One ‘unknown’ Frenchman changed English football, writes
IREMEMBER having a quiet chuckle when the headline “Arsene Who?” greeted Arsene Wenger’s appointment as Arsenal manager in 1996. I was playing for West Ham in the English Premier League at a time when there were so few foreign players in England.
There certainly hadn’t been a French manager there before. It was such an English culture and anything
outside of England wasn’t really known.
But I knew all about Wenger from my time with Lens in France while he was coaching at Monaco. In fact, I had a personal connection with him.
In 1992 I met Wenger for lunch with my agent and he tried to sign me to Monaco from Lens. I was obviously very impressed with him; he had an aura about him and was a real gentleman. We had a great discussion about what he was doing at Monaco and where he saw me fitting in.
They were a very successful team full of stars, like George Weah, Emmanuel Petit and Jurgen Klinsmann. Wenger attracted the biggest names to Monaco during what was a golden era for French football, with Marseille and Monaco very prominent in Europe.
In hindsight I probably should have gone there, but in the end sentiment won out and I re-signed at Lens, so it never happened.
Whenever I came across Wenger later on in England I always made sure I sought him out to say hello and shake hands.
He changed the way English football was played. Though Arsenal had enjoyed success before Wenger’s arrival, they
were labelled “boring, boring Arsenal” and the famous chant was “1-0 to the Arsenal”. Little did everyone know Wenger was about to change all of that.
Under him they became known as one of the most attractive sides to watch, not only in England, but in Europe. In his first decade with Arsenal he had enormous success with that style of play and the players he brought in really did change English football.
The likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Petit had never been seen in England before. Vieira and Petit were probably the most dynamic and talented midfield pairing the Premier League had ever seen.
Then he put together the Invincibles, the team that went through the entire 2003/04 season undefeated.
Playing against Arsenal was extremely difficult. The one thing that Wenger brought to his teams, which is still apparent today, is
that every player is unbelievably quick and technically gifted. When you played Arsenal it was extremely difficult because of the pace they played at and it was tough to get the ball off them because every player in every position was technically gifted.
But he was adaptable too. When he first arrived he was very respectful of the team that was already there.
Tony Adams, for example, was probably not a Wenger-style player, but he played until the end of his career under Wenger.
Wenger’s legacy, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United, will be long lasting. Both men are unique in that it’s hard to imagine how their decadeslong reign in such a cutthroat business is ever going to happen again.
Even though it’s taken longer than some fans would have liked for Wenger to step down, you can’t imagine any Arsenal supporter not being affected by his departure.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will quit the club at the end of the current season and (right) signing Thierry Henry. Pictures: AFP How Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal was greeted in 1996.