Thursday 22 March 2018

Wenger becomes Mr Popular when he's not winning

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

ARSENE WENGER'S default position of flailing arms and wailing words, coupled with the occasional absence of post-match handshake and -- most damningly in the eyes of some -- the lack of desire for a drink after a game means he is unlikely to be high on the Christmas card list for many of his fellow managers.

Like an aloof professor, Wenger is hugely respected rather than liked although, until Saturday, his popularity rating with his counterparts was probably sky-high.

That's because with Arsenal apparently lurching from crisis to calamity, there was no real need to look elsewhere for the 'manager under pressure' story that's as predictable as leaves falling from a tree this time of the year.

Steve Kean's lack of profile, personality and points at Blackburn was the easy fall-back option and, until Grant Holt's late equaliser for Norwich on Saturday, even that was in danger of being turned into a reasonable, if not quite good, news story with Blackburn now a glorious one point ahead of Wigan at the bottom of the table.

But then there's nothing a press box likes better than a stereotype which they can hammer upon safe in the knowledge that the majority of supporters will neither examine nor contradict their opinion.

Newcastle, for example, were warned that selling Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan would rip the fight, goals and -- most importantly in an environment where Barcelona's brilliance can be questioned because they don't play against Stoke every week -- the English heartbeat from the club. Their supporters apparently demand goals, points and trophies as though it was their birthright rather than something to make up for decades of disappointment.

The reality, though, is that, even if nobody else has noticed, those supporters who turn up to watch Newcastle's away game against Stoke tonight couldn't care less how the team wins so long as they maintain their fourth position and, like a low-flying Magpie, stay under the radar.

Their theme for this season was supposed to be a struggle in their opening games followed by smashing into the transfer window like a London rioter, paying over the odds for a journeyman whose performances put pressure on manager Alan Pardew and ended with his inevitable sacking.

Then the long-held, oft-written pieces going back to Kevin Keegan's era could be dusted down with a few new digs at an unpopular owner, and everybody's happy.

Good news stories in the Premier League are fine but, if they interfere with the perceived natural order, it takes time for some to remove the saddle from their high horse.

Like the groans from the press box that greet a last-minute winner, Newcastle have forced people to change their story.

And, on Saturday, Arsenal did the same as they conceded a goal just before half-time that, had their collective will been as poor as it is portrayed, would have led to a second-half collapse of Old Trafford proportions.

Even Juan Mata's equaliser to make it 3-3 gave them the opportunity to self-destruct but, instead, Robin van Persie maintained his staggering 2011 goalscoring record -- 28 goals in 27 Premier League games -- and Arsenal picked up their eighth win in their last nine games. And that's bad news for many managers.

With reports of Wenger's and the club's demise seemingly greatly exaggerated, attention will now turn further down the table.


Roberto Martinez, Owen Coyle and Mick McCarthy are the other managers along with Kean in the bottom four but, while all three generally play a good game with the media, Wenger's absence from the spotlight means that their team's actions might finally speak louder than their managers' words.

All three seem to have the support of their boards but, once the clocks go back, the extra hour of darkness often spells trouble for those in the line of fire, with a chairman's trigger finger becoming ever itchier.

Next weekend already has the feeling of a hyperbolic Survival Sunday, with Wolves facing Wigan and Bolton taking on Stoke in games where defeat could see the loser cut adrift to a place where all the buzzwords and cliches won't be enough to save them from the inevitable.

If Arsenal lose to West Brom on Saturday, it might buy those at the bottom another week or two away from the glare of the sack race. But if Wenger can maintain his team's push towards the right end of the table without any thought for how it affects other managers, his unpopularity should return to its usual levels.

But, unlike several others, at least he'll still have a job to keep him busy.

Irish Independent

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