‘Arsene for Arsenal’ – the phrase obviously has a nice ring to it. The question is whether it was a deciding factor in Arsenal’s managerial selection twenty years ago.
Such is the alliteration between ‘Arsene’ and ‘Arsenal’ that plenty of the fans, who have started following Arsenal in the twenty-first century, initially thought Wenger to be the owner of the club.
Obviously, Arsenal originated much before some certain Arsene came into existence, but, it was the name effect which might have finally convinced a conservative British club to employ a foreign manager in a League of 18 native counterparts. The number was 18 because the Gunners’ London rivals Chelsea had just appointed Dutch attacker Ruud Gullit as their player cum manager that season.
Wenger's first interview as Arsenal Manager (1996)
Rarity of foreign managers in England
Arsene Wenger was the third foreigner to be announced as a manager of a Premier League team. Ruud Gullit was just appointed that season and Argentine World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardilles spent a year and a half at Tottenham (1993-94) without much success. Before Premier League’s existence, Aston Villa was the first club to defy tradition and appoint Czech professional footballer Dr. Jozef Venglos as their head coach in 1990. Jozef existed only a year in English football and the move was criticized heavily. Clearly, appointing a manager, who was born outside the British Isles, was a rarity in those days.
Arsenal before Wenger
Arsenal were nicknamed ‘The Bank of England’ since 1930’s because of their tendency to break transfer records and offer big contracts to the players, which is much contradictory to Wenger’s methods today. Another big difference was their style of play. Arsenal were known for playing cautious and boring football rather than the exciting passing moves we see from them today. The man in charge in the start of the 90’s was George Graham, a member of Arsenal’s 1971 double winning squad. Graham brought success to the club with two League titles, one FA Cup, two league cup and one European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy.
George Graham posing with trophies won at Arsenal (1991)
But, Graham had to leave the club in 1995 because of his alleged involvement in a bunging scandal involving transfer business. Bruce Rioch replaced him, but Bruce was too soft to handle the big egos in the dressing room. The players were practically mocking him day and night. Arsenal became a club full of players who couldn’t live without their regular drinking routine and insulting the manager. A club management, who believed in stability, had to sack two managers in a year. The club needed a major change more than ever.
Wenger’s first Arsenal match
No, it wasn’t 12th October 1996, it was much much earlier when the story begun. Let’s date back seven years further. It was a north London derby on 2nd January, 1989. A certain Monaco manager was enjoying his break to watch Arsenal play at the old Highbury stadium. The then Vice President of Arsenal David Dein met the guest, who looked more like a professor than a manager, in the halls of the Highbury. The French gentleman expressed his plans to spend the night in London and Dein couldn’t resist himself to throw a dinner invitation. As amicable as one can get, Monaco boss Arsene Wenger accepted the invitation.
Wenger and Dein in serious discussion
Wenger couldn’t speak English pretty well then, but, with his natural charm, the Frenchman won everybody’s heart in the party. A friendship began in that particular night and little did anyone know that it would become so decisive in shaping the club’s future. Dein, later, expressed the after-effects from that night –
During the Evening, I saw the vision written in the sky: ‘Arsene for Arsenal!’. It’s destiny, it’s fate, it’s going to happen.
‘Arsene for Arsenal’
After that night, ‘Arsene for Arsenal’ was only a matter of time. Though George Graham was at the helm then, Dein sent video clips of Arsenal players to Wenger from time to time. Wenger, also, found time to analyze them and create a report for his friend in England. The Monaco manager’s audition for Arsenal was already underway. Wenger was doing a good job at Monaco. He won the League title in his first season, took them to Champions League semifinal once and won the Coupe De France. After parting ways with Monaco, Wenger decided to go to Japan to manage Nagoya Grampus Eight and did a commendable job. David Dein was always staying in touch with Wenger in those years. After Graham’s omission in 1995, the Arsenal job was open but Dein couldn’t convince other board members to appoint a foreigner. Eventually, when Bruce Rioch also failed to deliver, the management couldn’t help but listen to Dein’s proposal.
Wenger (1996) [Left] and Wenger (2016) [Right] - 20 Years Apart
Wenger accepted the offer to come to England and a revolution was peeping in the North London sky. Arsene Wenger, finally, became the manager of Arsenal on 1st October 1996, much to the delight of every linguist’s alliterative fantasy.
[Thanks to Arsene Wenger: The Inside Story of Arsenal Under Wenger written by John Cross, which helped me a lot to gather the information]
Photo by Ronnie Macdonald