Monumental job deserves a monument

Arsène's Arsenal: 'He has revolutionised the club. He was not impressed with the culture he saw and changed it'

Any assumptions David Dein might have had about the genteel world of the Arsenal boardroom - all 1930s art deco chairs and bone china teacups - were shattered as brutally as the window through which a brick sailed as supporters demonstrated their fury following a 2-1 home defeat by Walsall in the 1983-84 Football League Cup. Only a short time after he had become a director of that august insti-tution, it was an early and rather frightening insight into what he had taken on.

Yet within six years, Arsenal, under George Graham, were champions of England again; two more years, and they repeated the achievement, going through an entire League campaign with one defeat, a feat the experts proclaimed could never be bettered. And last weekend, when Paul Durkin blew his final whistle at Highbury, they had done so, thanks, it is generally agreed, to the man Dein was instrumental in propelling into the manager's job. It seemed an appropriate time for a notoriously reluctant interviewee to open up on the subject of his favourite club and favourite manager.

Having first watched Arsenal as a six-year-old, Dein found himself a director after selling his London and Overseas Sugar Company to devote more time to football, pledging a reported £300,000 to the club. Only three months later, the brick came through the window.

"It was a seminal moment for me," Dein recalled after lunch in his favourite Islington restaurant. "On 29 November 1983 we lost to Walsall, we were 16th or 17th in the League and looked as if we could get relegated. Obviously something had to be done." Terry Neill was sacked as manager soon afterwards and his successor, Don Howe, resigned two seasons later when the board sounded out Terry Venables about the job.

Graham, an excellent appointment from Millwall, restored the club to their proper standing, and when it became clear that he had to leave in 1995, Dein was all for taking a chance with a scholarly Alsatian he had first encountered some seven years earlier. Arsenal have his wife, Barbara, to thank for the introduction that would come to have huge significance for the club's future. At a Highbury match in 1988 she asked her husband if he was aware that the manager of Monaco was present (according to one version of the tale, he had inadvertently wandered into the directors' wives' room). Arsène Wenger accepted an invitation to dinner, and later that evening demonstrated a breadth of knowledge wider than the average football manager's when required to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at charades.

Seven years on, Monaco had won the French championship and reached a European Cup semi-final, but Dein was unable to persuade his fellow directors to break the mould and appoint a foreign coach. Once it became apparent after little more than a season that Bruce Rioch was not, after all, the man for the job, the recommendation was finally accepted. Even then, Wenger was famously headlined as "Arsène who?"

"The most important decision for a board to make is to appoint the right manager," Dein says. "Our best signing was Arsène Wenger. When he saw the culture he inherited he was not impressed, and he changed it. He transformed and revolutionised the club and I think set new standards in English football. He said to the players that if they adopted his philosophy in life, they'd extend their careers.

"It was, 'Please yourself, if you want to stick to your hamburgers and lager, you'll be down the pan, playing in the Third Division'. Ask players like Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Martin Keown. We've employed a sports psychologist in the past, but you don't need one when you've got Arsène."

Although he will take an occasional glass of wine, the manager's devotion to duty goes beyond the call of it. Dein recalls an example from this historic season: "We played at Chelsea in the League and that was a big victory for us. You would have thought most managers would have been out to Langan's or wherever they go. That night I popped round to see him at home, and he's got his feet up in his usual position, watching Celta Vigo playing Zaragoza or somebody.

"I said to him couldn't he take the night off for once, and he said no, no, no, we were playing Champions' League next week and for the next hour and a half I couldn't speak to him. What's Arsène Wenger like? That's Arsène Wenger.

"I believe he must have a job for life at Arsenal for what he's achieved. He's smart enough to know when the time would be right not to be a manager-coach any more. But he feels that the team's got a long way to go. After all, they're his players he's brought in. He's had 102 transfers in and out and you won't get 100 per cent success rate with that, but he's made very few mistakes. And he's not a big spender. He's plucked Kolo Touré from obscurity, Patrick Vieira who couldn't get into the Milan team, Thierry Henry, who was going on loan from Juventus to Udinese."

And his position in the pantheon of Arsenal managers? "It's an unfair comparison, but I think he's usurped Herbert Chapman. He's won three championships in seven full seasons, which Herbert Chapman didn't do, and if you have a look at his record, being second in the other four seasons." No wonder the club have discussed commissioning a bust of their manager to sit alongside Chapman's in Highbury's marble hall. Within two years, of course, both would have to be moved up the road to the new stadium at Ashburton Grove, to which Wenger has been as committed as anyone, even when the huge sums required for it briefly restricted his spending last summer.

For Dein: "When we leave Highbury I'll feel very sad, it's been part of our heritage for so long. It's home and for our fans it's their church, their synagogue, their temple, their mosque. But everybody realises if we want to compete with the best we cannot remain at Highbury. We would be a middle-of-the-table club."

As Terry Neill discovered, that will never again be good enough for a club now celebrating what their vice-chairman regards as the sporting equivalent of the four-minute mile; the difference being that running a mile in that time is now commonplace. The double challenge for next season is the almost mutually incompatible one of retaining the Premiership title (something Arsenal have not done since 1935) and finally succeeding in Europe.

The Champions' League may be infinitely harder to win than the old European Cup, but for many the current team cannot genuinely be regarded as a great one until they have done it. "We were very close to getting through to the semi-final this season and if we had, I think personally there's a very fair chance we'd have won it," Dein insists. "From the days when the club was going nowhere we are now on a par, in many respects punching our weight, with the best in Europe.

"In sporting terms we've done something unique. Whether we ever see in our lifetime somebody [else] go through a whole season unbeaten I very much doubt, even with Chelsea throwing all their money at it. Arsenal will be the Roger Bannister of football. Our supporters can say to their children and to their grand- children, Arsenal went through a whole season unbeaten."