The man who saw art in everything
IF covering Alex Ferguson was famously like standing in the eye of a storm — or at least a hairdryer — the experience with Arsene Wenger was more akin to a bi-weekly audience with a brilliantly charismatic professor of social anthropology.
Open conflict was rare but it was the depth and breadth of Wenger’s insights — and the distance he travelled on some of his tangents — that set him apart among football managers.
With who else in sport could discussions range from global politics, religion and poverty to his fears for the impact of technology on relationships and why he eventually expects a world government? Happiness, he once told us, was only possible in the present due to the regrets of the past and the uncertainties of the future. He would, in quite abstract terms, even sometimes discuss the meaning of life itself. “The only way to deal with death is to transform everything that precedes it into art,” he said. “We must try to make every day as beautiful as we can.”
Many of these conversations did not make it to print amid whatever other day-to-day narrative was unfolding but is why that book he has always promised has such potential.
A senior colleague told me that it was “always a privilege to see Wenger” when I began regularly covering Arsenal around 10 years ago and, while remaining immune to some of the early hero-worship was as important as cutting through some of the hysterical criticism that followed, you could quickly see his point.
Wenger treated just about every question with respect, thought and honesty. No one was belittled and a work experience student would be treated identically to the most seasoned reporters.
Managers are largely perceived through the prism of their post-match interviews and, in Wenger’s hatred of losing and refusal to ever get too outwardly high in victory (he learnt such restraint from sumo-wrestlers in Japan), he would often come across as either quite sour or dull.
Nothing could have been further from the truth and it was the trips abroad or press briefings on a non-match day that gave the best sense of the real Wenger. He laughed easily and, in his regular (always unfulfilled) challenges to take on journalists in a one-on-one match, clearly found our collective lack of athleticism amusing.
I remember happening to be walking with him towards a stage for the opening of the gardens on the old Highbury pitch when he pointed to a small patch of grass that could have been no more than six metres square. “The perfect size for a game between the journalists,” he said, grinning at his own joke.
On another occasion during a pre-season trip to Hangzhou in China, I had the slightly uncomfortable experience of suddenly seeing Wenger get on the treadmill next to me in the hotel gym. “Summer training for the journalists?” asked Wenger. There was then about five minutes of small-talk, with me generally listening while he pontificated about the Chinese and Japanese economies. Then, once Wenger had warmed to running pace, he somehow communicated via an unspoken medium that it was time for silence. When I dismounted the treadmill 25 minutes later looking like I had fallen into a swimming pool, Wenger was still going. An occasional sharp breathing noise — like when you press the button on a steam iron — and the bead of sweat that had formed on his forehead were the only outward signs of effort.
Fewer and fewer teams now allow newspaper reporters on the same plane as their players but this was permitted at Arsenal until 2012. Wenger would always position himself at the back of the queue to ensure there were no issues as the Arsenal party filtered through airport security. The most comical moment was when Marouane Chamakh’s hairmousse — of which there seemed to be more like 100 litres than millilitres — set the alarm raging.
Wenger hated any hold-up that might delay the travel plans almost as much as losing.
Up close, there would be an unmistakable physical change at moments of great stress. He looked genuinely haunted — like a thin grey ghost of himself — after big defeats.
My favourite insights came from meeting his big brother Guy and some old school friends in his home village of Duttlenheim. The football club was still the centre of community life and they recalled how Wenger’s father had run the team and provided their headquarters in the family’s pub. The young Arsene would stay up to pepper the adult players with questions about football and life.
This inquisitive streak was always evident in dealing with his players and he would invariably give them the benefit of any doubt. This was tested in 2009 when Nicklas Bendtner was photographed coming out of a nightclub with his trousers down. The pictures were damning but Wenger told us that his striker had not been drinking and someone had simply pulled down his trousers just as a photographer approached.
“And you believed him?” we asked, utterly incredulous. “Yes,” replied Wenger, betraying no flicker of doubt. He rarely got angry, even with the media, although was often at his best when the questioning became most hostile. He served fewer bans to journalists in 22 years than Ferguson in just his last season at Manchester United.
This optimism about people and their motives could be a weakness but, for all the plaudits he received about his early sports science, tactics and transfer
His greatest strength lay in his empathy with people and knowing what made them tick
strategy, his greatest strength lay in his empathy with people and knowing what made them tick.
You would be hard pressed critical former player.
Robert Pires continued training with Arsenal in recent years simply because he loves spending time with Wenger. Majority owner Stan Kroenke told me that Wenger was one of his “favourite people I have ever met” and, as summer trips to Asia always confirmed, he could leave business leaders entranced with his theories on human motivation. Wenger’s first prerequisite in a player was never technical but what he called their “stamina of motivation” and capacity for accurate self-reflection. “There is a little butterfly in all of us that tells us where we stand,” he would say.
By the end, of course, the judgments on Wenger himself arrived from every direction and were often harsh. Yet like a great rock being subjected to a relentless pounding from the furious seas, he remained a resolutely present, if weathered, feature of English football. That landscape will change irrevocably this afternoon. And it will also be diminished. to find a
‘Arsene Wenger treated just about every question with respect, thought and honesty. No one was belittled and a work experience student would be treated identically to the most seasoned reporters’