Sunday 25 February 2018

James Lawton: Wenger facing dilemma of knowing the right time to go

Arsene Wenger. Photo: GETTY
Arsene Wenger. Photo: GETTY
James Lawton

James Lawton

It may not be the first time we have seen a once superb football man stripped bare in the public gaze but not one for so long and in such evident pain as Arsene Wenger.

Back in 2004, when his Invincibles won the Premier League and brought a new definition of beauty to English football, and then two years later at the Stade de France when Barcelona were played so near to defeat in the Champions League final, he seemed like one of the least likely time-servers the game would ever see.

If football wasn't a thrilling, beautiful adventure it was nothing. He was urbane, erudite and he brought a new dimension to his trade. Now he hangs on to his job as if it is a piece of flotsam in a turbulent sea. It's as though there is no life beyond football's capacity to inflict one new misery on top of another.

Brian Clough, who won two European Cups for Nottingham Forest, drifted off into the half world of alcoholism. Bill Shankly, founder of the Liverpool tradition became a restless, lonely old man caught peering longingly over the walls of his old training ground. They presented forlorn pictures of what can happen when the greatest of careers run dry.

Terror

They did, however, call time on themselves when they grasped that the good days were over. Perhaps it is the terror of such emptiness that keeps Wenger tied to his ordeal at Arsenal. At least that makes some kind of sense in human terms. In those of football, though, it has surely come to the point where Wenger resembles no-one more than a man in need of protection from himself and his own played-out dreams.

Brian Clough, like many of the great managers, didn’t manage to get out at the top – a matter of timing that may already be beyond Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Photo: GETTY
Brian Clough, like many of the great managers, didn’t manage to get out at the top – a matter of timing that may already be beyond Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Photo: GETTY

They had never been more ravaged than at the Emirates Stadium last week when Bayern Munich completed their serene passage into the quarter finals of the Champions League on an aggregate of 10-2.

If Wenger had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the manager of Arsenal he would surely have walked away at the final whistle. It wasn't, after all a dip in the market. It was a failure of the currency.

In the aftermath he complained about the referee, inevitably, said that at certain periods of the game his players had performed well, and that of course he understood the chagrin of the fans. But of course he didn't, not in the long recurring weight of it, and he hasn't ever since he started serving them a diet of pretty but ultimately unsatisfying football. Arsenal fans pay top prices in the belief that they support one of the leading teams in England and Europe and that they are investing in something more than an astutely run business organisation.

Two days after the slaughter by Bayern, however, there were the first formal signs that both Wenger and the club might just be on the point of accepting that there had been a breakdown. With reports of dressing rooms wars and rebellions, and with such major figures as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to the fore, some kind of public accountancy was plainly essential.

What was produced, however, was something less than bracing candour. Both club chairman Chips Keswick and Wenger acknowledged the fans as though they were granting a concession rather than a right.

Keswick said: "We are fully aware of the focus currently on the club and understand the debate. We respect that fans are entitled to their different individual opinions but we will always run this great football club with its best long-term interests at heart. Arsene has a contract until the end of the season. Any decision will be made by us mutually and communicated at the right time in the right way."

Translation: Arsenal will continue to conduct its affairs according to standards appropriate in an extremely profitable business and such relatively unimportant matters as 10-2 aggregate defeats in the foothills of the Champions League will be dealt with at a later date, if at all.

Wenger admitted that the opinions of the fans would be of some influence on his eventual decision. But it would not be the most important factor. "But you consider it, of course," he added. "I've worked for 20 years to make our fans happy and when we lose I know they are not."

So it goes at Arsenal. Wenger, at 67, has taken on the defiance of a man who refuses to believe that his time has come.

Shankly knew that something had gone from his work, his successor Bob Paisley would take the next great leap forward. Shankly would say that he had made his decision too early but the reality was that for the club he had lifted so brilliantly the timing was just right. Not for Shankly because his separation from so much that he had adored was a hard but largely unbroken cruelty.

Agonised

Maybe the ultimate model here, though Wenger would never thank you for saying it, is Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United legend agonised over his point of departure, and withdrew one made early and rashly, but when he left he had won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues - and had the suspicion that he had reached the limit of his powers.

His parting gift was that last title. What will be Wenger's legacy?

The best one will be that he created standards, established a style and for the best part of a decade produced a level of football that was a lifetime gift for anyone who saw it.

The sadness is maybe as much about life as one brilliant but deeply flawed career. It is to do with the age-old dilemma of knowing the right time to go.

Irish Independent

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