Arsene at 1000 + Arsecast 309 with Jon Ronson

Arsecast - the Arsenal podcast

Morning all, time to start looking ahead to the game against Chelsea, but as yet we don’t have much in the way of team news. I’m assuming that everyone who was available against Sp*rs on Sunday is fit and that there’ll be no surprises in terms of an injured player returning to give us a boost.

The focus is still on Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game and I’m sure that’s going to be a theme in this morning’s press conference too. Whatever your view on the manager, you have to say that getting to 1000 games is a remarkable achievement, and what Wenger has done certainly goes beyond a footballing landmark too.

When he arrived Arsenal’s facilities were not what you would consider suitable for any top flight club. As Patrick Vieira remembered, “I’ve been here when we took a bus to training and a bus back to the hotel to have a shower.”

In an interview with the Telegraph today, Peter Hill-Wood says, “The first thing he did was to be absolutely horrified by our training facilities. We built new facilities to his design. I went round the clubs of Europe with him and an architect and surveyor. He was asking all manner of questions and making all sorts of notes.”

Some of that was helped by his transfer market acumen, the story that we built our training ground and purchased a Mr T Henry from Juventus with the money we got from selling Nicolas Anelka is legendary. I suspect Arsene would have preferred to keep Anelka, but knowing that wasn’t possible he ensured we got the best price possible for him.

On top of the training ground, Wenger was also instrumental in the new stadium project, seeing it as crucial for Arsenal to move forward in the long-term. To compete with the best teams in Europe (at a time before clubs were propped up by billionaires to the extent they are now), he knew we had to do something difficult but extraordinary. To leave an iconic home like Highbury is not a decision you can take lightly, but as painful as that is/was, you can’t escape the fact it was the right one, even if the football landscape has changed dramatically since.

There are fans older and wiser than I who might disagree, but Arsene Wenger has given us the most prolonged period of football at the highest level. Nobody has kept us in the top four as consistently; no other manager has given us Champions League football year after year (and I do recognise that’s because the competition itself has changed, but still); no other manager has given us a team as good as the one we had from about 2001-2004, and the successes were so much fun.

The 97-98 double was almost cathartic, a team with the platform of the old Arsenal boosted by Wenger’s deft transfer touch. The 2002 double-winning side was brilliant, as was the one that went unbeaten in 2003-4. When you look back at it now, you’d even say they underachieved, certainly in Europe. The 2003-4 Champions League exit is one of those that still gives me shudders, that team should have lifted the trophy that season.

Having four of the best players in the world in your team at any one time was the preserve of the giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus etc. Yet we had them at Arsenal. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. We were privileged to see them all play for Arsenal in the same team.

Yet with vision comes sacrifice and over the last few seasons, as the financial restrictions of the new stadium and those sponsorship deals we had to do hit home, it’s been more of a struggle. There’s no doubt he’s made some bad decisions, hasn’t spent the money he did have as well as he could, and, if he could look back, would probably make the transition from experience to youth more subtle.

It was a decent idea, to grow a group of young players together, but it didn’t really work. It failed to take into account human nature, and Wenger’s working methods didn’t suit that. He’s a man who likes his players to work things out for themselves. Experienced, grown men can do that a lot better than callow youth who believed their wage packet was an indicator of their stature in the game. Young men need guidance and there wasn’t enough of that on the pitch.

There have been frustrations at how long it’s taken to put things right, the same mistakes made too often, and seasons that began with promise fell short, while often the league was a pipe-dream after the early months. Yet despite difficulties, we never once missed out on the top four (even finishing third a few times!), while other teams around us spent fortunes to try and achieve our ‘failures’.

Now, with the stadium debt manageable, a good squad of players, new power in the transfer market because the financial restrictions are gone, and the club on sure footing in an era when many are struggling to stay afloat, it’s easier to step back and see what Wenger has brought to Arsenal. Even if he never wins another trophy his legacy is extraordinary.

He’s 64 now, and like it or not, we’re heading towards the end of his era sooner or later. It would fitting if he could bring some silverware to the club this season. If we as fans might feel we ‘deserve’ a trophy after so many years without, it’d be the hardest of hearts that would begrudge the manager success after all the work he’s put in. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, seeing him lift the cup (or the league!) with this group of players would be a fantastic sight.

Congratulations on the 1000, Arsene. I hope the fates play their part and give you, and us, a landmark win against Chelsea this weekend. Not just because it would be great to win but because it would also make Mourinho sick. Hey, I’m a small, petty man, but you know this already.

For more on Arsene’s 1000 – Tim Stillman looks back on his time in his latest column, and we’ll have something up on Arseblog News a bit later too. For ESPN, here’s my favourite Wenger XI – note the word: favourite, not best! For the Mirror, my best XI.

Right then, time for this week’s Arsecast, and it’s a special, bumper two part edition. In part 1 – all the usual football chat and waffle. I’m joined by Jeremy Wilson from the Telegraph to look back at the North London derby, Tomas Rosicky, contracts, Arsene, Bacary Sagna and more. There’s a look ahead to Chelsea, a news bulletin and all the normal guff.

In part 2 I chat with author, journalist and Arsenal fan, Jon Ronson – who was in Dublin yesterday – about all kinds of stuff, including Arsenal (obviously), but also weightlessness, terrifying secret organisations, Robin van Persie and psychopaths, being just as lovely as Lisa Stansfield, and his new short book Frank (which you can get here for just £1.79 on Amazon).

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And that’s yer lot for this morning. All the latest from the press conference over on Arseblog News throughout the day, back here tomorrow as we head to Stamford Bridge for the early kick-off.

ps – The winner of the Oxlade-Chamberlain print competition was Joshua Peterman. I’ll be in touch, and remember you can get your own from Dan’s store!