Tuesday 25 July 2017

Tommy Conlon: If King Arsene refuses to abdicate, his subjects will storm the Bastille

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20: Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20: Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)

Tommy Conlon

‘L’État, c’est moi.’ The State, it is me; I am the State. Thus declared Louis XIV, king of France for 72 years, aka the Sun King.

L’Arsenal, c’est moi. The Arsenal, it is me; I am the Arsenal. If Arsene the 1st hasn’t declared it in public, he has given every impression over the last 10 years of believing it in private. The greatest manager in the club’s history has during that time come to dominate the entire institution. He is not the owner or the chairman or the CEO. But Monsieur Wenger has become lord and master of Arsenal FC.

After Wednesday night’s debacle in Munich, the suspicion growing over several seasons that he was past his best seemed to become a consensus. It has swelled to a tipping point, reached the moment of critical mass: the great man’s time is up. But if the manager has to be sacked, he effectively will have to sack himself.

The majority shareholder, the American businessman Stan Kroenke, is by all accounts a remote and non-interventionist proprietor. The 77-year-old chairman, Sir John Chippendale Keswick, presumably lunches well. The CEO is a South African, Ivan Gazidis. In theory the manager should be accountable to the CEO. But when Gazidis was appointed in 2009, it was Wenger himself who signed off on the appointment. He has been dwarfed by the Frenchman’s authority and stature.

The policy seems to be: don’t mess with the talent. In one sense it is an admirable form of corporate governance. Just about every football club is littered with examples of executives who couldn’t stop meddling and intruding upon the man at the coalface, if only for reasons of ego and insecurity. Not even Alex Ferguson was safe from these power games. But at Arsenal it is Wenger who meddles with them. The traditional demarcation boundaries between manager, and CEO and directors, have been dissolved.

Wenger, for example, was front and centre during the great stadium project that took them from the venerable old Highbury to their new palace nearby, the Emirates. And during this period of financial exposure he helped to keep the money rolling in by keeping the team in Europe year after year. He has kept them in Europe for 20 consecutive seasons. And this is before we even mention the double-winning team of ’98, the Invincibles of 2004, or the dazzling style of play he transplanted onto a previously conservative playing culture.

He has been a transformational figure in the club’s history. So when the stream of trophies started to dry up, he had bullion-loads of goodwill in reserve. But clearly he has been drawing on it heavily in the last decade and depositing far less in return.

Since the 5-1 thrashing midweek, the vault has been almost completely cleaned. In terms of the bigger picture, most Arsenal supporters appreciate that he has been central to securing the club’s long-term future at the elite end of the game. If he decides to abdicate, their anger will switch to affection; they will shower him with sentimental gratitude for all he has given them. If he decides to hang on, they will storm the Bastille.

“Let them eat cake,” declared Marie Antoinette, allegedly, when told that the hoi polloi were starving for bread. But cake is exactly what the rackety faithful are demanding. For years now they’ve wanted Wenger to concentrate on the smaller picture. They want a championship title and a European Cup too, ideally some time before they all die. They’ve had enough of the bread that is the perennial top-four finish in England and anti-climax in the Champions League.

But they are still merely supporters, commoners, Les Miserables, the sweating sans-culottes of the North Bank and Clock End. They are not the power-brokers. Wenger is his own power-broker. If he decides to stay, Kroenke & Co inside the palace will again acquiesce. This is probably one reason why the manager has lost his edge: the lack of pressure from the boardroom to bring home trophies. It is a very comfortable arrangement.

By Friday morning, at his press conference, Wenger had recovered his familiar equilibrium in the face of hostile fire. This has become part of the ritual too: his anguished face and agitated body language as his team collapses on the pitch, followed a day or two later by his philosophical demeanour at the subsequent inquisition. On Friday he was once again the courteous, articulate statesman that everyone has come to admire.

He didn’t give much away about his future plans, save to reiterate that he would reveal them in March or April. Therefore we could know in two weeks or six weeks’ time. Asked if the beating in Munich had finally persuaded him that he’d had enough of the stress, his replay was emphatic. “No. No matter what happens I will manage next season, (be it) here or somewhere else. That’s absolutely for sure.”

At the age of 67, he remains addicted to the match-day fix. It might even run deeper than his love for the Arsenal. But you wouldn’t bet money on it. “I work here for 20 years,” he added, “I care about this club and I care about its future.” Maybe he also privately believes that if he were to leave, the whole thing would fall part. As another French king named Louis, this time the 15th, also famously declared: “Après moi, le deluge.”

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