New Beginnings: Calm after the storm
“Thomas charging through the midfield, Thomas, it’s up for grabs now, Thomas,” (Brian Moore commentating on Liverpool vs Arsenal, League game, May 1989).
Arsenal had done the impossible, beating Liverpool 2-0 with a last minute goal from Michael Thomas to snatch away the 1989 League Championship. It was a fairytale night up at Anfield masterminded by Arsenal manager, George Graham. Graham, a League and Cup winner himself as a player for the club in 1971 had already managed the team to their first League Cup in 1987 (also against Liverpool). Another League title was won in 1991, an FA and League Cup double in 1993 before the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994 with Alan Smith’s memorable volley clinching it in Copenhagen against a Parma side containing the likes of Swedish star, Tomas Brolin, Colombia’s Faustino Asprilla and Italian legend, Gianfranco Zola. Graham’s 8 year reign as manager however would come to an abrupt end after revelations he had been involved in a bung scandal where unsolicited payments were received from a Norwegian agent during the transfers of Pal Lydersen and John Jensen to Arsenal. Things would only go from bad to worse when it later emerged that Paul Merson and club captain, Tony Adams, struggled with alcohol addiction. Then Graham’s successor, Bruce Rioch would also be sacked at the end of his first and only season (1995/96) with the club due to a dispute with the board over transfer fees. Rioch’s cause was further not helped by the transfer request from fans favourite, Ian Wright, because of Rioch’s decision to play Wright out on the wings rather than in his more familiar, favoured and successful central striking position. With two successive managers dismissed within a year of each other Arsenal were in trouble. Pat Rice, who as a player had captained Arsenal to FA Cup glory in 1979, took temporary charge of the team at the beginning of the 1996/97 season until a permanent manager could be found. That man would be Arsene Wenger.
Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal on 1st October 1996 from Japanese club, Nagoya Grampus Eight. Although Wenger had won trophies in Japan with Nagoya after League and Cup success in his native France with Monaco, little was known about the man himself. Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, famously remarked that Wenger looked more like an old headmaster rather than a football manager! It would emerge that Wenger was fluent in a handful of languages with a degree in Economics. Wenger would introduce changes in the players’ diets and training regimes which ultimately extended the playing careers of longstanding Arsenal legends such as the famous back five of goalkeeper, David Seaman along with defenders, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Tony Adams. Wenger took Arsenal to 3rd place that season with greater success to come the following year. The following season (1997/98), in what was his first full season as manager, Wenger led Arsenal to his first League Championship and FA Cup double for the club with an adventurous style of football not seen before on English shores. The Daily Mirror ran the headline “Arsenal Win World Cup!” when Arsenal midfielders, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit capped their successful season with Arsenal by also winning the World Cup with France in 1998. To prove there was no fluke, Wenger repeated the feat two seasons later with his second League and Cup double success in the 2001/02 season.
While Arsenal did not repeat the League and Cup double feats of 1997/98 and 2001/02 seasons the team made history by going through the whole 2003/04 league season unbeaten taking the Championship by storm. Players such as Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and the club’s record goal scorer, Thierry Henry, all became legends with their images now immortalized around Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Under Wenger’s management, Arsenal entertained and blew its opposition away with a style of play and movement many would draw comparisons to with Spanish giants, Barcelona. The team were hailed as “The Invincibles!” The following season (2004/05) Arsenal would just miss out on the league title though would win the FA Cup in a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Manchester United, fittingly won by their departing captain, Patrick Vieira. Wenger was, in the eyes of many, beginning to emulate the success of his predecessors, George Graham and before him, the legendary Herbert Chapman, who was Arsenal’s most successful manager with first an FA Cup in 1930 before League title success in 1931, 1933 and 1934. Chapman sadly died on 6th January 1934 from pneumonia though is credited with further success due to the fact that the team he had built went on to win further League titles in 1935 and 1938 along with another FA Cup in 1936. Going back to Wenger, it was in the 2005/06 season and on the brink of winning Europe’s biggest prize, the Champions League, Arsenal saw their hopes dashed in the dying minutes of the game as Barcelona came back from 0-1 down to win 2-1 as a result of legendary Arsenal goalkeeper, Jens Lehman’s red card sending off earlier in the game proving pivotal. That defeat would see the breakup of the Arsenal Invincibles team and the beginning of yet another storm.
End of an era?
While the first eight years of Wenger’s management brought seven trophies to the club, matching the legendary Arsenal manager, Herbert Chapman’s record, the following eight years would bring none. With Arsenal’s move from Highbury to the new Emirates Stadium and the emergence of billionaire owners taking control of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal found themselves unable to compete financially with those clubs resulting in a power shift where league success was dominated by those aforementioned teams along with the already hugely successful Manchester United managed by Sir Alex Ferguson. Wenger rebuilt his team first with young players such as Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott. Although these players did well to get to two League Cup finals (1-2 vs Chelsea in 2006/07 and 1-2 vs Birmingham City in 2010/11) as well as consistently finish in the top 4 of the league, they were unable to jump over the final hurdle. Players such as Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue would then leave the club where they would go on to win trophies almost immediately with their new clubs to Arsenal fans frustration. Wenger then responded to press and fans pressure to add experience to the young Arsenal side so as to push the team on to the success so badly needed. However, star player Robin Van Persie who had just been named The Footballer of the year for taking Arsenal to 3rd place and winning the Golden Boot for scoring the most Premier League goals, made a controversial £25m move to long time rivals Manchester United. United’s number 20 would go on to score 20 plus goals taking Manchester United to their 20th League Championship in the 2012/13 season. Having led his team to their 13th League Championship under his management, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to retire after 25 years of managing arguably the greatest side in English football. Indeed it would seem to be the end of an era.
Wenger, having spent 16 years as manager of Arsenal, takes over from the now retired Sir Alex Ferguson, as the longest serving manager in the English Premier League. Arsenal finished in the top 4 for an 8th consecutive season without a trophy to their name. The current team are now a mix of youth and experience embodied in the likes of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere along with Mikel Arteta and Arsenal Player of the season, Santiago Cazorla. Wenger will see out the 2013/14 season which, if not extended, will mark the end of his contract. If his legacy is to remain a good one, Wenger will need to sign players with proven track records of experience and success to finally help the team win silverware next season to show that he can still perform at the top level, bringing the type of success he did at the start of his Arsenal management career. If Wenger manages to do this, expect him to get a 3 year extension to his current contract, taking him to 20 years in management of Arsenal FC. If, however, Wenger fails to appease the demands of the fans to see their first silverware in Emirates Stadium, then Wenger’s great legacy though synonymous with The Invicibles team he created, could very much be haunted by and remain in the shadow of former protege, Robin Van Persie’s defection to Manchester United and their 20th League title success, 13 of which came under the management of the now retired Sir Alex Ferguson.
© 2013, The Legacy of Arsene Wenger, Darell J Philip
(Missed out on the FBFT Sports Writing Competition 2013)