After years of dour, occasionally successful football, the Frenchman revolutionised the way in which the club were run and helped shape their future, reputation and global appeal
By James Goldman
“49, 49 undefeated,” chanted the several-thousand fans who were locked inside White Hart Lane long after they had witnessed Sunday’s win against Tottenham. “49, 49, I say. 49, 49 undefeated, playing football the Arsenal way.”
As he prepares to take charge of his 1,000th game as Gunners boss, thoughts naturally drift back to a time before Arsene Wenger – the overriding recollection being that the “Arsenal way” was nothing of which to be overly proud, celebrated only in an ironic, self-deprecating fashion.
The start of my own Arsenal-supporting journey coincided with a rich run of success under George Grahamm but the trophies – six in seven glorious years – far from translated into the popularity and worldwide acclaim in which the club bask today.
With the benefit of hindsight – and without the red-tinted glasses of an Arsenal-obsessed child – it is easy to understand why. From the points deduction that followed the Old Trafford brawl to Tony Adams’s spell behind bars for a drink-driving offence, bouts of indiscipline became habitual, damaging and, at times, downright embarrassing.
The football itself yielded results but it was largely dull, functional fare, founded on a remorselessly drilled defence, supplemented by, among others, at various points, the talents of Paul Merson, Ian Wright and Anders Limpar.
The regular stream of silverware provided joy, particularly given the years of nothingness that preceded Graham’s appointment, and thus a vindication of the manager’s methods. But there remained a residual jealousy that Tottenham, rather than ‘boring’ or ‘lucky’ Arsenal, were still perceived as north London’s glamour club, able to attract and cherish the extravagant gifts of Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne.
Graham’s own reign was to end in ignominy, shame and brown envelopes and, although Bruce Rioch’s brief tenure hinted at more dynamic and exciting times ahead, particularly with the signing of Dennis Bergkamp, nobody could have foreseen the transformation that the club would undergo.
Uncertainty over the arrival of an unknown Frenchman, who looked more like a supply teacher than a football manager, quickly gave way to a sense of privilege. We did not know where Wenger would take us but we knew almost instantly that it would be different and, most of all, after two seasons of mediocrity, exciting.
Suddenly Arsenal were fashionable. Trendsetters, even. With our foreign manager who specialised in attacking, imaginative football allied to our obscure recruits from abroad, we revelled in the fact that we were doing things differently. Our centre forward was now more likely to star in glamorous television commercials than be held up as football’s poster boy for drug and gambling addictions.
Above all else, the many wonderful players whom Wenger signed or brought through the ranks, the trophies that he has won, the move to a magnificent new stadium which he envisioned and helped to achieve, it is his reinvention of the Arsenal way for which fans should be most thankful.
Success was instantaneous. A Premier League and FA Cup double was achieved in Wenger’s first full season, and although it took four years for further tangible rewards to arrive, it was more than worth the wait.
Between 2002 and the first few months of the 2004-05 season the standard of football reached levels of perfection that were scarcely comprehensible. We turned up at matches expecting not only to win, and win comfortably, but to be entertained as well. Visiting teams were beaten before kick-off, left dazed and confused by the end, every goal a picture-book moment.
One incident involving Middlesbrough’s Danny Mills and Thierry Henry during the ‘Invincible’ season summed up the sense of utter helplessness that opposition players seemed to be experiencing on a regular basis.
The pair had already clashed earlier in the game – Henry mocked Mills after he had successfully converted a penalty – but the Frenchman sought further humiliation. Deep into the second half and with the result long-since determined, Mills attempted to usher the ball out for a goal kick, only for Henry to nip the other side of him, bending the corner flag to manipulate some extra room, drag the ball under his own foot and through the full-back’s legs.
The Frenchman va-va-voomed off into the open space, leaving Mills with an expression that suggested that he was questioning the point of his own existence. Highbury roared with laughter. Arsenal were unbeatable, untouchable and unashamedlt arrogant.
A Champions League trophy, as Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool fans are only too quick to point out, remains the one glaring omission from the club’s roll of honour. But that ‘Invincible’ season, a feat unlikely to be matched any time soon, if ever, did as much to put Arsenal on the world map as any European success would, particularly given the way in which they went about their football.
Of course, the intervening years have at times been difficult, frustrating and challenging. While Arsenal and Wenger have stuck rigidly to a model of conservative self-sustainability, others have caught up and sped past them, aided by Russian and Abu Dhabi petrodollars.
Wenger would surely admit that he has made mistakes between now and the Gunners’ last trophy success. His eye in the transfer market is not as sharp as it once was, while the recent admission that the club will hold an internal investigation following the latest injury epidemic suggests that the Frenchman has not moved with the times when it comes to training methods and fitness regimes.
Despite those flaws, Arsenal fans have been treated to a constant diet of Champions League football, while the board’s cash reserves continue to swell. The club have remained competitive and will be in a position to challenge long after Wenger has departed and, for that, we fans should remain eternally grateful.
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