Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Arsene Wenger Is Like My Dad

Arsene Wenger is like my dad. He’s not like my actual dad. My actual father died when I was a baby and I grew up with my mum and four older sisters. I was 12 years old when Arsene Wenger took the reins at Arsenal and it’s no exaggeration to say that he is the one of the most enduring male authority figures I have ever known. Which is quite an odd thing to say and feel about somebody that I have met in incredibly brief exchanges three times in my whole life.

Given the strong feminine influence in my upbringing, it’s obvious now that my lurch towards football was a quest to define my masculinity at a young age. Nick Hornby makes the same observation about his father’s absence in Fever Pitch, describing his love of football as a quest for playground acceptance at a boy’s comprehensive school in suburbia. Hornby described the process of becoming obsessed with football as “putting a few eggs into the masculinity basket.”

Even if distant and only remotely meaningful to one of us, my relationship with Arsene is incredibly complicated. Generally, I am a sceptical, analytical person. Maybe even aloof at times. I reject faith based positions in favour of evidence and analysis. Yet when it comes to Wenger, I find it difficult to differentiate how much my admiration for him stems from evidence (results) and how much emanates from faith and sentiment.

He took the Arsenal job just as I was entering my teenage years. My understanding of football was just beginning to develop beyond “my team needs to score more goals than the opposition or else I am going to be unhappy.” Therefore, it is difficult to separate my own ideas about football from Arsene’s. I am programmed to think that an unenforced substitution prior to the 70th minute is a sign of panic- weakness even. I too think too many signings in one window can upset the balance of a squad.

I prefer for full-backs to be balanced so that one plays like a supporting winger and the other plays like a wide centre half. I think one of your wide players should be a creator and one a goal scorer. I formed these ideas from watching Wenger’s teams down the years and I have never really been exposed to anything else on such a granular basis since I was an adolescent. Sometimes I wonder whether this is a kind of footballing Stockholm syndrome.

A few years ago, I made a decision to stop worrying about it. It’s only football after all. I decided that there was nothing wrong with being emotionally attached to Arsene Wenger and whether or not that attachment clouded my judgement is immaterial. None of us are scientists looking to cure disease here, nor are we investigative journalists seeking to uncover injustice or corruption. Our individual analysis of football is not really important for anything other than the passing of our own leisure time.

We have gradually moved into an era where being a fan is not just a once or twice a week pastime, it’s a 24/7 occupation and, as such, we all see ourselves as critics, so bias is deemed to have consequences. I feel protective when Arsene comes in for criticism. I don’t feel that way about players anymore, I think I grew out of it. But Wenger still has that connection to my childhood self. Like a family member, a father even, I can criticise him but nobody else is allowed. When they do, my instinct is to defend him. There is no other figure in the game that I feel this way about. It’s absurd really, he’s handsomely paid and while he can be irascible in press conferences, I cannot imagine that he would have survived 20 years in the Arsenal job if criticism especially bothered him.

It is always good critical discipline to put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker, at the time the decision was made when offering critique. Looking at the situation and assessing the options available at the time, removing hindsight from the equation. I try to do this when discussing the decisions or transgressions of most figures in football. With Arsene, the instinct to defend sometimes arrives first and the critical discipline breathlessly tries to keep pace with my instinct.

One of the tragedies of the human condition is that we do not fully appreciate people or things until they are no longer there. Even if I sometimes harbour doubts about how much longer his Arsenal tenure should last, I don’t want to do this with Arsene. I don’t want to wait until he has left before I realise how much I respected and admired him, as a man as much as a football manager. I want to absorb the feeling of, at the very least, respecting the Arsenal manager on a human level, because that may not be the case in the future.

I enjoy listening to and reading his thoughts on any number of subjects, including football. Following his philosophical interview with L’Equipe last year, the Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew said, “I’m increasingly convinced that a mind like Wenger’s is utterly wasted on football.” It’s not useful for anything tangible in a competitive sport, but I feel quite proud that the manager of my club is thought of in this way. It reminded me of Peter Hill-Wood’s remark about Herbert Chapman, “My father always felt he should have been Prime Minister.”

It is unthinkable in the shifting sands of modern football that Arsenal- or any top club- will have the same manager for 20 years. Arsene is the last of his kind. That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course, there’s not even a compelling argument to suggest that a club should have the same manager for 20 years. But we are in the final throes of a species doomed to die with Wenger. It’s happening at our club and we are all going to feel very different for a while when he is not there. Football will feel it too, but not as profoundly as Arsenal fans will.

It’s not important to place his Arsenal legacy now. History will be the arbiter of that, once the emotion has died down and water has passed under the bridge. Once his successor has either totally failed (because he couldn’t match the greatness of Wenger) or enjoyed huge success (thanks to the foundations laid by Wenger), or else maintained the same level of achievement (because he will have to mount the same difficult obstacles that have been faced by Wenger).

I think you can debate how far Arsenal’s needle has moved since 2013, but the club is unrecognisable from the one Arsene took over in 1996. When Wenger was appointed, Arsenal had amassed 10 league titles, 6 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, 1 Cup Winners Cup and a Fairs Cup. Not a meagre haul, but not significantly better than Everton’s 9 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and Cup Winners Cup, or Aston Villa’s 7 league titles, 7 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and European Cup. Arsenal FC has undergone a chrysalis during his tenure.

Arsene Wenger is like my dad. In my own mind, his flaws are exaggerated and they frustrate me. Just when I feel like I want to shake him by the lapels, I listen to him speak and he has a way of talking me around, of rising above the noise- both internal and external. It’s perfectly reasonable to prize the opinions of a professional above a chorus of angry amateurs, but I am still unable to distil how much self-delusion is in there- because everyone thinks they have the greatest dad at home.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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