This article was posted on Laurie’s personal blog. It simply deserves a wider audience and I hope Gunners Twon can give it one. You can follow Laurie @laurielaker
Or, Twenty Years with Arsene Wenger, OBE.
By Laurie Laker
I am twenty-seven years of age.
I was born under the late-December skies of Taunton, Somerset, in 1988. Born very prematurely, my early years were spent in and out of the ER wards of various hospitals across the south of England, leaving me with my trademark raspy voice and slight wheeze to my breathing. I carry the scars of those early years, and do so proudly.
I’ve been a football fan since I was three. My first professional match-day experience was at Plymouth Argyle’s then-dilapidated ground, Home Park. It was the 4th of May, 1996. I wore a knitted green and black bobble hat, made by my grandmother the week before. We sat in the Mayflower Stand, sipping lukewarm, watery tea and eating Marmite sandwiches from home. I wasn’t allowed to swear, I was too young. Argyle won 3–0. I was hooked.
That same year, my grandparents gifted me my first ever Arsenal kit, the 1994–96 home kit, with JVC sponsor on the front. I remember wearing it to school the following day for show and tell. I felt like a prince among paupers that day, an extra spring in my step.
My family, on both sides, is a sporting one. Generations of prominent local and national cricketers, footballers, and athletics competitors. My two grandfathers were both outstanding cricketers, my father an international-level triple-jumper and a national-level footballer, training at Lilleshall Hall under the watchful eye of the Football Association. My uncle, Martin, played for Arsenal’s youth team. With help from club historian Iain Cook and Fred Ollier, the author of Arsenal’s complete record book, I discovered that he joined the club in May of 1971, remaining on the books until later that year. He was there at a fabulous time, bathed in amber-sepia glow of our first Double win. He trained at Highbury, made the first team bench behind Frank McLintock, and got to know many of that famous side very well. Supporting Arsenal is, for me, a family thing.
Historical events or milestones are nothing without their appropriate context. This, then, is my context, my backstory, for coming to know Arsene Wenger.
Technically, I’ve known four Arsenal managers in my lifetime. The tough player turned tougher manager George Graham, who led the club to great successes in the late-80s and early-90s — the title win away at Anfield remains one of the iconic moments in English football history. The legendary Arsenal fullback and later assistant manager legend Pat Rice, an integral part of that wonderful team from the 1970/71 Double season — a proper Arsenal man. Then, for a brief time, the harshly maligned Bruce Rioch — the man who arguably, in signing Dennis Bergkamp, changed the face of Arsenal Football Club before our next manager even walked through the door. Great men, all deserving of renown, respect, and gratitude.
Then, there’s Arsene Wenger.
Much, probably too much, has been written about Arsene Wenger’s successful sides, the great players, the titles and cups, the moments that took our breath away. We all know the names, the dates, the stadia — some of us even remember the weather. There are wonderful books by journalists and fans alike to touch on these, and I recommend seeking them out.
What I want to write about, and reflect upon, is Wenger as a professional, a person, and an idealist.
Arsene Wenger is what can best be described as a football anorak, an absolute obsessive. He rarely ventures beyond his home, the stadium, or the training ground. He knows those roads well — every bump familiar, every signpost a welcome notice.
When he landed in England, Wenger was an enigma. A Frenchman, of middling playing history, from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight via French clubs Nancy and AS Monaco. A man with a master’s degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg. Bespectacled, almost owlish, far more the chalk-dusted teacher than the red-faced bellower of English management. The ultimate internationalist, arriving at one of the most inherently English clubs in the country.
His great rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, infamously said, “Arsene Wenger’s been in Japan for a year. He doesn’t know anything about English football.”
Oh ye of little faith, Fergie, and how beautifully wrong you would be proven. Arsene and Arsenal; a marriage that would change not just English football, but the lives of millions around the world.
Wenger brought with him an aesthetic and academic sensibility, a new vision for an old game. He took football, and all outlying aspects of it, by the scruff of the neck, and dragged it into the modern era. Again, these leaps forward have been documented elsewhere, we all know the list — dietary changes, stretching, upgraded facilities, player expression and so on.
More important than any dietary switch or unbeaten title win, to my mind, is Wenger’s commitment. Not just to his players, his staff, the club, or the fans, but to his own ideals. The word visionary is thrown about, doled out willy-nilly for any new figure of note or renown. A true visionary, a true believer, is someone who commits their life to a cause, and Arsene Wenger fits that mould as though it were made for him.
Wenger sees his Arsenal community as both a collective and as individuals. Here, then, is the hinge of his ideal — the crux of his conviction. He treats his players as people, not chess pieces, and that sensibility — particularly in the modern, win-driven game, is astonishing. He has raised thousands of people as a shared father figure, raised them — raised me, raised us — to embody certain values and characteristics.
“I first and foremost an educator. I try to be faithful to the values that I believe to be important in life and pass them on to others.”
Those values, commonly known as ‘The Arsenal Way’ existed long before Wenger arrived. Arsenal Football Club has a long and storied history. Founded in Woolwich in 1886, it has 130 years of success, of gilded glory, and of class to its name. It is often said that Arsenal do things “the right way, The Arsenal way.” This doesn’t mean that our football is always fluid, dynamic, or artistic. Far from it. A quick glance through our history will show that. What it means, is that as a club, Arsenal nurtures and promotes certain values, values of conduct and character. Respect, class, and unity. The motto of the club, stitched into every shirt, tattooed upon many bodies, reads ‘Victoria Concordia Crescit’ — Victory Grows Through Harmony. Upon these rocks, Wenger has built his church.
In an age of relentless pragmatism, of borderline-Machiavellian focus on the immediate victory, Wenger is a pillar of footballing piety. Stubborn, perhaps arrogant, in his belief that there is more to life than winning at all costs, that sport and football matter more when they’re pursued with broader intentions than holding a trophy at the end of a season.
“The pleasure in it all is to develop people, to give moments of happiness.”
During his twenty years at Arsenal, those moments have been numerous — at times prolific. They have always been tempered by Wenger’s tenacity. Every day, he asks, “What’s next?”
“The most underrated quality in life […] tenacity is the common thing for every successful person…”
He is a man obsessed, and obsessed with winning. What he will not do, except on the rarest of occasions, is sacrifice principle for prosperity. He is inherently optimistic, about both football and life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, as the game and the world have shifted and changed around him, Wenger remains steadfast, remains convicted.
“At the end of the day, my optimistic personality always takes over. The future will be good. Just work hard, put the effort in, do the right things, and the future will be alright. My sense of optimism is nourished by a naive sense of belief in the human being […] if you believe in people, that they want to do their best, then you’re an optimist.”
Many doubt him, time and again. They claim that his vision has turned to intransigence, his ideals to willful idling. Nothing, I believe, could be further from the truth. Would he have stayed during the leaner years, when we moved stadiums, had he not bought into our hopes, as well as his own, for a brighter future? No chance. I can’t think of a manager who would have, actually. He’s the only one.
Criticism is an echo chamber. It reverberates off walls, off stands and seats, bouncing back more forcefully than before. It takes a special kind of quiet strength and resolve to endure the scathing, biting, sometimes abusive, disrespect and doubt that has been leveled his way over the last decade. For ten years, he could do no wrong — he was magic, he wore a magic hat. Then, in concord with a titanic shift in the fiduciary between club and fan, things changed. We all know when — June 2003 — and we all know why — money, specifically rubles.
“Football is spectacular because of it’s uncertainty.”
The next decade brought modern Arsenal to its knees. Accustomed, perhaps feeling entitled, to success, the club shifted expectations in the boardroom and in the stands. A new stadium, as well as redeveloping the old home, needed monetary certainty. Financial burden made Wenger’s job harder still, a fisherman with rod and line on a sea of gold-lined drift netters.
Outcry, derision, abuse followed. Uncertainty gave way to unpleasantries. Opinions, both valid and vociferous, grew louder. Wenger, a man whose appointment was announced via Ceefax, now had to come to terms with the cacophony of a social media world. Everyone’s a pundit, everybody’s an expert. The debates are overwhelming, there is too much content — there are just too many voices.
In the years that followed, Wenger virtually waged a one-man crusade against the money-talks method that transformed the game across Europe’s major leagues. He built houses, ones that stood against the storms around him, using straw and bailing wire, while his opposite numbers used concrete and steel rebar.
This fallow period, described by the outraged as a time of failing ambition, is perhaps his greatest accomplishment of all. Unheralded, unwanted, but unprecedented across the game. Keeping Arsenal in touch, if not always competitive, ensured the club’s stability for decades to come. Again and again, he was offered ways out. Lucrative deals at glamorous clubs, where full-scale projects were replaced with polishing cloths. Again and again, he stayed, doubling down on his values and beliefs.
“I’m very proud of that, that I resisted attractions who looked much more glorious, to be faithful to I believe is right in life.”
His “failures” — those that nearly every other club on the planet would consider wild successes — have been given form only by the astonishing calibre of his victories. Those victories have been the product of Wenger’s own, often publicly maddening, commitment. His strength of character, and of vision, remained the constant throughout.
“The life of a strong human being is to have a long-term target, and not to fade during that trip. Who can maintain the focus, who is capable of going from A to B without getting down every time you have a disappointment, who can maintain the motivation level?”
It’s said that the night is always darkest before the dawn. Ten years on from his greatest accolade, Wenger won again. At last. Then, he did it again. The pressure he must have been under, the tension he must’ve felt, I cannot fathom. Watching both occasions in Boston pub, I was a nervous wreck, nails bitten to the quick before kickoff. He endured, and we — The Arsenal — emerged victorious. Beer was drunk. Tears were shed. A great weight was lifted.
At the centre of the celebration, the greatest change of all — Wenger’s face. Normally creased with worry, it was different. He looked younger, far younger. The light reflected off silver showed joy, a wry, proud — maybe even known — smile.
Today finds Arsenal in a rich vein of form. Form, as we like to tell our neighbouring clubs, is temporary. Class is permanent. Thankfully, for now, we have both in spades. From the pitch on up, we’re a club that’s positioned for generations of success to come. Our coffers are well-stocked, our stadium paid off, our community placated if not fulfilled by recent silverware. Make no mistake, we’re on the up. Football being what it is, we’ll be on the down again, too. It’s a game, fickle and fluctuant. Certainty comes from within, from the vision and value at the core of a club. That core, bridging past and present with our future, comes to us dressed in an immaculate cardigan and club tie. Probably with a big coat, as well, and that damned troublesome zipper. It comes in the form of Arsene Wenger.
“I like a famous line from a great philosopher who said: ‘The only way to deal with death is to transform everything that precedes it into art’. That means we have to make sure that we try to make every day as beautiful as we can.”
Legacies, particularly those in the realm of sport, are often reduced to simple lists of accolades. You can look at my resume for hours, and think you know who I am. You don’t, trust me. You might know what I’ve studied, where I’ve worked, even what I’ve written, but you don’t know who I am. Arsene Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal isn’t one that can be reduced, or boiled down. A legacy is not a fixed thing. It is something which lingers long beyond our granite temples and monoliths, after our feeble records of page or screen have faded and blown away. Legacies are made up of moments and memories, crafted into smiles and knowing glances. They are entirely emotional, even spiritual, things.
In that regard, Wenger’s legacy is both titanic and miniscule. A man whose conviction remains in concert with his heart, for an environment where “everybody expresses his talent.” He has gifted us moments that will outlast our wonderful stadium, memories that I will tell my grandchildren about. I will never forget where I was, who I was with, or how I felt at those times — good, bad, and everything in-between. Beyond moments, he’s positioned this club on his alarmingly strong shoulders, and pointed it towards a bright future. He has assured his own legacy by confirming our future.
“I carried through the generations the values of this club, with absolute conviction and with absolute loyalty.”
What I’ve taken from my time watching and listening to Arsene Wenger, as both a figurehead and a man, is the inherent necessity of absolute belief, of doing things the way you believe to be right, and of trusting those around you to do the same. Those aren’t just platitudes, they’re tangible, very real things — things that I see and feel every single day of my life.
You can laugh, ridicule, or mock me — that’s fine. Respectful disagreement has a place in every dialogue. I, like Wenger himself, and firm in my convictions. Had I not had the privilege of experiencing Wenger in my life for 20 years, I’d be less of a man than I am today. I’ve got a long way yet to go. All I can do, all any of us can do, is our best — to make each day better than yesterday.
Thank you, Arsene.