Iam an Arsenal fan. I’ve lived in New York for 25 years and still have my season ticket. I have an Arsenal tattoo. On the morning Arsène Wenger announced his retirement, my wife came into the kitchen and asked if I’d booked my flight yet. I’m not a huge reader of football autobiographies, though, and I’m not sure why anyone who isn’t a fan would read one (or read a piece about one, for that matter). I wouldn’t read Ferguson’s or Clough’s or Busby’s or Guardiola’s. Why would I care? The five I have read are: We All Live in a Perry Groves World (Arsenal winger, 1986-92); It’s Only Ray Parlour (Arsenal midfielder, 1992-2004); Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal striker, 1995-2006); Addicted by Tony Adams (Arsenal centre-back, 1983-2002); and, now, Arsène Wenger’s My Life in Red and White.
The Premier League has come a long way since it started nearly thirty years ago. Revenues for the 2018-19 season were more than £5 billion. It’s the most watched sports league in the world. Managers don’t just think about training and tactics: every aspect of a player’s life is engineered to optimise performance. Pre-Premier League football was very different. In the 1990s, Arsenal players had a weekly ‘Tuesday Club’, considered a bonding ritual by the players and manager George Graham alike. It was, in fact, a massive piss-up that started after training on Tuesday and carried on through Wednesday, ending in time to run it off on Thursday morning. This is the world Wenger inherited when he took over as Arsenal manager. After the announcement in August 1996, the headline on the back page of the Daily Mirror ran: ‘Arsène Who?’ In his new autobiography, Wenger describes his first match as manager: ‘On 12 October 1996, I was no longer in the stands … We were playing away at Blackburn Rovers. Ian Wright scored twice. Victory! On the way to the stadium, the players were chanting: “We want our Mars Bars!” I had started to work with them and apply my ideas, particularly as regards nutrition.’ The football played in England today – the speed, the spectacle, the insane athleticism, the obsession with the distance a player has run, the Gegenpressing, the stats, Pep, Klopp, Mo Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Marcus Rashford cutting in from the left – began with the banning of Mars Bars.
In the 1980s liking football was, at best, uncool. Martin Amis described the average football fan as having ‘the body and complexion of a cheese and onion crisp’. At its worst it was criminal: Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford. It was also quite predictable. During Thatcher’s time in office, Liverpool won the (old) Football League eight times. After her departure, they didn’t win again until 2020. In the early 1990s, three crucial footballing events occurred: Gazza cried in Turin, Nick Hornby published Fever Pitch, and the Premier League was born. Before the 1992 election, it seemed like everything was about to change for the better. Neil Kinnock would be prime minister and football would reclaim its place at the centre of national life. Then John Major won, and two months later England were dumped out of Euro ’92 by Sweden. The Sun put the England manager, Graham Taylor, on the back page with a turnip for a head. In 1994 England failed to qualify for the World Cup. The most important managers in English football were Scottish. Manchester United were beginning their winning streak under Alex Ferguson (from Govan); his rivals were George Graham (Bargeddie) and Kenny Dalglish (Dalmarnock). Poor Eric Cantona had to do the whole moody Frenchman act by himself. But by 1996 football was coming home and then, a year later, Tony Blair was prime minister. Arsène Who?
In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby writes that the apocryphal Millwall chant – ‘No one likes us/No one likes us/No one likes us/We don’t care’ – should belong to Arsenal. Tottenham had the Glory Game (from Danny Blanchflower to Osvaldo Ardiles); Manchester United had the tragedy of Munich and the Busby Babes, then Charlton and Best and 1968; Liverpool were Liverpool, always the sentimental favourites. In 1996, Arsenal were notorious for their habit of winning in the last minute – ‘Lucky, Lucky Arsenal’ – and for grinding out bleak one-nil scorelines, with liberal use of the offside trap and the professional foul. Boring, boring Arsenal. Even when they won, they were losers.
In 1989, while coaching Monaco, Wenger met David Dein, the Arsenal vice chairman. Wenger went to an Arsenal match and after the game shared a cigarette with a friend of Barbara Dein, David’s wife. He was invited to their house in Totteridge, North London, for supper that evening. After dinner, they played charades: Wenger had to act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘No easy task – and I got through it pretty well.’ A friendship developed. Over the next few years, Dein and Wenger would meet on Dein’s yacht, the Take It Easy, in Antibes, and Dein would go to the Louis II stadium in Monaco to watch Wenger’s team. He liked what he saw and ‘wondered whether that style of play could be exported to England’. But Graham led Arsenal to the title in 1991, losing only one game.
Four years later Graham was out, fired for taking a bung. (Wenger, who was famous for never seeing fouls when they were committed by his own players, claims not to know why Graham was let go.) He was replaced by another Scottish sergeant-major, Bruce Rioch. Things went badly, and after the 1995-96 season Dein was ready to make his move. But there was a catch. By this time, Wenger had left Monaco for Japan, and he wanted to finish out his contract with Nagoya Grampus Eight. For the first two months of the new season, Arsenal were without a manager.
Who they did have, however, was Patrick Vieira. Before Wenger arrived at Arsenal, he told the club to buy this young, unknown central midfielder from AC Milan. Arsenal were down 1-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday on 16 September 1996 when, in the 28th minute, Vieira came on for his debut, replacing the injured Ray Parlour. Arsenal went on to win 4-1. According to Dennis Bergkamp: ‘Everyone in the stadium was thinking “What really happened here? Did I really see it right?” … He was a different sort of player. He was so, so dominating.’
Two years later Arsenal won the Double – the Premier League and the FA Cup. They did it by playing extraordinary football, football from the future: bigger, stronger, faster than anyone had ever seen. Arsenal fans sang the words of their enemies at the top of their lungs: ‘Boring, boring Arsenal.’ Manchester United had undergone a transformation too, and suddenly the Premiership was a two-horse race. The Ferguson-Wenger feud had begun, and for a decade Arsenal fans rollicked in the drama and excellence on display, as well as the animosity. When Arsenal won the Double again in 2002 and Ferguson criticised the way they had gone about it, Wenger responded: ‘Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.’ Giggs scored that goal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final; in 2002, Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford; in 2003-4, Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ won the title without being beaten; in the two clubs’ first meeting the following season, Wayne Rooney cheated his way to a penalty, ending Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run in what became known as the Battle of the Buffet (in the tunnel after the match, Cesc Fàbregas threw a slice of pizza at Ferguson, hitting him in the face). At the end of that 2004-5 season, with his last kick as an Arsenal player, Vieira won the FA Cup on penalties – against Manchester United.
And then it was done, only we didn’t know it yet. In 2003, Roman Abramovich had arrived from Moscow ‘in a tank firing fifty quid notes over the lawn’, as Dein put it. A year later, José Mourinho, the self-described ‘Special One’, rocked up from Portugal. In 2008, Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group came for Manchester City. Meanwhile Ferguson kept on winning and winning until he retired. Leicester, somehow, won the Premier League in 2016. Suddenly Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp were managing English teams, and then came VAR and empty stadiums and artificial crowd noise – and here we are today.
Arsène and Arsenal hadn’t managed the transition well. Arsenal lost the Champions League final in 2006 and moved from Highbury, the family seat, to the Emirates, a glossy new stadium that still doesn’t feel like home. The bank loan for the new stadium was collateralised against Wenger’s promise to stay in position. He sold his best player every season to pay down the debt. Arsenal remained in the Champions League and won the FA Cup three times, but things were never the same again. Sic transit gloria mundi.
But that’s being a little too kind to Wenger. He failed to adapt to the times. The game changed both on and off the pitch, and Wenger refused to change with it. He wouldn’t acknowledge that money had permanently altered the landscape, entrenching the success of the richest clubs. He believed that football would regulate itself to align with his own interests. On the pitch, Arsenal’s swashbuckling play had been sussed by their opponents. The English press had always been suspicious of Wenger’s fancy-dan Continental football, and the story of Arsenal’s frailty reads like the plot of Henry V, with Arsène as the dauphin at Agincourt. The French (Arsenal) hurl themselves pointlessly at the heroic English defence (Chelsea, Man U, Stoke) and then, once they’re exhausted, the enemy’s archers (in this case, Didier Drogba) pick them off. Mourinho understood this, and humiliated Wenger time after time.
There is, I suppose, something heroic in Wenger’s refusal, in the face of so much opprobrium, to adapt to the new football, but it’s not clear that Wenger is the real victim here. He replaced the glorious monsters of his early days at the club – Vieira, Petit, Sol Campbell, Robert Pirès, Freddie Ljungberg, the otherworldly Thierry Henry – with endless tiny midfielders and not very good defenders. From 2006 until 2015, he actively refused to buy a goalkeeper. He seemed wilfully blind to the massive hole in the midfield that opponents waltzed through at will. In Wenger’s thousandth game in charge, Arsenal lost 6-0 to Chelsea; on another occasion, 8-2 to Manchester United. He signed a player who had a broken back. They lost 5-1 home and away to Bayern Munich in the same season. Arsène, what the fuck?
Things got rough. Fights broke out at the stadium between Wenger Outers and AKBs (Arsène Knows Best). Ex-players appeared on Match of the Day ruminating on Arsenal’s softness. It was widely believed (and regularly demonstrated) that Arsenal could be kicked out of a game. Three Arsenal players had their legs broken by horror tackles, and the press accused Arsenal of whingeing. They seemed to lose 2-1 to a lower-level club every week. Wenger refused to hide, or to blame his players, saying only that ‘they played a little bit with the handbrake on.’ He hinted at some darker truth. At press conferences, he would promise one day to reveal what was really going on, the grand conspiracy preventing him from buying a defensive midfielder. When his autobiography was announced last year, there was great excitement. Questions would be answered. For instance: why on earth did he make William Gallas captain instead of Gilberto Silva? After Thierry Henry left in 2008, Gilberto was the last of the Invincibles, a World Cup winner and a midfield colossus. Gallas was a moody prick who once, as captain, threw an on-pitch temper tantrum, sulking cross-legged in the centre circle and refusing to play on because a penalty had been awarded against his team.
Not only does Wenger go out of his way to praise Gallas (and fails to answer any of the other pressing questions), he makes the book boring. In a recent interview with Amy Lawrence in the Athletic, he said: ‘I could have created many controversial stories which would have interested people but I didn’t want to go into that at all.’ Oh well, merci Arsène. His account of his childhood in Alsace is intriguing. He might have been born in 1849, not 1949: ‘It was a village of farmers, where the horse ruled supreme. There were three blacksmiths.’ He describes how good he was at football, which I hadn’t known or expected – my assessment of Wenger’s athletic ability had been based on how (famously) bad he was at zipping up his coat.
He began as a coach in France and had a fair degree of success, making his way up Ligue 1. At Monaco, he won the title in 1988, and finished runner up to Marseille in 1991 and 1992. In 1993, Marseille won the title for a fifth consecutive season but were found guilty of corruption and bribery. They were stripped of the title and their chairman, Bernard Tapie, went to prison. Wenger was furious. He felt the investigation hadn’t gone far enough, and walked away from French football. When his book finally gets to Arsenal, however, there’s nothing a fan won’t already know. He doesn’t say anything about transfers (did he really turn down the return of Fàbregas?), or tactics (why play Nicklas Bendtner on the wing?), or feuds (Mourinho doesn’t appear anywhere in the book), or supply any gossip at all, really (what does he think about silent Stan Kroenke, the Trump-supporting Walmart-heiress-marrying current owner of the club?). There are bromides about team building and the importance of communication. He turns out to have been a fairly deficient father – football above family – but happily his daughter seems to have forgiven his neglect. The most interesting thing I learned from My Life in Red and White is that four of the seven best English table tennis players are from the same street in Reading. Do table tennis fans already know that?
Perhaps this seems harsh. But Arsenal supporters have given Wenger twenty years of their lives. I don’t just mean me; I mean ‘we’, as in ‘We are the Arsenal.’ The closest I’ve come to knowing how I’ll feel when my father dies was when I thought Wenger would retire after the 2017 FA Cup final win against Chelsea. I was grief-stricken that this was to be Wenger’s last game. But my father and Wenger aren’t the same person, and I try to resist the transference.
Wenger isn’t my father, but ‘we’ are all Wenger’s children. Today’s Arsenal fans were born and grew up under him. A fan who turned forty the year he started at the club had their free bus pass by the time he left. Aren’t we entitled to an explanation for what happened to Arsenal under his watch? In the early Wenger years, a banner appeared at the Clock End of Highbury that read: ‘Arsène Knows.’ That was true for ten years and then it wasn’t. Wenger tried to reassure us, telling fans to ignore the evidence of their own eyes, that the family romance would prevail. Of course it didn’t. Wenger hasn’t been back to ‘the club of his life’, as he calls it, since his final game in charge.
In November, he appeared on Desert Island Discs. After the disappointment of the book, it was a relief to encounter the Wenger I knew and loved: funny and urbane, with quite nerdy taste in music. His one luxury, he said, would be a football. He was asked how he relaxed these days. The famously not-relaxed Wenger replied: ‘I relax by watching other managers suffer and think, “It’s your turn now, my friend.”’