Football: Wenger relishes long English stay

Clive White on how a Frenchman has charmed his way into the media's notebooks
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The Independent Online
ARSENE WENGER'S love affair with the English game shows no sign of waning and why should it while he stands on the threshold of achieving something as essentially English as the Double?

But it is another romance, one even more elusive than the famed League and Cup Double, which has amazed even the most cynical. And that is his ongoing relationship with the English media.

The Arsenal manager has an affinity with them that some English managers would die for - and one or two have, figuratively speaking. They are no more likely to turn Wenger into a French onion soup, a la Graham Taylor, than they are to devour their own grandmothers, well mothers at least. Even the hardest-nosed hacks go all gooey-eyed at the mere sound of his dulcet French tones and when he told them this week was that he wanted to stay in England beyond the duration of his three-year contract at Arsenal, their delight was hard to conceal.

"We think you are a great bloke," said one.

"You've brought something new to the game here, have you taken anything from us, Arsene?" inquired another.

Even Wenger, who normally conceals his emotions rather well for a Frenchman, appeared moved. He replied that, indeed, he had; the English, of all people, had taught him about passion. There can be no denying Wenger's sincerity, he is deeply in love with the English game which clearly goes beyond his attachment to the Gunners. Now was not the time, though, to talk about contracts, or even the Double - "that's unprofessional" - but if Arsenal were to offer him a new contract at the end of the season? "If they want, why not?"

And if they don't? "I would accept that. I still need to work to survive, I cannot go fishing. If another club were interested..."

They were even putting him up for the England job, but he drew the line at that. "I would not say no, but I think in England it is important to be English for such a job and I wouldn't consider doing it here - unless I decided to stay for 10 to 15 years and I considered myself English."

In the meantime they could do worse than put him in charge of our 2006 World Cup bid. "If I want to make anyone happy, I invite them to an English game, just to experience the special spirit," he said. He had noticed it on his first visit here 20 years ago, and hoped then that he would one day work in England. "I was always a fanatic, but here you have the feeling that you are not the only one. The biggest passion is here. There is a respect for the fans which you don't find abroad."

There is also, of course, a special spirit among the Highbury players which Wenger, upon his arrival, had been anxious not to disturb. "I would say it is difficult to find that same togetherness at other big clubs, like Real Madrid or Inter, because they change the players every year or every other year. Patience at most clubs doesn't exist any more."

Because of that "togetherness," it had taken time for his French signings to become assimilated although, "I never thought there was a split in the camp. It's natural, the players already here had been together for 10 years - the French players had to prove they wanted to win just as much as them. They also had to adapt to the English game. At first they felt that the game should adapt to them."

Asked if Wembley conjured up for him the same romantic notions that it does for countless Englishmen, he came back quick as a flash: "We had very realistic ones because we tried to buy it."