‘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
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.