My journey as an Arsenal fan began way back in 1994, when my uncle implored me to watch the European Cup Winners Cup final. He said “This is the team you want to support, this is the team that will make you smile and cry in equal measure, this is the team for you.” I heeded the advice to at least watch the cup final and we ran out 1-0 winners with Alan Smith getting the goal. My memory of the game was always that we fully deserved to win and the euphoric celebration of the goal had me a little rose tinted shall we say. Having looked back at that game a number of times I can concede that this was a backs to the wall job and a thoroughly hard worked victory if I’m being kind. Parma battered our goal and we were lucky to survive the onslaught. George Graham, in a nutshell, was epitomised by that very performance. The earlier part of the Graham reign was awash with creativity, however the team I was introduced to was a steal-like one that was adamant they wouldn’t concede goals or lose. I was none the wiser being at the tender age of 8 years old. Graham left on unsavoury terms considering what he had done for the club, to be replaced by Stewart Houston for a year, followed infamous Bruce Rioch. It was strange, I almost believed that managerial rotation was just what happened in football and then a tall, awkward looking gentleman from Japan was brought over to manage The Arsenal. The Arsene Wenger era had begun.
October 1st 1996 was the day that he was unveiled to us all. By this time I was well and truly indoctrinated into The Arsenal way, and the barren years of league titles from 1991 – 1997 alongside some mid table finishes were over in one fell swoop. Wenger, although having missed the first six weeks (or so) of his first season guided us to a 3rd place finish. The signs were promising. In his first full season he led us to a Premier League and FA Cup double, the man was a hero. Revolutionising the way football was played in England alongside managing huge personalities into bettering their lifestyles went a long way into building the incredible foundation to his legacy. He mesmerised the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour (amongst many others) with his methods and definitely extended their careers through lifestyle choices he recommended. Not only that he mixed in his foreign recruits into a team to create a physical, total football prowess for Arsenal. Sir Alex Ferguson was cheesed off with Arsene Wenger from day one and showed that Wenger was getting to him in this rant. This was at the back-end of Wengers’ first season and through it was a clear admission of “this guy could beat me”. He was worried, and so began one of the greatest football rivalries the world has seen. Not only two great clubs but two great minds going toe to toe for many years to come.
I’ve always thought that Arsene Wengers’ greatest strength has always been to follow his gut instinct. It has not only served him well in the smaller decision making moments over his 20 years with Arsenal but also helped in him producing his brand of football and enabling even the most average footballer learn his ways and become a cog in a bigger better machine. A machine greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been one of Wengers’ biggest strengths and still exists today. Think of the likes of Gilles Grimandi, Remi Garde, Stephen Hughes, Luis Boa Morte and Christopher Wreh playing fairly significant parts in winning us the double in 1997/98. Granted there were the regulars that made up the majority of the team, the majority of the time but this is the point. Wenger was able to eke out performances and find usefulness from squad players. He even gave a platform for the mercurial Nicolas Anelka to have an impact on the team and score some massive goals for us. The trick was repeated again in the 2001/02 and then came his finest moment as Arsenal manager, The Invincibles.
2003/04 brought about one of the all time greatest footballing achievements seen in the game to date. In 2003 Wenger said that one of his greatest dreams was to go the entire league season unbeaten and that it was indeed possible. He was laughed at and ridiculed. There was even a t-shirt made to mock the statement by Man Utd fans and thank the sweet Lord they made it. Parading it around after the Leicester game was just magnificent to see. Not only winning the league and getting one up on your biggest foe. Not only going an entire season unbeaten to be unmatched by said foe. But to actually manage to laugh at an entire fan base through it makes it all the more satisfying. The first troll of football, Mr. Arsene Wenger. How many of us set out with a dream at some point on life? We have a few that come across us at certain junctures in life and this man went out and tasted his dream. He knows what it feels like to get exactly what you wish for. Not something that is 99.9% there, this man knew what it felt like to achieve 100% of what he aimed for. The season brought about some of the most scintillating football we have ever seen and through it the Wenger brand was well and truly recognised the world over. His services were already being courted by the best of the best with the likes of Real Madrid constantly knocking at the door. The football was spectacular and through it he’d even inspired some of the others to want to play in that way. Consider that this was in conjunction with Roman Abramovich’s first year in charge at Chelsea. He ploughed millions into the club and we were not only competing with the financial power of Man Utd but also the endless riches at Chelsea. To win the Premier League was an achievement in itself but to go the season unbeaten in these circumstances meant so much more. We all know about why/how/what he has done over the last 20 years so I’ll leave the good times there for now.
A factor I feel is hugely important when watching football is the way that these behemoth personalities behave on TV. They are role models to millions, whether they like it or not, and the way they conduct themselves is a big part of why football can be important to so many people. Arsene Wenger has always conducted himself with the utmost integrity throughout his tenure at Arsenal. He’s had the occasional wobble, however when given the opportunity to speak he always defends his players, he always takes responsibility and he always always, always, always maintains his integrity when quizzed on what others say about him, be it his peers or even the fans. Taking a look across his time in the Premier League and the managers he’s gone toe to toe with there are only a handful that I could say have maintained their integrity throughout their success and the ones that come to mind are Bobby Robson and Claudio Ranieri. They are the only ones I can recall who haven’t gone to the gutter when trying to win a mind war. I even remember that after Chelsea beat us in the Champions League quarter finals in 03/04 Ranieri said that “We want to just be like Arsenal”. Not “We deserved to win” or “It’s about time we had some luck”, just humility. That’s one of the things that Wenger has always had. Yes he gets tetchy and has a bad day but we all do – he’s never gouged an eye, claimed to want to punch a fellow professional in the face or belittled a peers’ football knowledge. In fact he never speaks much at all about others, he is always focused on his team, his players, his club.
My only real encounter with the great man himself came only a few weeks ago. I attended the Arsenal Legends v Milan Legends game longing to try and meet my footballing hero Dennis Bergkamp, only to find out days before that he had pulled out of the game. I almost didn’t go to the game, I almost stayed at home and watched it on TV. My dad convinced me it would still be fun so I went along. The game finished and I still had my sharpie in my pocket in case Bobby Pires fancied signing my retro 1971 yellow FA Cup shirt. It wasn’t to be. Though there was a gathering of fans around the tunnel after the game itself and I thought to myself, there must be something over that way, it must be Pires! I along with my cousins who were with me clambered over to that side of the Emirates and saw that Arsene Wenger was posing for pictures and signing autographs. I leapt to the front row and called out his name to sign my shirt. The Arsenal media men were trying to usher him away and said “that’s enough guys” however Arsene didn’t cave. I’m not ashamed to say that as he came by, I in a blind panic, yelled “Arsene, please!?”. To which he looked up, put his hand on my right shoulder and signed my 1971 shirt. I said “Thank you Arsene” to which he looked me dead in the eye and replied “It’s ok”. One of my greatest ever moments as a fan and a moment in time that epitomises the great Arsene Wenger. He has always cared about every inch of this great football club and that includes that fans. He deeply deeply cares for Arsenal football club. He, as we well know, could well have managed Real Madrid, PSG, France, England, Barcelona, Man City, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan amongst many, many others. Yet he’s chosen to remain with Arsenal. He’s chosen to remain with the ones he loves. He’s chosen to fight for what he believes in alongside the people he believes in. It’s home. It’s hard. It’s love. In a world where money talks louder than anything else and where loyalty is rife we truly have the last man that believes in the tradition of a project and going 100% in to see that project through. The only other man that comes close to him in my eyes, and this is in terms of his want for longevity, is Jurgen Klopp. Carlo Ancelotti has even said that there will be no one that can replicate what the likes of Ferguson and Wenger have done. Even if they want to they won’t be allowed to do so. I’m lucky enough to have seen us win 3 League titles, 6 FA Cups and 6 Community Shields. Doubly lucky to have been at Wembley to have seen us lift 2 of those FA Cups and 2 of those Community Shields.
So on that note I’d like to say thank you to Arsene Wenger;
Thank you for my first ever Premier League title.
Thank you for my first ever FA Cup.
Thank you for the Invincibles.
Thank you for 49.
Thank you for Thierry Henry.
Thank you for Robert Pires.
Thank you for Wengerball.
Thank you for it’s Adams put through by Steve Bould, WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT.
Thank you for Wiltoooooooord.
Thank you for St. Totteringham’s Day.
Thank you for the Emirates.
Thank you for Mesut Ozil.
Thank you for Alexis Sanchez.
Thank you for the 2014 FA Cup.
Thank you for the 2015 FA Cup.
Thank you Arsene, Thank you.