After Arsenal’s first home game of the 1996 season, a dull, routine 2-0 win over West Ham, I went to a pub a few minutes’ walk from Highbury with a group of fellow season-ticket holders. It was a hot day, and we were thirsty, and there was a lot to talk about.
Arsenal had started the season manager-less: Bruce Rioch had been sacked during the summer, suddenly and strangely, after a single season. Arsenal is not a club that changes managers often. At that point, I’d been watching Arsenal for over a quarter of a century and had only known five, four of whom had been employed by the club in some other capacity before taking the job. (Rioch was the exception.)
There was a lot of newspaper talk — the only kind of talk, back then — about other outsiders replacing Rioch, notably Terry Venables and Johan Cruyff. Arsenal fans would have been delighted with either. But a third name was being mentioned, too, the French manager of Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight, Arsene Wenger. His was the least glamorous name on the list, and because Arsenal consistently took the least glamorous option, my pub friends and I feared that he’d be the one appointed.
A couple of days before that West Ham game, two suspiciously French players arrived at the club. We wanted glamorous signings, as well as a glamorous manager. We got Remi Garde and a teenager called Patrick Vieira instead. It seemed as though the Frenchman was on his way, slowly, from Japan.
Just as we were about to leave the Compton Arms, the then Arsenal striker Ian Wright walked in with two or three squad players. He seemed inexplicably surprised to see a group of Arsenal fans in a pub on Highbury Corner less than an hour after the final whistle of a home game — he’d come out for a quiet drink. But he chatted to us anyway.
No, the players didn’t yet know who was going to take over (Wright had fallen out with Rioch and had put in a transfer request earlier in the year, so he was happy); yes, he’d met the new players. “The kid, Vieira … He’s big,” Wright said. When we saw Vieira play for the first time the following month, it was hard not to hear in Wright’s observation an echo of that great line from Jaws: “You’re gonna to need a bigger boat.” Vieira came on as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday, turned the game around and changed the entire scale of the game Arsenal played. Arsenal’s game got faster — Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars were leading the attack the following season — the players got fitter, and a new brand was born.
Before Wenger, Arsenal football was an offside trap and a 1-0 win; after Wenger, it became the opposite, in both great, and, later, not-so-great ways. (Four-four draws, 6-5 wins … some of Arsenal’s scores in the last few years seem to have been borrowed from a different sport altogether.)
He banned Mars bars from the training ground, and broccoli appeared on the menu. August 1996 may have been the last time that an Arsenal player could have been found in a Highbury pub straight after the game. Eighteen months after his appointment, he won his first Double.
Wenger’s time in charge at Arsenal can be divided into three distinct phases. Phase 1, the Highbury years, lasted a decade, and was an overwhelming success: three Championships, four FA Cups, three other finals (including a long-overdue appearance for the club in a Champions League final), and five runners-up places in the Premier League. The only frustration is that between 2002 and 2004, the team should have won more. Any conversation about the Invincibles season, 38 league games unbeaten, quickly turns to the night in April 2004 when Chelsea came to Highbury and put Arsenal, surely the best team in Europe at the time, out of the Champions League and a semifinal against Monaco.
Phase 1 was so good that it changed Arsenal fans’ relationship with the club, and possibly even with football, forever. Two years before Wenger’s arrival, a very limited team won a European trophy through sheer willpower, denying a Parma team containing Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Thomas Brolin by getting in their way; the fans that night in Copenhagen were fervent, participatory. Now the football was effortlessly enthralling, the victories comfortable, especially at home. We sat back and waited for Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp to do their stuff, and the stuff they did was extraordinary. It wasn’t like going to a game at all; it was like watching Cirque du Soleil, all dazzle and tricks. No participation was needed.
Phase 2 grew out of the success of Phase 1. It had been easy to buy a season ticket before Wenger’s arrival. You just turned up to the box office a few days before the season started and handed over your money. Highbury was rarely full, even with the post-Hillsborough reduced capacity. Now it was nowhere near big enough, and the club set about building a brand-new stadium a few hundred yards from the old one. The only problem was that in order to build a new stadium, the club had to sell everyone who had drawn crowds to the old one. Such was the myth of Wenger, though, that he sold the new one out too. We’d never heard of Vieira or Emmanuel Petit or Fredrik Ljungberg or Cesc Fabregas before Wenger paid very little for them; so what if we’d never heard of Eduardo or Lukasz Fabianski or Alex Song? They were bound to be brilliant.
Wenger’s response to straitened financial circumstances was a bold one: He set about acquiring the best young players in the world. He would nurture them, and they would grow together, and they would become world-beaters. What he was to discover, however, was that the best 16-year-olds in the world do not always become the best 21-year-olds in the world. Cesc Fabregas did, of course. But Theo Walcott is still a mystery, Nicklas Bendtner seemed more interested in sponsored underwear and nights out than football, Philippe Senderos was a nervous breakdown waiting to happen, and Denilson, the captain of Brazil’s youth team, stayed his 16-year-old self. Jack Wilshere’s career, like Abou Diaby’s, has been wrecked by injury. Robin van Persie and Fabregas got tired of waiting for reinforcements and left. And Wenger had new problems to face, notably Chelsea’s new owner Roman Abramovich and, later, Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour. Only Manchester United, the most valuable club in the UK, could compete financially with them.
Meanwhile, the expectation of Arsenal fans had increased enormously — not just because we had become used to watching Henry and Bergkamp, but because we were paying more than any fans in the world to watch our club. Until the 1990s, admission prices were never an issue. Football was cheap, and though your team might make you angry and miserable, you couldn’t really claim that they were ripping you off. God bless Manuel Almunia, but he didn’t offer value for money; season after season, the keeper seemed to confirm the impression that we were paying for the future rather than the present.
A football club isn’t the National Health Service, however, something fans are prepared to invest in for the sake of our children. We want results, and entertainment, now. In August 2011, a woeful performance by a grotesquely inexperienced team resulted in an 8-2 loss at Old Trafford. Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou and Armand Traore were playing in the back four. It wasn’t just the scale of the defeat that caused such misery; every single Arsenal fan knew before the game that the team would lose by at least five goals.
Phase 3 began when Wenger paid a reported £42.4m for Mesut Ozil in 2013. Alexis Sanchez came the following season. Suddenly, it appeared as though we had seen the last of Austerity Arsenal, and consequently it is this third phase, a failure despite two FA Cups, that has provoked the fans the most. There have been other thrashings, at Liverpool and City and Chelsea, and every season Arsenal has lost the first knockout round of the Champions League, thus saving fans from even worse defeats in the next round.
If there is money, why not spend some of it on a central defence? Or a holding midfielder? Or a new striker? Why the obsession with small, skillful midfield players who get repeatedly beaten up by any team with muscle, whether that team is Stoke City or Bayern Munich? The careful management of Phase 2 was beginning to look like eccentricity, and the time it took Wenger to address obvious weaknesses — a new goalkeeper one year, a central defender the next — suggested a manager who knew that the job was his until he decided otherwise.
This looks as though it might be Wenger’s last season. He has bought a new striker, a couple of central defenders, and some height and power in midfield. It would be wonderful if this extraordinary, brilliant, frustrating, intelligent, likeable, perverse man left with a major trophy. It’s hard to imagine, though, despite Leicester’s miracle season, that the Premier League will be anything but a dustup between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, and it’s even harder to see this Arsenal team beating Bayern or Real Madrid or Barcelona over two legs.
I have now been watching Arsenal for nearly half a century, and I’ve only seen six managers. (By comparison, Spurs have had 19 over the same period.) Arsene Wenger was — still is, I should say, while I’m still alive and he’s still there — the best of my lifetime, no doubt about it. And the memory of that fantastic first decade, of the players, the trophies, and the football, is so intense that Phases 2 and 3 will soon be forgotten after he has gone. It is a backhanded tribute to the man, but a tribute nonetheless, that 10 years of failure will be forgiven so quickly.