Given that today marks the 20th anniversary of Arsene Wenger taking the Arsenal job, there’s really only one thing I can write about: how evil dolphins are. I kid, of course.
Back in the day, when Bruce Rioch and Arsenal had parted ways, there were names put up for the vacant manager’s position. Terry Venables was one. I did not want that due to his, you know, connections. Then there was Johan Cruyff. I did want that because he was such a legendary player and coming from Barcelona to imprint his style of football on Arsenal sounded like a very nice thing.
Then there was a chap called Arsene Wenger. And I didn’t know if I wanted that or didn’t want that because I really had no idea who he was. Monaco? Ok. They were good. But we had no real way to find out stuff in an instant the way we do now. There might have been Internet but I didn’t have it, but I figured this was just a random name and Cruyff would be the obvious choice.
I found out Arsene Wenger got the job on Ceefax. I don’t remember what I thought. Probably something like ‘Oh, I hadn’t finished reading that yet, why has it gone on to another page?’. It was an appointment that in some ways sums up what Arsenal has become under him. You expect one thing, then they go and do the last thing you’d imagine.
It seemed fitting though. An Arsenal manager called Arsene. It’s like being a burglar called Rob. There’s no need for me to tell you how he made things better. In his first season we finished third, level on 68 points with Newcastle (2nd) and Liverpool (4th). Some crowd called Man Utd finished top, but Wenger’s obvious improvement of Arsenal and his unwillingness to kowtow to the establishment of English football was already ruffling feathers.
So, you can imagine how glorious it was when this man, who didn’t know anything about English football, won the league the following season. Going to Old Trafford and that Overmars goal and that dude celebrating in the crowd because he knew something was going on with the team. We all knew. Winning 10 in a row, overtaking United, and then capping it with the FA Cup to do the double.
Hot damn, baby. We had it going on. I suppose in the mists of time the relatively barren nature of the following three seasons – when we should have won more – are overlooked because of what came after it. Another double in 2002, Freddie leaving John Terry on his arse in Cardiff, then going to Old Trafford again and WILTOOOOOOOOORD. Kanu leaping over him and you thought watching on TV ‘Holy shit Kanu can jump very high’, but then it turns out Wiltord was on his knees.
The season after when we won the cup but should have won the league, falling apart at Bolton after Fat Sam’s men literally assaulted three of our players off the pitch. But we still should have won it. The press then turned Wenger’s comments about going a season unbeaten on him. It has been misreported and misrepresented – the common perception is that Wenger, full of bombast and arrogance, got on his soapbox at a specially called press conference to declare that we wouldn’t lose a game.
In truth, he was asked about the prospect of a team doing it and his reply was this:
It’s not impossible as AC Milan once did it but I can’t see why it’s so shocking to say it. Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don’t dream that as well? They’re exactly the same. They just don’t say it because they’re scared to look ridiculous, but nobody is ridiculous in this job as we know anything can happen.
And the next season anything did. The battle of Old Trafford (there’s a bit of a common theme to some of our best moments, eh?!) perhaps consolidated what, and when you look back on it now, looks a team you wouldn’t necessarily have backed to do what they did. Kolo Toure at centre-half having tried him there in a couple of pre-season games? Pascal Cygan as back-up? Graham Stack as the reserve keeper. Jeremie Aliadiere.
Yes, there were the greats and the very goods, but in this era when we demand depth and quality in every position, that Invincible season becomes even more impressive. It is, unquestionably, one of the greatest managerial achievements in top flight English football – if not the greatest.
What a season. Teams beaten in the tunnel. Amazing players doing amazing things. Henry against Liverpool, scoring that goal and the sound of that roar that you can conjure up in an instant. A blanket of sound across the North London sky. Winning the league at White Hart Lane and their players celebrating like crazy when they thought a draw would stop us, Thierry Henry remembering:
I remember Tarrico, jumping around and he got a cramp out of it. Celebrating a draw! And I looked at him and said ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he went, ‘Yeeaaaaaaah!’ jumping in front of me.
I said to him: ‘You do realise we just needed a point at your place to be champions at your place.’ And he was talking, talking, so I said ‘Watch me after the game.’
Incredible. As was the disappointment of that Chelsea game because that was the season we should have been European Champions. We should have won the Champions League, and aside from the dismay of not seeing that special team do that, the knock-on effect was the rise of Mourinho. That Wayne Bridge goal, ugh. To this day it makes my stomach sink. And this is what’s been such a part of the Wenger era. The ups were seriously uppy, but the downs, oh man, gut-punchingly down.
He once said famously that ‘When you have caviar it’s hard to go back to sausage’. I don’t think those first years of his era were like sausage, they were crack cocaine or heroin. We got our first hit, and as the years have gone on we’ve been chasing the footballing dragon. Waiting for the man. And the man couldn’t deliver for quite some time.
Think about it though. We were Arsenal, a ‘big’ club for sure, but not one of Europe’s biggest. And here we were with four of the best players in the world in our team, doing it week in, week out. Dennis Bergkamp. Robert Pires. Patrick Vieira. Thierry Henry.
There wasn’t a team in the world that wouldn’t have taken one or all of them in a heartbeat. They tried, oh how they tried. And it was a struggle to hang on to at least one of them every summer, but for those years when those four men whose talent was beyond sublime strode across the Highbury turf blowing away opponent after opponent we were high on football, maaaan.
I sometimes think back and wish I’d tried to remember it more at the time. Maybe there’s part of you that thinks it’s always going to be that way and you take it for granted a bit. And it can’t always be that way. But it leaves you longing for it. Craving what we had, but what we had then was special and unique. People bemoan the fact we haven’t had another Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira etc since, but it’s not like there’s an orchard we can just pilfer a new one from. They were special and it was special.
Since then, things have changed. The team changed when the stadium changed. A plan to grow a young team together looked like it might just work, but ultimately failed. There were title challenges in those years, 2007-08 was the one that might have sent us down a different path but Eduardo’s injury, the team’s naivety without sufficient on-field leadership meant it fell apart.
Headlines and snippy remarks about how ‘It’s been X years since Arsenal won a trophy,’ and X increased season on season. And it was frustrating and difficult and disappointing and the football landscape had changed and it looked like we’d been left behind. Like Wenger and Arsenal had been left behind.
And yet every season we finished in the top four and played Champions League football. ‘Oh it’s Arsenal, they always finish in the top four’, people would say, like it was easy to do. I don’t see any other managers who have done it. Flash in the pans like Brendan Rodgers couldn’t do it twice, let alone 19 times in a row.
I get why people became, and are still, frustrated with the lack of a league title, but to dismiss a top four finish every season because it’s not enough seems weirdly counter-intuitive to me. He got us in there by the skin of his teeth at times – often at the expense of Sp*rs haha – and he did it with the likes of Eboue, Bendtner, Denilson, and Song playing a major role in the team.
The trophy drought was broken at last in 2014. Arsenal style … of course. Arsene style, you might even say. 2-0 down to Hull. Hull! And almost 3-0 down and that would have been that but Santi and then Koscielny and then Aaron Ramsey’s toe-poke winner and we hugged and laughed and loved it and drank together on sticky floors and you remembered what it was like again. We got a hit at last.
Wembley 2015 – Arsenal in yellow winning and FA Cup final … my dream since 1979 when Liam Brady fed Rix and his cross for Alan Sunderland won that amazing final against United. A game I recreated in my garden countless times but to me yellow and blue and Arsenal in May winning the final is special and will always be special. If you want to say ‘It’s just the cup’, you go right ahead but I’m going to be over here not giving a shit about you and enjoying it. Do I want more, of course? But a starving man doesn’t turn down a delicious sandwich unless he’s an idiot.
He has given me some of the best football moments of my life and some of my worst. He drives me absolutely nuts sometimes, and I can’t quite fathom his very particular brand of logic. Some of his decisions are mind-boggling at times, indefensible at others, and he leaves himself open to criticism in a big way.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with criticism. It’s part of the job. What I cannot abide is the abuse. It is possible to hold the position that Arsenal could do with a new manager without name-calling and invective that would make a sailor blush. You want to label a man who has done what he has done for this club a ‘fraud’? The only fraud here is you pal, because you have no idea what that word means.
He’s a brilliant, frustrating, intelligent, bewildering, captivating, infuriating, enlightening, irritating, hilarious, tiring, exhilarating man and manager and ultimately I’m glad to have been on this journey with him through these last 20 years. I can’t say I wouldn’t change a a thing, because there a loads of things I would change (Captain Hindsight!), but it’s definitely been a trip.