Arsene Wenger has spoken for the first time about the manner in which he wants to end his reign as Arsenal manager.
The French coach portrayed a passionate and committed figure as his ability to bring further success was questioned by a few disgruntled Arsenal shareholders at an often feisty Annual General Meeting.
But Wenger, 66 next week, remains convinced he can add to his nine major trophies in England having steered the club back into a competitive position after years of financial restriction while the club moved stadium.
Much of the supporters’ ire was aimed at defiant chairman Chips Keswick’s attempts to justify Arsenal’s annual payment of around £3m (€4m) for “advice” to majority shareholder, American Stan Kroenke’s firm Kroenke Sports Enterprises.
One shareholder likened their relationship to Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, but that was more expected than some of the anger aimed at Wenger, who was otherwise widely applauded.
The man they call Le Boss still has detractors despite entering this weekend second in the Premier League table in an 18th consecutive season of Champions League football and after winning a record 12th FA Cup in May.
Addressing shareholders, Wenger said: “I had the luck and the privilege to celebrate on 1st October my 19th year as the head of the club as a manager. We have gone through some fantastic periods, as well some difficult periods, but they were always on my side and I rate that.”
Wenger recalled how the club has grown from 80 employees to over 550 and said the rise of the club’s share price from £400 (€545) to around £16,000 (€21,750) per share has had no personal impact as he has never owned any. On an annual salary in excess of £8m (€10.8m), Wenger need not worry too much about share options as football before finance has always been his preferred way.
The Frenchman, who was told by Keswick he could continue in charge for as long as he felt able, added: “The first years of my career here was quite easy, from 1996 to 2005. It was a period when it all went really easy, smooth and well.
“We were always dominating, mostly in the league or the FA Cup.
“Then came the second period when we moved into this stadium. It became much more difficult because we faced more competition and because we were under restricted finances and the target was to qualify for Champions League every season, to repay our debt back.
“I must say ‘we did it!’ Sometimes within a sceptical environment, and most of the time having to fight until the last minute of the last game of the Premier League.”
Wenger said the need for Champions League cash has lessened with the increase in Premier League broadcast rights whilst also stating his pride that only Real Madrid’s 19 years of consecutive European qualification outstrips his own record.
“If it was easy everyone would have done it,” he said.
“Sometimes it is important to remind people that to remain at the top is difficult. We do not rate that enough. I believe too if you ask me to do it again I would say ‘no’. Let somebody else do it because I will not take that gamble any more because it was so difficult.
“I know we face some adversity at times but I am more motivated than ever, more committed than ever. I was a bit more relaxed 19 years ago, but today I know what it means for people.
“The responsibility on my shoulders is much bigger. I am resolute to commit absolutely until the last day of my contract to bring back big success to this club, and leave as well one day in a position where it can do even better when I leave.
“That is for me very important that I leave the club in the shape that the guy who comes after me can do better.”
One supporter questioned Wenger’s transfer policy of signing only goalkeeper Petr Cech in the summer and suggested he had lost his touch at the top. Another was furious with his recent Champions League record, repeatedly stating it was ‘embarrassing.’
After Keswick dismissed the questioner as “just making a noise”, Wenger waited until the AGM was all but over to respond.
He proclaimed: “I agree with you that the performances were not good enough. But we have played over 150 games in Europe. You have picked three [recent] performances that were not good enough. But if you look at the percentages of games won in Europe you will see Arsenal are in the top five.
“We have played the Champions League final. We have played semi-finals and quarter-finals. We had 15 consecutive years coming out of the group stage. To do that you need to win football games. You have to respect everyone in Europe.
“I accept you have to be over-critical when the performances are not good, but look at the number of games Arsenal played in Champions League before I arrived and look after, and come back to me.”
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