Arsène Wenger paid tribute yesterday to Pat Rice, who is stepping down as his assistant manager and will be replaced by the former defender Steve Bould. Rice has worked for Arsenal for 44 years but will leave at the end of the season.
"It's difficult to measure," Wenger said of Rice's contribution to the club. "He's just been tremendous. It's a sad, sad, sad day. His life was linked with Arsenal and Arsenal have been privileged to have him as a player, a captain, a coach, and personally I'm very grateful for his contribution to my period here."
Rice has been assistant manager throughout Wenger's tenure, having previously been a caretaker manager, a youth coach, and a player from 1966 to 1980. "I would like him to forgive me the bad moments I've given him as well," Wenger continued. "He's been a constant, loyal supporter. I'm just very grateful and privileged to have had him at my side for such a long time."
The new assistant manager will also be a man who was a successful Arsenal player. Bould played 11 seasons at Arsenal, including for Wenger's Double-winning side in 1997-98. He has spent the last few years coaching Arsenal's Under-18s, and Wenger said that such continuity was important.
"His qualities are that he has experience of top-level football," Wenger said of Bould. "He has managed here, he knows our football philosophy. So there'll be continuity. He's coached here at the club and we want to give advantage to people at the club who know how we work and know how to coach."
Wenger would not describe the change as a new era at the club, though. "One coach doesn't make a new era," he said. "It is the team and the players. We have to make all those things right. What is important is that we make all those things right. Good players on the pitch make a good team."
Arsenal's last game of the season is at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday and if they win they will secure third place and automatic Champions League qualification, but any thing less and they risk being pushed down to fourth place or even fifth, by Tottenham Hotspur and or Newcastle United.
The situation echoes what happened six years ago when Arsenal and Spurs were competing for the final Champions League berth. Spurs lost 2-1 to West Ham United that day, with many of their players afflicted by a mystery illness. It came to be known as "lasagnagate": Tottenham's failure was attributed to food poisoning, although tests did clear the hotel kitchen and found instead that one of the Spurs players had gastro-enteritis.
Wenger joked yesterday that if he had been preparing the Tottenham players' food the previous evening the problems would have been worse. "Frankly, I didn't know what happened," he said. "I didn't cook that day. If I had cooked more than three players would have been ill."
The reason are Arsenal are not home and hosed in the Champions League qualification race is because they have taken just three points from their last four games, which included a surprising home defeat to Wigan Athletic and a 3-3 draw with Norwich. Rather than feeling frustration at their position, though, Wenger is pleased with how Arsenal have fought back, having been 10 points behind Spurs in February.
"Ask our opponents, who were 10 or 15 points in front of us," Wenger said when asked if he was disappointed not to have Champions League football confirmed. "Three months ago, everybody would be happy to go into the final game with this. The Premier League is difficult. We came from a deep position in the league but, if you look at the way we've played to be where we are today, it's remarkable."
"If you were in my position," Wenger said, "you'd say you have an opportunity to secure third place and you want to take it. We'll face the consequences of what happens after. We're switched on. If we win the game, we don't need to look at anything else. I won't have my radio switched on."
Wenger hoped that Arsenal's big-game experience would ensure their success. "We have known final days like this," he said. "Games where we've played for championships, or qualifying for the Champions League. It's a fantastic opportunity for us, one we want to take. We are used to coping with that. At the end of the day, it's playing football. If we have more of the ball than West Brom, we'll have more chances to win the game. That's what we'll focus on."
The game will be Roy Hodgson's last as West Bromwich manager, and Wenger acclaimed the new England manager. "They're well organised," he said. "They play 4-4-2 very well. He has stabilised West Brom."