Thursday 19 September 2019

Paul Kimmage: How much is enough for weary Wenger?

‘It was shocking to hear Arsene Wenger joke about killing himself when a late strike from Davide Zappacosta almost went in’. Photo: John Walton/PA
‘It was shocking to hear Arsene Wenger joke about killing himself when a late strike from Davide Zappacosta almost went in’. Photo: John Walton/PA
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Wenger breezed into Arsenal, the most English of football clubs in 1996, as a relative unknown but soon established himself as a genius, a football revolutionary. The beautiful style of his teams, combined with his charm and unexpected wit, was destined to make him one of the Premier League's all-time greats and the most successful manager in Arsenal's long and illustrious history

John Cross 'Arsene Wenger: The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger'

Okay, so I've never been confused with the late Barry Norman but it is still something of a mystery to me that Carlito's Way - the great Brian De Palma crime movie of 1993 - did not win an Oscar, or at least a Golden Globe. There have, I concede, been a couple of better films - The Shawshank Redemption, Sideways, The Godfather - but what it has over most is an achingly brilliant ending and the answer to that great question: How much is enough?

For Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), a good-hearted Puerto Rican who does time and is determined to go straight, it's $75k. That's how much he figures he needs to reach his idea of paradise: a warm terrace in the Caribbean; his love, Gail, dancing on the beach; a huge orange sun setting on the sea, and soft lapping waves that bring only contentment.

The ache is that he almost makes it.

I've thought about Carlito a lot this week.

On Tuesday, it was the news that the footballer, Kevin O'Connor, had won €1m in the national lottery after his godfather, Peadar, had given him the ticket as a Christmas gift. O'Connor is 22-years-old and earns an estimated €150k per year as a defender with Preston North End. What's your idea of paradise at 22? Is there a beach out there for Kevin? Will the million change his life?

On Friday, it was an interview with Bobby Kerr by Mark Paul in The Irish Times. The 57-year-old Newstalk broadcaster and former Dragon's Den panellist had just sold his stake in Insomnia, the coffee company he co-founded, for an estimated €10m. What's your idea of paradise at 57? Is there a beach out there for Bobby? Will the millions change his life?

And then there was Arsene Wenger.

Almost 22 years have passed since he took the helm at Arsenal and re-wrote the book on management in the Premier League. Wenger spoke four languages, had a degree in economics and sounded more like a teacher than a football manager. He did not groom players with an 'Alex-Ferguson hair-dryer' - calm and collected was his style.

"In the four years I did with him, never once did he raise his voice, let alone lose his temper," Nigel Winterburn, the former Arsenal defender says. "It was a weird feeling because at times you thought he was going to give it to the team, or if you'd not done well then you thought you might get a dressing down. But there was nothing. He just talked about how to rectify the situation. It was something I'd never experienced before or afterwards in my entire career.

"He didn't like anybody - particularly staff - shouting at the players, full stop. There was one game, against Aston Villa, where Pat Rice was bawling at the players. Arsene came in and he gave Pat a bollicking for it!"

A polished ballroom dancer, Wenger was a man of eclectic tastes and was fascinated by history and politics, but football was and remains his abiding passion. In a recently published biography - The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger - John Cross paints a compelling portrait of a man who lives and breathes the game.

"Wenger would far rather be at home than out on the town. He is intensely private, to such a degree that when he moved house in 2011 the new property, just a few doors down from his old place in Totteridge, was gated, less public and far less accessible. That suited him just fine.

"His day starts early with a healthy breakfast at home. The drive to the training ground - often in his sponsored Lexus - takes about half an hour and he is generally in his office at the training ground by 9.0am. After training he has lunch with the players in the canteen. He will often choose chicken and steamed vegetables.

"Wenger believes it is important not just to eat healthily but to show the same dedication as his players; he believes he should respect their commitment by following the same habits. It's a key part of his management ethos: he does not believe he can expect from them what he himself is not prepared to give.

"He is one of the last to leave the training ground, often at around 6.0pm, and he will then have a light meal, invariably a salad, in the evening. When he's at home he's generally watching a game on television. The satellite dish on the side of the house means he can pick up any game from anywhere in Europe.

"The press pack enjoy having a little fun with him at the end of press conferences, probably trying to tease out a Wenger quip or a funny one-liner, and no more so than when it's his birthday. Wenger always puts on a mischievous smile and has a cheeky answer for the reporters who suggest he go out to celebrate the occasion.

"Football writer Henry Winter recalls one such occasion: 'We were winding him up once. It was a big birthday he was having and we were asking him what he was doing: maybe go to the West End, a party, or go wild in a Totteridge wine bar. He said: 'No, there's a very important Bundesliga game which I must watch.' We told him to live it up for once and have fun. He said: 'No, I must watch it - but for you I will put candles on top of the television'."

'The Professor's' dedication has served him well. The longest and most successful manager in Arsenal's history, he has guided them to three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and finished top four in the division for 20 years in a row, before a fifth-place result last May ended that run. And success has brought its rewards: in May 2014, he signed a three-year deal worth £24m.

So, it was alarming to watch his demeanour on the touchline on Wednesday when every misplaced pass during the drawn game with Chelsea brought an increased torture to his face. And it was disappointing to listen to his comments on the Chelsea penalty and the performance of the referee. And was shocking to hear him joke about killing himself when a late strike from Davide Zappacosta almost went in.

What's happened to this guy?

I thought of Carlito, staring at the billboard of the beach in the Caribbean as the blood drained from the bullet in his chest and his life slipped away. Is there a beach out there for Arsene? Has success enhanced his life? What's your idea of paradise at 68?

How much is enough?

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