The Question always had to be asked. And he knew It was coming. "Have you signed your contract yet, Arsène?" Just in case he had slipped into his lawyer's office on the way home and dashed off a signature, and had omitted to mention it to anyone. For those of us who meet Arsène Wenger on a regular basis to discuss forthcoming matches it had become a standing private joke, with his answer invariably the same. "No," he used to say with extraordinary forbearance. "But it will be soon." "Why not?" somebody would attempt to press him. "There are a few small problems to be resolved."
When it had been revealed that finally the deed had been done last week, and after the formalities had been dealt with at Arsenal's London Colney training ground, he strode over and said: "What do we do now? OK, let's play cards." That is about as close as you will get to ribald comedy from Wenger, who is as liable to raise a laugh as he is to drop Patrick Vieira. Even as a child, he was described as "solemn". His humour tends to be as dry as the skin which threatens to flake off that skeletal frame of his. Yet, despite the fact that he knew he would be staying, the club's movers and shakers did, and so did most of the media, Thursday's confirmation appeared to impart a hint of joie de vivre into those earnest features. To most Wenger-watchers, he was unusually philosophical.
A performance against Juventus two days earlier, which, in most Arsenal supporters' eyes, came tantalisingly close to perfection, may have been complicit in that demeanour. But it was almost as if, to the 52-year-old Frenchman, this was a critical moment; the last five years had been mere preparation, the Double in his first full season an unanticipated bonus. Now, with a new 60,000-capacity stadium in prospect, the time was ripe to install Arsenal at the pinnacle of European and domestic football.
That time has no limits. The ink of the most-discussed signature in football had barely met blotting paper when Wenger began to talk about prolonging his tenure. Arsenal's vice-chairman, David Dein, had already spoken of his desire that Wenger should remain at the club in a role such as director of football even after his tracksuit had been folded away. But for the moment that appears a distant decision. How long would he continue in management, he was asked. "I don't know. It could be four years. It could be 10."
The latter would take him to a year older than his great adversary Sir Alex Ferguson is now. "You have to respect his decision," the Frenchman said of the Scot. "A man who has had around 25 years in management and who is 61 has the right to do what he wants. For me, he has done the right thing."
But what of his own future? There are those, particularly with his compatriot Gérard Houllier's health in mind, who might question the wisdom of pursuing such a stressful career to such lengths. "They are right," said Wenger. "But it is a choice between a passionate life and a really quiet life. For me, that's no choice. I came into this job after I finished playing because I wanted to stay in football, and it has led me to extreme emotions. But it has taught me a lot about myself. So, I cannot complain. Maybe I will die two or three years earlier, perhaps 10, but I'd rather that than lead a boring life. It's the life I wanted."
It is extraordinary to recall that he was an anonymous figure to many in England when he made his first public appearance at Highbury on 22 September, 1996. Seven years at Monaco had probably not helped that perception, followed by a period in Japan. There were those who said he was too cautious, a rich man who didn't need to be successful in the game, a runner-up rather than a winner. Even the Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, conceded: "I'm sure initially everyone thought we'd gone mad when we appointed Arsène." The manager gives you that rather forced smile. "Of course, I knew that when I arrived here I would have to convince people that I could do a good job," Wenger said. "But I had nothing to lose. If I was very bad and results were poor, then people would just have said, 'OK, he is as bad as we thought he was'."
Despite the endorsement of men like Glenn Hoddle, who attempted to persuade his former coach at Monaco to become the FA's director of football, many believed his career in England would be short-lived. Particularly so when malicious gossip about his private life materialised. "At that moment, I really could not imagine I would stay here for too long," he recalled. But on the steps of Highbury he emphasised his commitment to the club and his adopted country.
"The heart of this country is a passion for football," he said. "I'm happy to work in England because I feel that my passion is shared. No matter where I go, football is part of life here. And it is a positive love. In some countries it is negative. Some of my friends who support football in France, in Italy, in Spain came to watch the game against Juventus and they all admired it greatly. 'Well, it's a different experience,' they told me. 'There's something special here'."
For Wenger, the same applies to Arsenal. There were overtures from several quarters, national federations as well as clubs here and abroad. Manchester United was probably an option. "I didn't consider the size of other clubs at all," he said. "The most important thing was whether I wanted to stay here. And you just know whether you're happy somewhere or not, and if I could achieve more here. Once I was convinced of that, it was quite obvious to me that I should stay."
He added: "I had built a team with young players, and experienced players who can help them achieve things. It was not like I had a team which has grown old, that there were eight players over 30 years, and they'd gone as far as I could. If I had had that feeling I would have said OK. That's enough. But it's not like that. I feel we can go a lot further."
Arsenal can, but much depends on Islington Council's planning consent for a new stadium to be constructed at Ashburton Grove. The council's decision will be made tomorrow night. The project and its likelihood of going ahead was a significant part in Wenger's thinking. "If we build the new stadium, we can certainly compete financially with Manchester United and the big boys in Europe," said Hill-Wood. The council's planning officer has compiled 900 pages on the arguments for and against, and though the Arsenal board are "quietly confident", they face vociferous opposition from some local residents and businesses. If consent is refused, the men of Highbury will consider throwing themselves from that tower of documents. Ashburton Grove is Plan A. There is no Plan B.
Wenger believes that Arsenal possess greater potential than they exhibited during the 1997-98 Double season, but the realisation of that depends greatly on the retention of key personnel, particularly Vieira, who has since made positive noises about his Highbury future. "I would like him to stay for his whole career at Arsenal because he has become part of the ambition of the club," said the manager. "There is a frenetic love between Patrick Vieira and the fans. That part of the message which Patrick gives out is very important to the fans."
Wenger added: "What is important for the players at the moment is that they feel there is some stability and that the club have ambition and continuity." And that ambition? "To become the best in Europe." It is a tall order, but with a young and improving team and one of the world's most sought-after managers to galvanise them, a far from Anglo-French fantasy.Reuse content