Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Arsene Wenger, the movie, and bridging the relationship gap

Last night the premier of the Arsene Wenger: Invincible movie took place. It’s obviously generating lots of interest and plenty of stories. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast I did with its director, Gabriel Clarke, you can find that here.

I should say now that in today’s post there might a couple of things that are considered ‘spoilers’. It’s not as if everyone doesn’t know how most of it goes, but there are some things he says that I’m going to reference here that are new, so if you prefer not to read until you’ve seen the film, consider this a spoiler warning.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

First up, even though this is a story I know inside out and back to front, it was still great to relive it. There’s some archive footage which I hadn’t seen before which adds some fascinating background to certain situations, and the story benefits from the guidance of the film-makers. I found Arsene’s recent book hugely disappointing. It really needed a ‘ghost writer’, not simply to put his words down in a manuscript, but an experienced writer to give it the kind of structure it needed, as well as tease out things that Arsene basically glossed over or didn’t provide enough depth with. It didn’t have to be ‘kiss and tell’, but it felt like there was a lot missing.

To be fair, the book is titled ‘My life in red and white‘, and while this film does cover his Arsenal career from start to finish, the focus is on that incredible achievement of going through a season unbeaten. The likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and even Alex Ferguson as talking heads add plenty too.

Where it gets really interesting is towards the end. As he waits to come onto the pitch on May 6th 2018, for his final home game, we hear Bob Wilson introducing him, urging the crowd to give him the greatest welcome they possibly can. And they did. Behind the scenes a distinctly uncomfortable looking Arsene Wenger waits. He talks about how on the day everybody is nice, whereas a week before there is a lot of criticism.

I was there that day. I never sensed that from him when he made his speech on the pitch. It felt like the right kind of goodbye from the crowd, sincere and warm gratitude for everything he had done down the years. In the end he said:

“I would like to finish in one simple sentence: I will miss you. Thank you all for having such an important part of my life, thank you all, well done.

“Bye bye.”

He hasn’t been back to the club since.

In the film we come to understand just how big the chasm currently is. I still don’t think we know the full story of how his departure came to pass, but it obviously still hurts. He talks about how he should have gone somewhere else, its acknowledged that most love stories – as he calls it – end with sadness, but then he says:

“Now there is no special reason for me to go there. All the rest is purely emotional.”

I have to say I found that really sad. First that he clearly doesn’t want to return, and the dismissal of the ‘rest’ as emotional … because isn’t that what football is? Isn’t that why we love it? The emotion it generates, good and bad, is part of what makes the game so great. Otherwise we could just take it or leave it. We wouldn’t care. We’d never get invested the way we do.

Last night, attending the Premier, current manager Mikel Arteta was asked about his former boss, and urged some kind of rapprochement, saying:

I would like him to be more present at the club. I think the players will love him, they will benefit, they will be inspired to have him around. I think for the club it would be a huge boost. I think it would be so beneficial for all parties to have him more present.

Clearly he has a lot on his plate with his role at FIFA, and I can’t pretend I like the idea he’s pushing of a World Cup every two years, even if some of what he says about the football calendar and the international schedule makes sense. Thus, it’s hard to see a dedicated role at Arsenal, but maybe there’s scope for something ceremonial, something that wouldn’t see his shadow loom too large. Something which means that when Arsenal don’t win a game, the cameras don’t linger on a disgusted looking Wenger, like Ferguson when United were being beaten 5-0 at home by Liverpool.

In her recent piece in The Athletic (£), Amy Lawrence wrote about how Arteta has insisted work be done around the club and the training ground to ensure that players are reminded of the history:

The first thing you see at the main entrance is a supersized floor-to-ceiling image of a smiling Wenger with his left hand raised. It has become routine that all the players, as they come in, high-five the picture of the man who basically built this place.

However, I don’t think Arsene’s issue is with Mikel Arteta, or the players. I think it’s much higher up than that. Perhaps some of those at executive level he feels bitterness towards are gone, but the ownership remains the same and they had to sanction his departure. They also sanctioned new contracts for him at times when many thought they shouldn’t, to be fair.

Wherever the issue lies though, it would be a crying shame if it didn’t get resolved and if a man who did so much for this football club continues to feel that there is no reason for him to return. I don’t know what it might take to make the breakthrough here, but I hope it can happen. Relationships in football break down all the time, you can go from hero to zero in a matter of weeks at some clubs, and there’s no escaping the fact that most endings within the game at managerial level are difficult, often contentious.

Hopefully the gap can be bridged. It’s encouraging to know that someone like Mikel Arteta is publicly advocating for it to happen. This is a club where a former Invincible is Technical Director; and former captains are Manager and Academy Manager respectively. His legacy lives in on those ex-players he signed and brought in, but I really hope that Arsenal the institution and Arsene Wenger the man – for all that has happened – can find a way to repair what was a unique and successful relationship for so long.

Arsène Wenger: Invincible is in cinemas from 11 November, and on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download from 22 November.

Trailer: HERE

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