Arsenal are evidently taking no chances with Arsène Wenger. Having gained possession of their manager's soul, the north London club are concerned that the Frenchman's constitution should remain strong. "Arsène appears to handle the stress of football management fine," maintained the club's vice-chairman David Dein. "But we are making sure he has an extensive heart check-up every six months."
Dein's remark was presumably intended as a light-hearted retort to his manager's observation last weekend that he would rather die prematurely as a football manager than live a boring life. But it is also confirmation, if any were required, that Wenger is as valuable an asset to the club as their proposed new stadium, for which planning permission was given by Islington council last week.
It is not merely for his day-to-day direction of the players that Wenger is regarded with such esteem, but for his ability to lure the best in world football, and then to retain them. "I think Arsenal have been blessed by Arsène's presence. You have got to appreciate the talent of the players we are seeing now because in life you only appreciate something when it's gone," reflected Dein after a remarkable nine days in which his club had confirmed their manager's continued presence as well as the go-ahead for their new stadium and had re-affirmed their right to be regarded as authentic Premiership championship challengers.
"He's an extraordinary talent. We know he was in great demand from many of the top European clubs and national associations. I would be disappointed if he wasn't. When Arsène took over as manager five years ago he brought a new dimension to the club, through his extraordinary knowledge of world players, his dietary and disciplinary ideas and his dealing with players on an intellectual level.
"Originally, some people said 'Arsène who?' but you have to say he has changed football in this country and a lot of others have followed suit since, with the likes of Gérard Houllier, Jean Tigana and of course Sven Goran Eriksson. Had Arsène left, no doubt many of the players would have been tempted to leave as well, and in any event, it would have been very unsettling for the club. Arsène's got that knack of discovering talent like Patrick [Vieira], Thierry [Henry] and Robert Pires and getting the best out of them. So we've got to be very grateful because he's a class act."
Nevertheless, the predators from Italy and Spain will continue to prowl menacingly outside the Highbury camp. "The key players are all on long contracts," said Dein. "But Arsenal have many world-class players. You can expect them to be coveted by every major club in Europe and rightly so. Who wouldn't want Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry?"
Planning permission for the new stadium, due to be opened in readiness for the 2004-5 season at nearby Ashburton Grove, was finally given by the council on Monday night. Ostensibly, the development will help propel Arsenal into the unofficial super league of European clubs. But Dein is well aware that similar projects elsewhere have encountered trouble and simultaneously damaged team expansion plans.
"We have a robust business plan which our bankers are comfortable with," he said. "We believe that we will be able, from our own and external sources, to complete the project without endangering team building. We are not a club that flies by the seat of our pants. We have got 115 years of heritage to protect."
He added: "When we played our Champions' League matches at Wembley, we got 73,000 at every game. We knew we had to move, but that gave us courage. Without it, we are in danger of losing a generation of fans. However, the development is ring-fenced. Arsène will still have his budget for team development. You cannot have a state-of-the-art stadium but not a team to match. To be successful and to win trophies, you have to retain your best talent."
One trophy that Arsenal won't be claiming this season is the Worthington Cup. Squad players got their chance on Tuesday night at Blackburn Rovers when Arsenal were defeated 4-0. On the same night, Tottenham Hotspur accounted for a "weakened" Bolton Wanderers 6-0.
It poses two obvious questions: should we persevere with a competition in which several of the entrants have no serious interest in progressing, and in such circumstances, should the winners of that competition gain a European place? The Ipswich chairman, David Sheepshanks, campaigned long and hard for that prize when Uefa would have preferred to remove it. But in the light of many Premiership clubs' attitude towards the Worthless Cup, was it a worthwhile fight? Yet if the incentive of a European place was removed it would further diminish the major clubs' interest, together with its value as a revenue-earning device for the lower-league clubs.
Dein concedes that it is a dilemma for all concerned, but insists: "We are allowed to field a squad team, so we work within the rules of the Football League competition. It does give our squad players an opportunity, and don't forget that a lot of our squad players are internationals, with first-team experience."
With the Premiership chairman voting almost unanimously against the so-called Phoenix League, or "Premiership Division Two" this week, the plight of Football League clubs has again been brought sharply into focus.
There will undoubtedly be accusations of self-interest, to the detriment of all other clubs, directed against the elite. But Dein, the vice-chairman of the Football Association, who was one of the architects of the creation of the Premier League 10 years ago, insisted: " There was no appetite for the Phoenix League [among Premier League clubs]. The Premier League is now the foremost league in Europe and has arguably usurped the Italian and Spanish leagues. It is like a high-quality express train with 20 carriages. Adding another 24 would only slow it down."
Dein believes that instead of a so-called Phoenix League, the Football League may have to restructure itself. He has not discounted the inclusion of Scottish giants Celtic and Rangers into the Football League structure, as he believes that the two would add extra value to the League and certainly enhance any future televsion deals.
However, Dein, who is also opposed to any breakaway European league involving top Premiership clubs, warned that if either of the Glasgow clubs are to join the English set-up, they have a number of hurdles to overcome – namely convincing the Scottish FA and the Scottish Premier League, then Uefa, the English FA, The Football League and The Premier League.
"But whatever happens with restructuring we have got to be careful that we don't destroy the grass roots, because we still want the likes of David Beckham and Tony Adams to come through the system," he said.Reuse content