‘He was skinny, with glasses: he didn’t look like a man­ager’

My scep­ti­cism over our new man­ager in 1996 did not last – he was an in­spi­ra­tion

The Daily Telegraph - - Wenger The End - By Nigel Win­ter­burn FORMER AR­SE­NAL DE­FENDER

I’ll never for­get the first time Arsene Wenger walked in for a train­ing ses­sion at Ar­se­nal.

We’d all heard about this con­ti­nen­tal man­ager the club had ap­pointed, but none of us knew any­thing about him. We were all scram­bling around, trying to find stuff out. We turned up and there he was wait­ing for us; tall, skinny, wear­ing those spec­ta­cles, hold­ing a stop­watch. Our re­ac­tion was: “Are you se­ri­ous?” He did not look like your typ­i­cal, boot-room man­ager.

But from that first ses­sion, I knew I wanted to be part of his Ar­se­nal. The way he coached was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. That first meet­ing set a prece­dent. Arsene was al­ways on the train­ing pitch wait­ing for us, the first man out there, stop­watch in hand. Ses­sions were shorter, sharper, more intense. Play­ers would want to carry on with what­ever we were do­ing and he would have none of it. It was on to the next ses­sion. He was metic­u­lous.

I found it in­vig­o­rat­ing. I must have been 31 or 32 at the time. I knew I had a few sea­sons left in me and was des­per­ate to be part of Arsene’s team. Partly, I’ll admit, be­cause there had been a few whis­pers in the press. How he wanted to clear out the old back four. That was all I needed: “I’ll show you, mate.” To his credit, Arsene re­alised it would be crazy to dis­man­tle it. He put a few of us: myself, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon, the over-30s, I think; on one-year, rolling con­tracts. I think it worked for ev­ery­one. Those sea­sons from 1996 to 2000 when I left for West Ham were some of the hap­pi­est of my career. The stan­dard of player he brought in: Em­manuel Petit, Marc Over­mars, Ni­co­las

Anelka; the foot­ball we played; the lev­els of pro­fes­sion­al­ism; you just wanted to be part of it. Ob­vi­ously there had been a drinking cul­ture in the past, but that all changed. He trusted us, en­cour­aged us, to change it our­selves.

As I say, though, it was the coach­ing for me which was the real plea­sure, and the Dou­ble in 1998 was prob­a­bly the high­light of my en­tire career.

If there is a re­gret it’s that we never man­aged to do it in the Cham­pi­ons League, a prob­lem that has dogged him. But I hold him in the high­est re­gard and I’m glad he’s leav­ing now be­fore he’s hounded out.

If he can win the Europa League to fin­ish it off, and get Ar­se­nal back into the Cham­pi­ons League, that would be su­perb. What­ever hap­pens, though, he de­serves a huge send-off. Arsene changed English foot­ball. I’m proud to say I was part of it.

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