James Lawton: Wenger may be out of fashion but his credo remains wholly admirable

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The Independent Football

With three of the great French philosophers indisposed for various reasons, including mortality, Great Ormond Street Hospital's charity initiative in partnership with Arsenal Football Club this week was no doubt more than happy with the man who came leaping off the bench.

Let's face it, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire, even Eric Cantona, would have struggled to generate quite the number of column inches commanded by Arsène Wenger on the eve of a Premier League season.

Less enthusiastic, possibly, were some Arsenal fans when the great man seemed to be debating the deeper promptings of his muse rather than their own more immediate concern over a serious title run starting with the visit to Goodison Park today.

Some of Wenger's agonisings undoubtedly carried the whiff of an intellectual corner of a Left Bank café.

"What will happen if you do not win?" he asked. "Why do you not buy players? When you allow that to infiltrate your brain too deeply you become guided by it too. Life drags you down and if you do not make the effort to rise above it you are being punched right and left so much that you do not even notice any more. Once you are in that state it becomes hard to say to your team, 'I believe you are good.'"

The Americans have an expression when a point is made that is not immediately accessible to their own thought process. They exclaim, "Say what?" Yes, it is a form of mockery, and in his time Wenger no doubt has provoked more of it than most public figures, outside of politics at least. However, if ever a man qualified for favourable judgement not on what he says but what he does surely it is the manager of Arsenal.

What Wenger does is adhere unswervingly to the belief that his job is to make football beautiful and that sometimes – in his case three times in 13 years – it is also possible to make it the most successful form of the game played in this land.

If Wenger is to be mocked then so is everyone who ever makes a stand on what he believes to be right and wrong, and if there were times this week when he spoke to various newspapers, in the cause of the Great Ormond Street charity, with what some might have deemed excessive flights of his fancy, who could begin to suggest that at the heart of his philosophy there wasn't one huge piece of granite-like integrity?

It lay in his explanation of why he had turned his back on Real Madrid – and his knowledge of their plans for a vast extension of player recruitment. It was because at Arsenal he had a dream to make a team, not buy one, a team he could nourish and make strong at the inevitable broken places and then in the end gather his players together, especially those who had seen the point of the enterprise and stayed on, and say, "Look, this is what we achieved, this is what we made." A dreamy ambition, one detached from the realities of oligarch power, American corporate borrowing strategy and Middle Eastern windfall, of course, but one which he refused to surrender when Real came with their blandishments and their budget.

Had Wenger said yes to Madrid he would have been their 14th coach in 13 years – or, put another way, the time, precisely, that he has devoted to his obsessive need to make Arsenal a beautiful and a winning team.

Of course, Wenger did the right thing if every football man is to be judged not on his opportunism but a deeper body of work, a commitment to the idea that he can shape the play and the ethos of a great club. Two questions: who is the current coach of Real? And who do you think of as the man responsible for the development of the club with the greatest record in European football?

The first answer is Manuel Pellegrini, a 55-year-old Chilean who did good work at Villarreal, and the second is surely Florentino Perez, whose most profound belief is that in football, as in life, money can buy you everything you want.

What would Wenger have done to himself if he had gone to the Bernabeu? It would have been the most outright betrayal but perhaps some at the Emirates would have been less than aghast. Maybe some would have said that it was time for a change, that Wenger had run his course and now his pride was not an inspiration but an obstacle to a return to those years when the title was always at touching distance, and indeed was once gathered in without a single defeat.

Some argued that was the greatest team ever assembled in the English game, which was an outrageous push but unquestionably it did produce some of the sweetest football ever seen in these islands.

Now Wenger bares his soul, which he agrees is obsessively, if not disturbingly, filled with football, and in a way that doesn't require a moment of professorial analysis. He says, "I knew what Madrid were about to do but I have a project here which I started four years ago and I wanted to reach the end of it. I could not leave this team at this stage of their development.

"The team we now have gets there, and by that I meant it wins the championship. At 22 or 23 I think a team is mature enough to deliver and it is a massively important year for our club. I know people have no patience any more but I agreed on a structure at the club that I believed could work and we are at the period now when we will see whether I was right."

Wenger, some were saying all over again this week, is down at the bottom of the garden communing with the fairies. Or he is somewhere else. He is at the cutting edge of what still might just make big-time football worthwhile. A lot depends on what we want from the game. Wenger wants the very best – and, the instinct here says, so should we.

Batting crisis a worthy source of Aussie mirth

Trust an Australian to shine the most withering light on England's pantomime search for a No 3 batsman who will not walk to The Oval wicket with all the in-built jauntiness of a man facing the firing squad.

Stuart Clark was asked if there was a single Englishman who might bring a little fear if he should appear first wicket down. After the briefest of frowns, he declared: "Maybe WG Grace."

The worst aspect of the fevered speculation over the possibilities of Rob Key, Ravi Bopara, Mark Ramprakash and Marcus Trescothick is the derision you know it is creating in Aussie hearts. Clark put his witticism aside and said brusquely: "It doesn't really matter to me, mate. It isn't my business."

No, it is is England's business and what a desperate one it is. Ramprakash makes a plea for the job, as though he is appealing to the judges of England's Got Talent. Unfortunately, it doesn't – not enough of it proven to be of the right calibre, anyway.

The crisis highlights nothing so much as a failure by England to come into the Ashes with battle-hardened troops. Some say that Bopara, after his spectacular arrival against the woebegone Windies, will come again as a major Test cricketer once The Oval crisis has passed, that he will benefit from a tactical withdrawal from the most important game played by his team for four years.

Bopara will be 28 the next time the Australians are here. Their former captain Steve Waugh once said: "It's not for me to tell England how to develop Test players, but they really should do a better job of identifying their best people – and then putting a little trust in them. Playing against England, you sometimes feel you are facing a cast of thousands." Most of them, it seems, operating in a sad and endless chorus line.

A shame Dunn has given up on poetry

There was a time when Blackburn Rovers' midfielder David Dunn was seen as a likely enough lad to follow his great predecessor Bryan Douglas into a significant England career.

Now it seems the 29-year-old is somewhat less committed to the poetry of the game, outlining his team's preferred strategy when the Manchester City plutocrats arrive at Ewood Park today, thus, "It's important we do our best and kick lumps out of them – fairly, of course."

The 75-year-old Douglas, a beautifully skilled winger who played 36 times for England and scored 11 goals, never had a lot to say for himself, not off the field. On it, he was eloquence itself. Even as lumps were kicked out of him, as they frequently were. Let's hope another little man, Robinho, survives to give us a breath of such days.

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