I don’t remember the day that Arsène Wenger was appointed as Arsenal manager. I’d have been 19, still a season ticket holder, but still reeling from the bitter disappointment of Bruce Rioch. We had a few things going for us; a stalwart Captain in David Platt, safe-hands Seaman between the posts, the amazing but disgruntled Ian Wright, the new boy Vieira, and the talented, quiet, respected Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, who looked slightly out of place in our team of bruisers and boozers. Ah, the boozers! What had been the best defence in the country had seemingly had one pint too many, had stopped being quite as reliable as they used to be, and were looking more than a little jaded.
Enter The Professor.
I can’t remember the first time that I realised the impact this elegant Frenchman was making on the side but I do remember the gradual realisation that we were getting…well…a bit more serious about things. Not just in his signings (though it was to be many years before I realised he was behind the Vieira signing even though he’d not yet been appointed!) but in the attitudes of the old guard. Players who had been solid under Graham suddenly became skillful too. “He’s using ball control!!!” I exclaimed in shock about ‘Donkey’ Adams on more than one occasion. We’d never really seen that before! Players like Adams, Dixon, Winterburn became sleek and demonstrated more pace and intelligence than I’d ever seen before. Steve Bould and Ray Parlour got a new lease of life. Suddenly Dennis didn’t look so out of place.
And then we became ‘Le Arsenal’. Where do I start? Vieira, Petit, Wiltord, Anelka, Grimandi…eventually Pirès and Clichy…we had the stars of the World Cup, the European Championship winning side, players who would never have dreamt of coming to play for us under Graham or (haha!) Rioch.
And of course Freddie. We can’t forget Freddie! And the controversial signing of Sol Campbell from Spurs…what other manager could have pulled that off?
Something happened to Arsenal when Mr Wenger came along. It was more than just about winning trophies, we’d done that under George. It was a change of style. No, more than that, it was a change of ethos, and we could see it both on and off the pitch. No more tabloid shots of players leaving clubs at 3am. No more Tuesday Club, sorry boys. A change of diet, a change of lifestyle, a change of attitude, and with that he truly brought us the epitome of The Beautiful Game. As Ivan Gazidis said at his press conference today, he made “art out of football”.
And then was Thierry. Of course, Thierry.
I don’t need to reel off the trophies he won with Arsenal. I don’t need to talk about his winning the title in his first full season. I don’t even need to talk about the historic Invincibles. The impact that Mr Wenger has made on my life is more than even all that. I was always proud to be a Gooner, even through the Terry Neill and Don Howe years, but after Mr Wenger took over my head was held just a little higher. Being Arsenal meant more than mere silverware. It was about having the greatest team of players I had ever seen or even imagined. It was about playing week in, week out, the sort of football I had never dreamed would be seen at gritty down-at-heel Highbury. “It’s just like watching Brazil” was a regular song, but that wasn’t true. We were better than Brazil!!!
The move to the Emirates and the lack of league titles since then have of course been disappointing and I’m not naïve to think that our manager has nothing to do with that. But right now that doesn’t matter. What matters is how he changed my club for the better, how he changed football in England for the better, and how he changed my life.
He is Mr Arsenal.