Tuesday 12 December 2017

Wenger no Griswold as perfect vacation can be found at home

Wenger’s holidays follow a similar pattern except he skips the bit on the beach, as well as the bit in the villa and simply spends his summers watching DVDs
Wenger’s holidays follow a similar pattern except he skips the bit on the beach, as well as the bit in the villa and simply spends his summers watching DVDs

Dion Fanning

When Arsene Wenger met the press last week, it was hard not to reflect on the all-consuming nature of the football man. Wenger was asked about his holidays this summer and he replied that he hadn't really taken any.

Giovanni Trapattoni's vacations involved the Trapattonis spending some quality time on the beach in the morning. Trap would go embark on some vigorous callisthenics before he left his wife by the sea while he returned to the villa to watch DVDs of football matches.

Wenger's holidays follow a similar pattern except he skips the bit on the beach, as well as the bit in the villa and simply spends his summers watching DVDs. He is, like so many football men, an obsessive, but an obsessive who appears to view any attempt to release himself from the obsession as a dereliction of duty.

A wise man used to say that holidays were a peacetime luxury and Wenger has committed himself to this philosophy, although if Arsenal win the Premier League and the Champions League this year, he is unlikely to lean back and feel a deep and lasting serenity or a sense that he's at peace.

Football men like Trap and Wenger know that the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer and, while they have dealt with this truth in different ways, they both know it is inescapable.

During Ireland's preparations for the European Championships in Tuscany, Trapattoni was asked to reflect on his most famous victories. "One victory I still regret is the defeat in Paris," he said, turning a question about victories into one about defeat, as all football men somehow do.

Indeed one of the most indelible images from the career of Alex Ferguson was his excoriation of the Aberdeen team who had let him down in the most profound way during their victory in the Scottish Cup final. Ferguson came to regret the outburst but that didn't really matter as it was a glimpse into the real man, the man who skipped the conventional notion that these moments should be enjoyed as they don't come along very often and moved on to the real business of imagining how bad it could have been.

It is easy to see why holidays would be counter-productive: all that time to reflect on these defeats and victories which only bring up memories of other defeats. Far better to remain in the office where you can get things done. As he finished with the media last Tuesday, Wenger looked forward to an evening unwinding by watching Barcelona-Chelsea late into the night. He had said a couple of weeks before that Ferguson had horses and "I have no horses" that could help him into retirement. So what did he have that helped him relax. "I watch football," Wenger said.

Ferguson was baffled by retirement - 'a young man's game' - until the time came to do it. When Wenger met Ferguson after a game at Old Trafford, he seemed certain that Ferguson would tell him how much he missed it. Instead he told Wenger he'd had enough. Ferguson was 71 when he retired, he had his horses and he had created an empire and a mythology which couldn't be sustained without him.

Wenger has built a club as well and yet as he goes about his business, he encounters abuse on train platforms from fans who think all of Arsenal's problems - and seemingly all of the problems in their lives - would be solved if only Wenger would "spend some facking money".

If Arsenal win the Premier League, it will be a reward for this football man who has spent so long doing the same thing and expecting different results that all has often seemed hopeless.

Wenger talked on Tuesday of all the things that are good about Arsenal, and many neutrals would desperately want them to be true this season despite hearing him say similar things so many times when they turned out to be illusions.

Yet he has also been cursed by those who do not share this devotion to his dream, a devotion which seems perfectly reasonable to him. "We still have not found a machine which can measure the intensity of love," Wenger said in 2012. "We would all buy it." He was, I think, talking about player loyalty at the time.

It is hard to imagine, say, Barry Fry or Alan Pardew speaking the same way. They are men who have made peace with the world they live in, but while Wenger can be sanguine and accepting of the things he cannot change, he clearly wants a better world and, of course, a better Arsenal.

As Wenger pursues that, a two-week holiday on the Dalmatian coast would probably seem like an abandonment of some core principle, like allowing a director of football to make signings or buying Charlie Adam.

But, still, he wants this better Arsenal to be his Arsenal. Even with the signings of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez, he is committed to doing things his way, rejecting the alternatives as simply a reflection of a society which always demands something new.

Wenger is the least new thing at Arsenal these days so he would be the obvious target if change is demanded. He says it was always this way, that when he left Highbury after a defeat in the days when players could be bought all season long, there would always be someone insisting he make a new signing. Instead he would return home and escape from football by watching football, a design for life which he isn't going to abandon now.

In time, we will look back on Wenger's attachment to Arsenal, his refusal to consider that anyone else could know better or do better, as one of the greatest love stories ever told. Maybe people will wonder how Wenger negotiated the football world at all, given this impossible devotion, his loyalty and the intensity of his love for the club.

This can be calamitous at times. After all, Clark Griswold is a romantic too, determined to adhere to his vision of the perfect vacation, no matter what the consequences. Arsene knows better, maybe he does even know best. The perfect vacation begins by staying at home.


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