Football: Full marks awarded to the French genius

Football is now a branch of show business, and Arsene Wenger has to deal with childish people in shorts
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SO ARSENAL, according to the Independent's fascinating table published last week, are the football team of the century, their average final league position of 8.5th pipping Liverpool (8.7th), Everton (10.6th) and Manchester United (10.9th).

Arsenal owe this formidable record to several great managers. Stand up George Graham, Bertie Mee and (the ghost of) Herbert Chapman. But Arsene Wenger is the greatest of them all, insists Laurence Marks, who has been going to Highbury for nigh on 50 years.

Marks is half of a celebrated television writing partnership. With Maurice Gran, he created Birds of a Feather, Shine on Harvey Moon, Goodnight Sweetheart - the list goes on. They are the Adams and Keown of TV, if you will. Or are Adams and Keown the Marks and Gran of defenders? Whatever, Marks believes that football is no longer sport, but a branch of show business. He deals with temperamental, childish people who put on make-up, Wenger with temperamental, childish people who put on shorts. In his book, there's little difference.

His book, now that I mention it, is A Fan For All Seasons - The Diary of an Arsenal Supporter (Little, Brown; pounds 16.99) and I recommend it unreservedly if you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present, whether for an Arsenal fan or not, for it deals with much besides. Marks is a remarkably assiduous diarist; since 1980 he has written 2,000 words a day, and his book is an edited version of his diary from August 1996 to November 1999.

It is fascinating stuff, and written from a position of privilege, for he has got to know various movers and shakers within the Arsenal camp. Literally a mover and shaker, in the case of the team doctor, with whom Marks had lunch following Arsenal's 1-1 Champions' League draw in Barcelona. Marks felt sure that Arsenal would win the forthcoming return leg. The doctor shook his head. The French genius - as Wenger is known at Highbury - had said that Arsenal couldn't possibly win, that Barcelona were too good. And so it proved.

The book also contains a wonderful story illustrating Wenger's diplomatic skills, told to Marks by the Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood. Apparently, there was terrible animosity between Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars, so Wenger called them together. Anelka sounded off in French - which Overmars did not understand - saying how much he hated the selfish Dutchman. Wenger listened calmly, and, when Anelka had got it all off his chest, told Overmars in English - which Anelka didn't understand - that Nicolas had apologised, had praised his footballing ability, and asked whether Marc could possibly give him a little more of the ball occasionally. Both players went home happy.

Last week I spent an engrossing couple of hours talking football with Marks. His memories of Highbury go back to the early 1950s, and in February 1958 he saw the Busby Babes there, winning a remarkable match 5-4, yet within a week eight of them were dead. I asked him who his Arsenal heroes have been over the years. He loved watching Joe Baker, and Charlie George (with whom he went to Holloway School, until Charlie was expelled) and Liam Brady. But he did not have another hero until Nwankwo Kanu came along, playing despite a serious heart defect. "The other week Kanu went down under a really heavy tackle and Tony Adams ran almost the length of the pitch to see if he was OK," Marks told me. "Adams clearly thought he'd had a heart attack. The doctor tells me it could happen at any time."

The real hero for Marks, though, is Wenger. "He is a diplomat, a linguist, and listening to him is like attending a university lecture. Yet he is obsessed with football. He can ring up a contact in Accra and say: `Tell me who's coming through in the Congo.' He knows so much. When he bought Vieira, all the people around me at Highbury were saying: `What a bloody idiot, he could have bought Jason McAteer.' So if there is one thing that stands out in my book, it is how wrong the fans are all of the time, including me. Now, when Wenger buys a player, the fans don't criticise. They know he must be right."

Like many Arsenal fans, Marks ascribes the team's shortcomings in Europe to playing nothing but away matches. Wembley, he adds, "is the most horrible stadium I've ever been to, and I've been to Chesterfield." So he was relieved when Wembley, even a rebuilt version, was rejected as a potential new home, although he accepts the need to leave Highbury. And if Highbury is developed as luxury flats, he says, he'll buy one. "No 4, The Arsenal. That's an address I would love to have."

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