Gérard Houllier tells a good story about the first connection of his old friend Arsène Wenger with English football, and Arsenal, about 18 years ago when Wenger had recently taken over at Monaco. It was the French season's winter break so while everyone else went on holiday, Wenger wanted to watch some football. Houllier put him in contact with a family he knew in Highgate, in north London, with whom Wenger stayed while watching a few games. One crucial fact: the Wilmots are, in Houllier's words, "diehard Arsenal fans".
Was it then that the seed was planted? Should it be, as Wenger celebrates 10 years of stupendous achievement at Arsenal, the Wilmot family of Highgate to whom the Emirates Stadium gives thanks? Less than 10 years after that visit to north London, during Euro 1996, Houllier would be in a car with the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, who asked him his opinion on a Frenchman then managing in Japan without really knowing the two were close friends. "Of course, I said Arsène was the man for the job," Houllier says, "although I think they had made up their minds by then."
Unravelling the secret of Wenger's success, and the elements of his personality that have contributed to it, is an exceptionally difficult task, strangely so given that, to a large extent, he is generally the most open of the Premiership's biggest managerial characters. There are no hints of suppressed rage, no glimpses of a psyche battered and damaged in a manner that only a career in football management can inflict. He seems to have managed for 10 years against Sir Alex Ferguson and now Jose Mourinho, all those great players bought, some of them lost, that business with the pizza at Old Trafford two years ago and, well, dealt with it all.
So if English football cannot define a manager's personality by his most spectacular breakdowns, then it has to be by his eccentricities and peculiar tricks of the trade that define him, and with Wenger there are plenty. You may not know that at AS Nancy, his first management job, he was so concerned with his players' diet that not only did he lecture them on eating correctly but he also invited their wives to the training ground to teach them how to cook for an athlete.
Or that in those early days at Nancy and later Monaco, his flat was barely furnished, left with just the basics and crucially a video recorder to allow him to watch endless matches from other divisions and other countries. Houllier remembers that when Wenger was in charge of Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan in the mid-1990s - and the former Liverpool manager was French football's technical director - Wenger would wake up especially early because of the time difference just to call him and chat about players.
As one of Wenger's close friends and a Frenchman who truly understands his compatriot's effect on English football, Houllier is best placed to discuss what makes Wenger great. Speaking this week to the Lyon manager, who does not accord praise lightly, you got the sense of the scope of Wenger's achievement from another perspective.
"He opened the door not only for the French but for lots of managers, his success probably gave ideas to others," Houllier says. "The same way Cantona opened the door for French players, the same way he opened the door for French coaches."
Houllier remembers the coach he met at the French football federation coaching courses in Vichy in 1982 as a driven man - and he had every reason to be. In one of the best insights into Wenger, Jasper Rees' book Wenger: the making of a legend, Max Hild the coach who signed him as a player for AS Mutzig (then in one of six regional leagues in the third tier of French football) said it was a pity he was spotted at 20. If they had got him five years earlier, he said, the teenage Wenger could have been moulded into something quite special.
These small fragments are fascinating although it would surely be too simplistic to say that because of that missed opportunity Wenger has dedicated himself to the development of brilliant young footballers. That said, he has made an art of it. When Theo Walcott agreed to sign for Arsenal last January, the first thing Wenger asked him when they met at Dein's house was whether he was tired. The teenager, who had already played 23 games for Southampton that season, searched for the right answer, eventually settling for the honest one, which was "yes". Wenger told him not to worry about all the attention around his signing, to go on holiday and come back when he felt refreshed.
If that is what he does for the young players then consider this testimony from one of his golden oldies, Lee Dixon, who was 32 when Wenger arrived at Arsenal but played on for another six years. "A geography teacher" was how Dixon remembered his first impression of Wenger, a man he knew very little about before meeting him.
"I recall Tony Adams and myself, in our first Wenger pre-season, going to see the boss just before the start of the campaign," Dixon says. "Our feeling was that we had not done enough running. We were concerned that the team wouldn't be fit enough. The manager calmly explained to us that it was all scientific and that the team would be fine. Have faith, he said. Sure enough, 10 days later we flew out of the blocks full of energy and raring to go. That man knows what he's talking about."
Back to Houllier, who says that he and Wenger have missed only two international tournaments between them since 1988. They travelled together a lot in their younger days to watch football. Wenger missed Euro 1996 because the Japanese season had not finished, Houllier the 2002 World Cup finals because he was still recovering from his heart problems. "What I noticed about him," Houllier says, "the first key factor was passion. I remember in 1991 he was well established as Monaco manager yet in the summer he still came to see the under-20 European Championships in Portugal."
Houllier describes the qualities of a great manager, and of Wenger, too - "First you need vision, then passion, expertise and motivation" - but he breaks off into a more personal appreciation of his friend. "He is a loyal guy - how can I put it? He does not forget people and I think I am in the circle of people that he trusts." It is a very tight circle, too, and when Wenger was asked yesterday about his back-room staff and their part in his legacy of 10 years, and if there was one figure who stood out, it was Boro Primorac, the big, bald Bosnian who was once a Yugoslavian international and a manager himself before he followed Wenger as his assistant to Japan in 1994 and has been alongside him ever since.
The relationship, however, tells you a lot about Wenger and one of the most traumatic periods of his management career. Yesterday he explained how his paths crossed with Primorac with customary understatement - "he [Primorac] was one of the guys who had this accident with [Bernard] Tapie in Valenciennes" - and for anyone with a passing interest in French football that scarcely begins to tell the story.
Valenciennes were the team that Tapie's Marseilles were found to have offered bribes in 1993, and it was the testimony of Primorac - Valenciennes' manager - that saw the club's president convicted. The rugged former defender put his career on the line giving evidence against Marseilles. Wenger, whose Monaco team had suffered the most because of Tapie's corruption, never forgot that. "I met him in Cannes," Wenger said casually yesterday, "he had no job" - although Primorac has not wanted for one since.
That episode with Tapie, after which many experts in French football believed that Monaco lost at least two of Marseilles' five titles to corrupt practice, and Wenger's time in Japan are the elements which transformed him from a hugely capable technical coach into a manager who could put together one of the greatest teams in English football.
"I think he has a philosophy for life," Houllier says. "Probably his stay in Japan helped, he will tell you. His philosophy towards football added to his philosophy of life, that's what we have in common as friends. You need to have values about life."
There has always been the perception that Wenger came to Arsenal as a nonentity and a novice - maybe in the closed Premiership-centric world of English football, but not to those of a wider perspective. There was a gulping disbelief when, last week, he said that he did not know where his three Premiership medals were or much else of what he had won in England. These are honours that are treated as life-defining in this country but not to Wenger whose life and career stretches much further than these shores and tends to look forwards not back.
In his career and life, he is a man who takes his time over things - he even waited until he was 48 before his first child was born - and while he has a reputation for being infallible it should not be forgotten that he was sacked from his first two jobs - an outcome that seems unthinkable now. Asked to pick out his greatest achievement it seemed obvious that Wenger picked the unbeaten Premiership-winning season of 2003-2004 because that is a mark of excellence that translates into any language or football culture.
"Like all successful managers he has a passion for the game that very few people have. He enjoys working but he works hard," Houllier says. "He's a very competitive man. He's stubborn because when he wants to reach something he gets his way. But family is one of his values that comes from his father and mother." It is those kind of tributes that cause such gnashing of teeth among Ferguson and Mourinho? Do they not have families, too? And values? Of course they do, but it is Wenger's ability not to take anything remotely seriously outside of the actual business of winning football that differentiates him. He may well have behaved badly towards Ferguson at Old Trafford after the 49-game unbeaten run came to an end but he still had a good laugh yesterday when it was put to him that the Manchester United manager - who celebrates 20 years in the job in November - was waiting for his old rival to retire first.
"I don't think I will beat Alex, I have no plan. I work tomorrow and that is it," Wenger said. "With your club it is a love story that you have to expect will last forever and also accept that you could leave tomorrow. You have to act every day like you will stay your whole life there but you must accept that, from one day to the next, it can stop. It is a bit like life."
Hero and villain How others see him
They got away with murder. What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport
- Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager (pictured below with Wenger), a year after the infamous Old Trafford match in September 2003.
He has done a brilliant job at Arsenal. He clearly lives for the game and all credit to him
- Roy Keane, Manchester United's former captain, September 2006
He is a good manager who has created good teams playing good football and he has won trophies for 10 years here in England, which is not easy. As one of the first foreign managers in the Premiership maybe it was difficult for him at first, but he has given the rest of us more possibilities
- Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's manager, yesterday
He gives youth a chance and plays entertaining football. He's what every manager should aspire to be: calm and thoughtful
- Iain Dowie, Charlton's manager, September 2006
I remember meeting up with the Arsenal players at England matches and they all raved about him. No one had a bad word to say about him or his methods. It is a pleasure to have him in England and hopefully he will stay for the next 10 years
- Stuart Pearce, Manchester City's manager, September 2006
Not only is he a great manager, he's a great human being too
- Thierry Henry, Arsenal's striker, September 2006Reuse content