The Wenger years

Posted by Kevin Palmer

Robin van Persie Arsene Wenger smileGettyImagesWenger's plan to create a player dynasty at Arsenal collapsed with the exit of Robin van Persie

When a bespectacled Arsene Wenger was introduced as Arsenal manager on September 30, 1996, many English football traditionalists predicted his tenure as the club's manager was destined to be brief and unremarkable.

This was the era when a foreign manager was still viewed as an ill-advised experiment, with Dr Jozef Venglos' unsuccessful era at Aston Villa a few years earlier inspiring many to conclude British managers were more suitable for the rough-and-tumble of the Premier League.

Then along came Wenger. Multilingual, supremely intelligent and offering wide-ranging, articulate views on the game, it was evident from day one that Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein had taken a bold move to appoint a manager who did not fit the convention of what was expected of managers in English football's top flight at the time. After all, here was a guy who had never played the game to a notable level and was recruited from the Japanese league. What did he know?

By May 1998, Dein's step into the unknown had been gloriously rewarded, with Wenger delivering a Premier League and FA Cup double in his first full season as Arsenal boss and foreign players and managers aplenty flooding into England on the back of his success.

It has been my great fortune to be assigned the reporting on the fascinating man throughout his historic reign as Arsenal boss, and while looking back over my archives of the hundreds of Wenger press briefings I have attended, I was reminded of the scope of topics he has covered with a hungry media pack.

So here is a trip down memory lane from almost 17 years of association with a football personality who is as compelling and divisive now as he was when he first arrived.

THE EARLY DAYS

As I stood in the Wembley Stadium tunnel after the 1998 FA Cup final that had seen Arsenal complete a domestic double with a victory against Newcastle, Wenger and Dein shared a knowing glance and exchanged a firm handshake. Both were grateful for each other's contribution to this success and knew they would need to work in unison from that point forward to execute their ambitious joint plan.

In the interview I had conducted with Wenger for the official matchday programme that complimented that Wembley victory against Newcastle, he spoke of his desire to "prove himself in a country that doubted him," while insisting his vision for the future of Arsenal had only just begun.

His move to sign French youngsters like Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka was something of a novelty in an English league whose top sides were dominated by homegrown stars, with Chelsea's Ruud Gullit the only other foreign manager in the 1996-97 Premier League.

"I know people looked at me as if I was a little unusual when I came here and my first press conference at Arsenal was an interesting achievement in itself," he told us back in 2006. "I got the feeling straight away that there was so much to prove and I never imagined I would last here for ten years back then."

Tony Adams and Arsene Wenger FA Cup and Premier League celebGettyImagesWenger found immediate success at Arsenal

THE HIGHS

If Wenger's early successes earned him the respect and admiration of the London press pack, there was a positive sense of awe in the air when he guided Arsenal to an unbeaten 2003-04 season.

His press briefing ahead of the final game of that historic campaign was a little like a pilgrimage to see a spiritual figure who had turned water into wine at Arsenal, and his vow to continue his success could not have been more resounding.

"Our aim is to dominate English football as Manchester United did in the last decade and try to crack Europe as well," he said in May 2004. "That is the aim and I feel we are getting closer every season."

Those words seem a little hollow now on as Arsenal have not lifted the Premier League title since, with just a solitary FA Cup triumph in 2005 to Wenger's credit in an era when the balance of power shifted away from the Gunners.

ABRAMOVICH ARRIVES

Just as Wenger and Arsenal were at the peak of their powers, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and changed the face of English football in an instant.

The cash injection provided by the Russian billionaire has long been a subject that has riled Wenger, and we had an example of that angst.

"We had won the title without losing a game in 2004 and then everything changes as Abramovich buys Chelsea," Wenger said last year. "When I first came to England, every club was being run within its own resources and we could all compete on that basis, but things have been changed by Chelsea and now [Manchester] City. Am I frustrated by what has happened in English football in recent years? Of course."

Try as he might, Wenger has failed to win the Premier League in the years since Abramovich bought Chelsea, and the Champions League glory he craves has also proved elusive for this dedicated French tactician.

THE JOB OFFERS

Wenger has confirmed that he has been tempted away from Arsenal on more than one occasion in the last 17 years.

Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are among the clubs from whom he has rejected overtures, and it was the middle of those three offers that was most enticing back in 2009, when Spain's most prestigious club came calling.

"I knew what Real Madrid wanted to do but I didn't want to leave Arsenal," he told us a couple of years ago. "They wanted to spend a lot of money and re-establish themselves as the most successful club in the world. It was interesting, but I built this team at Arsenal and did not want to leave it. I don't walk out on a contract."

Wenger had spoken of the "incredible potential" at PSG in his belief that "a club that is the only team in the whole of Paris can have a huge influence." It may well prove to be the offer he cannot turn down if, as reports suggest, he has been offered the chance to return to his homeland when his current Arsenal contract expires in 2014.

BEING TOO HONEST

Wenger's spats with Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho down the years were inspired, in no small part, by his difficulty in avoiding a question when it is placed before him. Essentially, the Arsenal boss likes to offer an opinion on all issues and, at times, it gets him into trouble.

His persistent comment that "a top-four finish is as good as a trophy" has inspired the suspicion that his ambition has waned in an era when his influence has been in decline and the pressure mounting around him has increased.

Another example of his honesty was on display last January, as the Sunday newspaper reporters were ushered into a small, dark room amid the underground jungle of infrastructure of Emirates Stadium. Wenger's honesty ensured he could not hide behind the club's board any longer when being quizzed on the club's transfer policies.

"I guess you can say we have a socialist model and maybe this makes us more vulnerable to losing players or failing to sign new ones," he told us, clearly divulging more than he needed to. "As long as the economical balance within a club is respected and you pay the people with the resources that make economical sense, then it is fine. We cannot compete with Chelsea or Man City, but we do what we can do."

Arsene WengerArsene Wenger's future at Arsenal is uncertain, with the strong possibility of a return to France next season

THE FUTURE

"This club went 25 years without winning a trophy in the past, so just because we didn't win something this time, I will not give up on what we are trying to do," Wenger told us back in 2007. "My philosophy on how the game is played will never change and I believe we will win trophies with this squad."

Little did Wenger know then that his comments six years ago would still be relevant today, and for that reason he finds himself desperately trying to maintain a legacy that seemed to be cast in glittering gold after his first eight years at the club.

This summer gives Wenger a glorious chance to cash in on the uncertainty at both Manchester clubs and Chelsea after their managerial changes. But the reality must be that this great manager will not manage Arsenal beyond next season unless he reverses a pattern of decline quickly.

"It's very hard for me to imagine being anywhere other than Arsenal," he stated in 2009. "I love this club and that will never change, but I honestly don't know how much longer I will go on in management. I once said a manager has a shelf life of 20 years and now I have been in this job for 21 years, so maybe I'm past it already!"

WENGER'S PHILOSOPHIES

Wenger's best buy: "I didn't believe Thierry Henry could be as good as he has become when we signed him back in 1999. The quality was always there, but he has matured into the greatest player in the world and it gives me great pride."

Wenger on his 2003-04 Invincibles team (May 2004): "I am no miracle worker, that is not how I would describe myself. To start with, I don't believe in miracles and secondly, what we have achieved here is not due to miracles. It's purely down to hard work."

Wenger on foreign players (September 2006): "People criticise me for not buying enough English players, but a passport does not matter. Look at the prices you have to pay for players in this country and compare it with European or African players and I have had no option."

Wenger's dream (December 2006): "I want to win the Champions League three or four times and that will allow Arsenal to justifiably claim we are one of the true giants of English football."

Wenger on man management (October 2009): "You need to have a distance between yourself and the players working for you. I would be happy to sit down and have dinner with Thierry Henry or Robert Pires now because I am not their manager anymore, but if they are still working for me, I would never socialise with them."

Wenger on wages (October 2010): "I feel any payment is justifiable so long as the organisation offering it can cover it naturally with their own income. Alternatively, you can have one sponsor to pay these wages, as they have at Manchester City and Chelsea, but that's a different story."

Wenger on his legacy (September 2011): "Who knows what I have brought to English football. I hope I have brought some great football and some great memories, but for me, the manager is only two percent of a team. People pay to watch players, not managers, don't forget."

Wenger on Man City's rise (May 2012): "When you look at what Manchester City have spent and analyse their wage bill, what chance do we have? Sometimes you have to be realistic and accept it is not easy for everyone else."

Wenger's regrets (August 2012): "I was close to building a team that would have had more than enough quality to win trophies. [Cesc] Fabregas, [Emmanuel] Adebayor, [Robin] Van Persie and [Samir] Nasri playing together would have been very successful, but we lost them all in a short period. It's frustrating."

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