 15 minutes early for his first pre-match press conference some 17 years ago. No snappers, no TV crews, no radio, no fanfare, no expectation.

“Is this everyone?” Wenger smiled politely, his reaction turning almost to scorn when I explained there were probably a few reporters running late, how we were not used to such punctuality and the local traffic being what it was.

Genuinely baffled by such poor time-keeping, he sat and chatted, expressing his amazement Arsenal did not own the training ground and how he could legitimately be kicked off by University of London students in the quite likely — but previously rare — occasion that he wanted to give the players an extra afternoon training session.

Wenger was early again ahead of the next few matches until he lost patience with the late-comers and realised he could and probably should call the shots now he was Le Boss.

Yesterday, there were well over 50 members of the media, assembled in a purpose built state of the art media block — part of the now Arsenal-owned training ground at Shenley that Wenger helped devise and implement. This time there was a snare of snappers, a dozen TV crews, a few radio stations, presentations from club chairman Chips Keswick and Richard Bevan chairman of the League Managers Association. And a heap of expectation too. Indeed, if Wenger does not win a trophy this season it could be his last, even though he insists he wants to stay.

And the Frenchman was customarily late. In recent years it has been more than common to hear ‘still waiting for Wenger’ as reporters bat back chase-up calls from their offices as to why copy has not been filed.

Wenger’s relationship with the media has, however, almost always been good, based on a mutual respect. It was better, of course, when he was winning a trophy or two every year, receiving praise as the man who reinvented English football, on and off the pitch, and not being questioned on his transfer policy, his silverware drought and contract situation.

Wenger will still talk animatedly about almost any subject, and non-footballing matters are not off the agenda either, but he has definitely grown more guarded and reserved, sometimes tetchy, in recent seasons.

The same can be said of his football too; long gone is his dogmatic adherence to a 4-4-2 formation, favouring a more flexible some might argue cautious 4-2-3-1 line-up ever since such an approach help win him and the club their last trophy.

That was the 2005 FA Cup final when he shuffled his pack, with Dennis Bergkamp playing as a solo striker, and they were played off the pitch by Manchester United only to triumph through on Vieira’s strike in a penalty shoot-out.

Nine trophy-free years on and statistics point to this being not only Wenger’s but Arsenal’s best run – now into his 18th term in charge, he is currently presiding over the club’s best ever season in terms of win percentage.

They have won 30 of the 45 games so far in 2013/14 — for a 66.7 per cent win rate — better than each of the previous 109 seasons since Arsenal became a league side in 1893.

But the numbers game is rarely an honest one and only a trophy and positive support from what passes for terraces in north London these days will finally persuade him to sign the new contract that has long been gathering dust on his desk.

Wenger’s face was not the obvious one to pick to launch a thousand Arsenal matches — credit goes to former Arsenal chief exec David Dein for that — even the players teased him about his appearance, with Dixon likening him to a geography teacher and Winterburn admitting the players would sneak Mars bars on to the train for away trips.

Captain Adams, who would become a chief benefactor and standard-bearer for the Wenger way, told me in his reaction to the appointment was “A %$£”*!!* Frenchman! That’s it. I’m off.”

Wenger was cute to the resistance, though, and having witnessed the lack of enthusiasm for his late night team stretching/yoga session on the eve of that Blackburn debut, sensibly decided evolution would succeed over a French revolution. Bottles of water replaced pints of lager, the fry-ups made way for pasta, chicken and broccoli.

In my spell writing his club magazine column, I sensibly did not tell him it was my grandfather, Tommy Williams, who’s ‘Arsene Who?’ comment led the back page of the Daily Express from a vox-pop I had conducted in the wake of his appointment. Tommy, who had witnessed the title-winning sides of the Thirties and was still going strong, was not the only one crying ‘Who?’ as it became a popular tag for the new Arsenal manager.

The suspicious staff, players and my granddad were all won over within about a year. The turning point could be said to be another Blackburn encounter 15 months after the first. Rovers came to Highbury in the December and Wenger and his players were jeered off the pitch following a 3-1 defeat. A frank team meeting followed and by March they needed to win 10 of their last 12 games to win the title. Arsenal won the first ten of those 12 and went on to complete the Double by beating Newcastle at Wembley.

Wenger’s way was clearly a winning one and everyone wanted a piece of the Arsene action. In the unlikely even they win their next 11 games, Wenger will have won the Double again.

And the next game is all that Wenger lives for. He said yesterday: “I am an idealist but not a fool, not crazy. I am at the stage of my career where I am extremely passionate, maybe more than ever, to do well for this club. But I have to accept the next thousand will be difficult.”

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