Thursday 16 August 2018

Brian Kerr: Pain of parting will cut Wenger to core

Departing Arsenal manager hoping for new challenge, but if phone doesn’t ring will he be able to move on without only life he knows?

Arsenal has been front and centre of Arsene Wenger’s life for 22 years. Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images
Arsenal has been front and centre of Arsene Wenger’s life for 22 years. Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Sometimes it is hard letting go. In real life or in football. And when football is your only life, it can be even tougher.

The biggest problem for Arsene Wenger in weeks to come may be in trying to discover whether there is any difference between his football life and his real one.

Already, it appears he is battling with a sense of estrangement as he prepares for the difficulty in adjusting to the possibilities of what may lie ahead.

Even in the last few days, the manner of his departure has reflected that struggle.

When it seemed for all the world as if he and Arsenal had calmly negotiated a blissful parting of the ways, we have now learned from him that the separation may have been less cordial than what was initially portrayed.

It is almost as if he is trying to keep clinging on to the remotest possibility that he could, as he had done for so long, keep clinging on.

Arsene Wenger. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

It is too late for that now. The end always comes; some are privileged to choose when it happens. So many are not.

Wenger seems certain, as do so many others, that there will be will another job waiting around the bend.

Given his stature within the game, one would assume this to be the case. But what if the phone doesn't ring?

Silence

That's the first thing that hits you. The phone stops ringing. After spending hours of your life with it either glued to your ear or hoping the bloody thing would stay quiet for ten minutes at least, suddenly there is a deafening silence.

You keep checking to make sure it's still on, in case somebody has been trying to get you. But no, nothing.

Until October 18, 2005, when the FAI decided not to renew my contract as Ireland manager, I'd been coaching teams in some shape or form since 1968.

There was always a match to prepare for. And always a reason to go to another match. Training sessions. Meetings. Phone calls. Always on the move. Even when sitting still. And then, suddenly, nothing.

You feel unfulfilled. In my head, I'd been thinking, 'Right, if we get a break or two in the qualifiers, we can get to the World Cup in Germany, prepare well and go on and win it! Maybe'

That's the way my mind worked. Unrealistic to some. But that's why you do the job.

I remember getting up the next morning. What do I do today? No matches. No training. No calls. No focus. It was really strange and difficult.

Luckily, I was able to re-integrate into a normal life. Go on holiday. Be among family and friends. Go to a few gigs.

It's not a unique feeling. People in all walks of life will be there some day. Some look forward to it. I didn't.

Even going to a match for the first time felt surreal. No purpose, no need to analyse.

You crave the tension of a match. You don't miss the nonsense around it.

But you do miss living or dying on the result, that sense you are a tiny bit responsible for the win. Or the defeat. No more development of players. Exchanging ideas with staff.

When managers I know in our league get sacked, I like to give them a call because I know it's the toughest time for them too. Any calls I received were much appreciated.

In football, time management is almost impossible. Devotion to the task excludes so much. Weddings. Funerals. Birthdays. All you really concentrate on is the next three points.

Once there was a family Confirmation where the afters took place at a youths international that afternoon in Dalymount. "Well, we got a good crowd, didn't we!"

Pat's winning the league in 1996, the crowd invading the pitch in Dundalk and my girls running over to hug me.

"Now you understand why I wasn't around as much as I wanted to be in the last ten years."

Time for an apology in the simmering madness.

I was conscious of not being the world's best father because of the obsession. A lot of lifts on Saturday mornings had to go abegging.

It shouldn't be like that. Some can achieve the perfect equilibrium.

Leaving Pat's was much more emotional for me, even though there was another job immediately available with the FAI.

This was a club I had supported since childhood and who then supported someone in management despite never having played a game in the league.

The job was supposed to be part-time, but it was full-time in reality. At that time, being a manager meant so much more than merely playing two matches a week.

So when the time came to cede control, there was a sense of insecurity about what would happen next, an anxiety that the good work of the club, so much of which you felt responsible for, could continue.

Sadness

With Wenger, there has almost been a sense of sadness in him staying on for so long. He has spoken of his time in Japan as a period where he immersed himself in a monastic environment. "I had the impression of passing a couple of years in a convent."

It seems like he has never re-emerged from that detached state. Alex Ferguson has his horses, many others retreat to the golf course or punditry.

But it is hard to recall Wenger, aside from his occasional summer sorties to the TV studio for major championships, immersing himself in anything other than Arsenal matters.

Rarely is he seen elsewhere watching potential signings or scouting opposition.

He has a reputation of being worldly-wise but he gives the impression that he has had nothing else in his life for 22 years. Even on holiday, your time is not your own.

There are always worries, concerns and phone calls about seemingly urgent matters that nobody else can deal with.

Even Pep Guardiola had to take a sabbatical to clear his busy head.

For someone whose football was anything but insular, Wenger himself was withdrawn. Compared to, say, Gerard Houllier, a cosmopolitan and convivial figure, but no less committed, Wenger always seemed aloof to me, even unapproachable.

For all the gushing professional tributes, few have been deeply personal, testimonies derived from the distance he maintained from the rather quaint ritual whereby managers meet for a drink after matches.

This is the one time in a week when managers can meet and, even if only for half an hour, rail against all those who are making their life a misery. Players Owners. Journalists. Agents. Supporters.

Wenger never indulged in this practice. Perhaps he felt above it.

There has been much talk of how he revolutionised the English game but this may be slightly over-stating his influence; it is the competition and challenges within the game which prompt inventive thinking and revolution.

Once the authors of '1-0 to the Arsenal' and 'Hands up for offside' to the purveyors of some of the finest football witnessed in recent times, Wenger re-wrote the image of Arsenal.

But, much like Ferguson's United, they never dominated Europe as the great Liverpool sides did before them.

Yes, making it to the Champions League for 20 successive seasons was some achievement but the failure to win any European trophy blots his record and excludes him from that pantheon of great coaches.

Thursday's result means that is more unlikely to change.

England already housed foreign influence and changing attitudes to diet; Arsenal needed them more than most.

His commitment to re-fuelling - in a slightly different manner to which Tony Adams and Paul Merson might have understood the term - radically changed the club but it is over-egging it to say in itself it transformed the face of English football.

But he was certainly a revolutionary figure at Arsenal.

The development of players - Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and many more - produced beautiful teams and, initially, successful ones too. They should have won more than they did.

Much of that ability to engineer similar sides has been lost in the last decade, whether it was his inability to source a reliable goalkeeper, competent centre-backs or a top-class holding midfielder. And he struggled to introduce change to his coaching staff, unlike Ferguson who was always willing to bring in new faces and allow them take responsibility on the training field.

Wenger never missed a session. At times he projected an air of infallibility as the years went by.

Everyone else was fallible - referees, linesmen, players, pitches, supporters and even the approach of opposing managers.

Yet the once acute eye that seemed to identify penalties that never existed gradually blinded him to his own failings.

For so long, it seemed as if he was untouchable, utterly controlling of all decision-making in terms of staff appointments and player recruitment.

He minded the club's money as if it was very precious and scarce, presuming it to be his ultimate responsibility, rather than what the supporters would view a more precious priority, being competitive and winning major trophies.

Indeed, viewing the proud perennial status as a 'top four' side became a trophy in his eyes and eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, a doomed one.

Having hung on against the increasing tide of opinion and criticism he has faced for years, he has managed to remain defiant until now, when perhaps even he may have, deep down, have finally recognised that this was the end of an era.

The Wenger era.

The game he helped change dramatically has continued to change and it has moved on, and will continue to do so, without him.

As first Chelsea and then Manchester City have confirmed, it is simply impossible for one man and his ideas - and ideals - to compete with a global billion-dollar operation.

Even Ferguson had an Irishman, Jim Lawlor, scouting in South America over ten years ago.

The resistance to change was corrosive. Did Pat Rice or Steve Bould, his loyal waxwork lieutenants, ever challenge him? The worst management is that which always receives confirmation that what you are doing is always the right thing.

Conflict is necessary but having been so successful, a sense of arrogance and a feeling of invincibility crept in and it seemed as if he was ignorant of any advice until that fateful meeting with the owners last week.

Conviction and confidence are admirable qualities but can be dangerous too if one fails to see obvious deficiencies and fails further to hear respected positions from close confidantes.

Some of Arsenal's failings have been noticed by everyone but ignored by Wenger.

Now it will be somebody else's job to address them.

We await Wenger's next move with interest. Hardly a man you will be likely to see in a top hat and tails at Royal Ascot or catching a Glastonbury gig, the football world will move on without him.

But if the phone doesn't ring, will he be able to move on without the only life he knows?

Irish Independent

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