On the bench Wenger watches, at once intensely involved and perfectly excluded. As the ball crosses the line he springs up and, walking towards the pitch, does his familiar celebration, elbows at his side, fists clenched and pumping discreetly. Then he applauds. Then he goes and sits down again. His is only a half -celebration, but then winning the much-eroded FA Cup is perhaps only a quarter triumph after the devastation of the preceding weeks, when Wenger's
world seems slowly, incomprehensibly, to have caved in.
To anyone accustomed to his body language, defined by its restraint, its marked lack of passion, it is as if Wenger had a personality transplant in the spring of 2003. For months Arsenal had played what may even have been the best football ever produced by a British club. Power, in Wenger's prediction, was sprinting south. And then they blew it, they blew their lead, and Manchester United, with Sir Alex Ferguson urging them on like a whip-happy charioteer, remorselessly chased and chased and ground Arsenal down.
Few people had heard of Arsene Wenger when he came to Arsenal in 1996. He remains an enigma - a cultured, media-shy Frenchman who neither looks nor behaves like a football manager. But now he is probably one of the most influential figures in the English game.
In August 1996, the name Arsene Wenger meant absolutely nothing in north London. "Arsene Who?" ran the Evening Standard headline that greeted his appointment. It was the story of his life, from the moment he took charge of his own team at Nancy 12 years earlier. In every new job, he didn't just have to prove himself; he had to introduce himself. When Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names as a replacement. It was Venables, Cruyff and then at the end Arsene Wenger. Trust Arsenal to appoint the boring one that you haven't heard of !
Because they didn't know who he was, one Saturday two weeks before his arrival, Wenger appeared by live satellite link on the video screens at Highbury. They should have played it in the dressing room too. It was one thing for the club's most famous fan not to have heard of Wenger, quite another for the club captain. Tony Adams didn't know the new man from Adam.
There was a feeling of "who the fuck is he ?" and "what is he going to do ?" and "What is he ?". "Rioch had been sacked, caretaker manager Stewart Houston had left for Queens Park Rangers and Adams and Rice were "kind of just getting on with it", recalls Tony Adams. "I got a call from the chairman along the lines of, 'I hear the shit's hit the fan back there. Er, don't worry, rally the troops. Good man on his way. Be patient.' It was quite hilarious." Did he know anything about
Wenger ? "No." Literally the name meant nothing? "No. Nothing at all. He wasn't an English top-of-the-tree coach with proven experience. He wasn't an Alex Ferguson. He wasn't a renowned manager of that time - a George Graham."
Wenger's appointment was announced on August 20, he met the press on September 22 and took official charge on September 30, a Monday morning. "He arrived unnoticed at the training ground," Lee Dixon recalls. "A meeting was called, the players filed in and in front of us stood this tall, slightly-built man who gave no impression whatsoever of being a football manager."
It was an extremely precarious moment in Arsenal's history. With Manchester United now dominant, Arsenal had become entirely dependent on an impregnable defence and the goals of Ian Wright to keep them in contention. There was no reason why they couldn't have turned into Spurs after Rioch. But after the arrival of Wenger, people began to think it's part of the natural order of things that Arsenal and Manchester United were always one and two in the Premiership more or less every year. However, it was not in the natural order of things. It was entirely because of Arsene Wenger !
He doesn't buy success, that's easy to do. He cultures it, he finds the raw, basic talent and he nurtures it, takes care of it and produces some of the most amazing teams I have seen for very, very little money. If it were possible to turn back the clock and re-run his 12 years with Arsenal WITHOUT Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Wenger would be one of the greatest managers that ever lived. It would have been Arsenal winning title after title and FA Cup after FA Cup. Sadly for Wenger though, Sir Alex Ferguson does exist and he has cast a shadow over what I believe to be one of the best managers ever to grace the English game.
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