Friday 16 November 2018

‘I didn’t want to walk out in middle of it’

Wenger delighted he stayed at Arsenal for long haul and saw out roller-coaster ride at helm

Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Arsene Wenger has one final task when he returns next Thursday to collect his belongings from the London Colney training ground that he designed and then presided over for two decades.

"I have 20,000 trees out there and I saw every one like that (pointing to the ground)," he said.

"They are now massive. I will greet every one of them before I leave and say 'thank you'."

Three years was what Wenger thought would be the absolute best-case scenario for him at Arsenal when he arrived in 1996. That would not even have taken him into this millennium.

But after a tenure spanning five prime ministers - he arrived for the last few months of John Major's incumbency - the moment of departure has arrived.

Home, he now says, is England, even if his local geography still leaves something to be desired.

"I lived here for 22 years, my daughter has spent her whole life here and she is going to university here," he says. "I feel at home. I like London.

Journey

"It's not far but I honestly don't know how you get to the centre. My journey was Totteridge to London Colney."

The only other route he has perfected is down to Highbury and the adjacent Emirates Stadium and, as he reminisced this week for one last time, the depth of feeling for that all-conquering first home was obvious.

"Highbury had a special spirit," he said. "It's a cathedral, a church. You could smell the soul of every guy that played there.

"The Emirates was like buying a new house. It took us a while to feel at home. It's a fantastic stadium - Highbury was something that you could never recreate."

Something else that he was perhaps never able to replace was the input of David Dein, the former vice-chairman.

Dein left following a fall-out with other members of the board in 2007 and there was always a theory that Wenger was never quite the same.

He certainly stopped winning as much and he does now view his Arsenal tenure in two periods that are separated by the stadium move.

"Ideally, I would have loved to continue working with him," said Wenger, who had signed a long-term contract until 2011 that certain banks had insisted upon in order to fund construction of the Emirates Stadium.

These were potentially the prime years of Wenger's life and jobs at just about every elite club in the world had been on offer.

"I signed for five years accepting it will be more limited resources and, when you have that, you have less good players," he said.

"I didn't want to walk out in the middle because I accepted the challenge. That is an important part of my life and I am very proud of it.

"We had to do it. There is no club that can turn down people who wanted to attend the game.

"At the time, I thought we were a bit too ambitious with 60,000, but it worked."

So will he ever feel regret at not leaving sooner? "Maybe - I don't know how I will respond," he said. "The only thing I can say is that I turned everybody down. All the big clubs."

Dein, himself, had reservations about building the Emirates and, while Wenger's stated ambition was to put Arsenal alongside the absolute financial super-powers in European football, he now acknowledges that changes in the wider landscape made that impossible.

"It's not really happened because other clubs have used outside resources," he said.

"We had to pay back the debt and had to face the competition where clubs have even more resources than they usually have."

Tottenham, according to Wenger, do now at least have the safety net of a soaring transfer market to potentially absorb their costs on a stadium that is likely to cost more than double the £390m Emirates.

"The prices for the stadiums have doubled but the transfers of players have tripled or quadrupled," said Wenger.

"A £10m player when we built the stadium was huge. Today, a guy like Harry Kane? I don't know for how much they can sell him for - £100m? So they might get more supply."

And so might Spurs have to sell players? "To Arsenal maybe," said Wenger, smiling.

The departing Arsenal manager is naturally convinced that the foundations are in place for his successor and, despite ending on his worst league position of sixth, his faith in the players is absolute.

Special

"It's all there," said Wenger. "There's something waiting to come out of this team that is special. We conceded too many goals. It's quite simple to look at what needs to be improved."

As for Wenger himself, he says that his first job will be to "reconnect" with his own emotions and truly identify what he now wants.

"I'm very passionate and, at a very young age, I realised that if I wanted to survive in this job, I had to get control of my emotions, control the animal that is inside," he said.

"The fact that I managed to keep control of my emotions and my reactions helped me a lot.

"After I finish, I can reconnect and be a bit more with who I am really. I had a personal fight my whole life to be as good as I can be and I will continue to do that."

In terms of the next man, Wenger's only advice is respect for what he calls "the values" of Arsenal, namely good football, giving young people their chance and behaving with a certain integrity.

"I get many messages from players and it was not always about the trophies we won," he said.

"It is more the human aspect that the players keep and the values of the club.

People respect somewhere that I tried to play football in the right way and I tried to give pleasure. I think football has a responsibility to try to give people a special moment.

"You do not always manage it but at least you have to give them the hope they can see something special and be transported somewhere that they do not always experience."

Wenger admitted that a part of him would have preferred to wait until the end of the season before making a final decision, but also acknowledges that it had reached a stage whereby, "you have somewhere to open your eyes and ears".

He has been genuinely surprised by the affection he has received but also knows that he is now facing one of the biggest challenges of his life.

"It is not easy to say goodbye," he said. "I have some work to do in France on Monday and Tuesday. After, I will come back and clear my office. That will be it.

"It's a bit strange and sad. But if you look at it in an objective way, when you have the privilege to manage a club of this stature for 22 years, you should be very happy and say simply, 'Thank you very much'. It was a great privilege."

Meanwhile, Arsenal have suspended two of their most prominent academy coaches, Steve Gatting and Carl Laraman, after allegations of bullying.

Gatting, who is the U-23 head coach, and his assistant Laraman are the focus for an internal investigation that began after a series of complaints were made by some players. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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