The man who saw art in ev­ery­thing

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER -

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’

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