Arsene Wenger's unsigned contract is bound to sharpen the sense of drift at Highbury after a shockingly irresolute performance in Athens.
Arsene Wenger's unsigned contract is bound to sharpen the sense of drift at Highbury after a shockingly irresolute performance in Athens. Indeed, bad news from Derby this afternoon will no doubt persuade many despairing North London souls that the game might just be about up, especially as it affects the ambitions of the brilliant Frenchman.
He is said to have never looked more depressed than in the aftermath of a game in which Thierry Henry was high on emotion but devoid of performance, and Patrick Vieira was a parody of the midfielder who at his peak is a devastating compendium of both strength and bitingly acute penetration. Such shortcomings in two key players alone would have been enough to bring down any manager's spirits, but Wenger had so many other deficiencies, both moral and technical, to consider on the cheerless journey home from Greece. The fact is that the club have lost much in the last year or so. They have lost width, the old certainties in defence, and the relentless drive of Emmanuel Petit. But most of all they have lost an illusion, a rather magical one that, however briefly, underpins all the great achievements in club football.
It is one of permanence. The ambitions of the manager, the man who shapes everything, and the players come together in a great bond of mutual interest. The sun will never set on their glory. They are a band of brothers, sure in their goals and confident in their leadership. Out of this comes momentum, belief, an ability to build on strengths and rectify weaknesses. Of course it is an illusion, but for a while it becomes real in the minds and the hearts of the players who have to go out to win the trophies. Busby's Manchester United had it and Ferguson's, despite some alarmist reports, may yet have it again, especially if David Beckham and Ruud van Nistlerooy remember to track back at vital points in a big European tie, which they critically omitted to do when Deportivo struck so late and devastatingly for the winner this week. Revie's Leeds had belief that they would go on for ever, and so did the Spurs of Nicholson, the Forest of Clough and Jock Stein's Celtic.
But we are talking here about a British way of club football, and the time when such dynasties could be formed and held together over a number of years has plainly long gone. Indeed, in these post-Bosman days the notion of a Bobby Charlton or a Johnny Giles serving out the prime of his career with one club is indeed bizarre. Just to emphasise the point, Steve McManaman, currently being paid £65,000 a week for intermittent service for Real Madrid, lectures Michael Owen on the need to move on from Anfield when his new four-year contract expires.
It is surely no coincidence that the two outstanding English teams of the 1990s were United and Arsenal. Ferguson brought through the last serious crop of homegrown players and Wenger was intelligent enough to exploit the defensive foundation of George Graham's championship team. Now Leeds have their hopes with such as Alan Smith and Harry Kewell, and Liverpool can point to Owen, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher, but never before have the practices of big-time football worked against the ideal of stability.
Imagine what Arsenal might be today if Wenger had been able to continue to nurse the fragile but haunting talent of Nicolas Anelka, if he still had at his disposal the pace and bite of Marc Overmars on the flank and the consistent zeal of Petit. All three players expressed their desire to leave despite opulent contracts. Now, as the flame in Arsenal dwindles so low, as Vieira wears the demeanour of a man who would rather be somewhere else, and, despite his protestations, is increasingly dismayed by Arsenal's failure to seriously compete with United, it is not hard to understand Wenger's reluctance to sign away the next few years. Wenger knows better than most that Ferguson's 15-year stint at Old Trafford has become a football anomaly. It just doesn't happen that way any more.
Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, and Sven Goran Eriksson know that in Europe you have an obligation to move ahead of the bullet. Yesterday's success does not preclude a death warrant today. Terry Venables won the Spanish title under the weight of Real Madrid, and took Barcelona to a European Cup final, but was soon enough fighting for his life at the Nou Camp. Jupp Heynckes was fired by Real Madrid eight days after winning the 1998 European Cup final. Now that we have grafted on the culture of European football, now that agents are scenting new possibilities even before the ink of their client's latest contract is dry, even the most brilliant of coaches has a strictly limited time to make his impact.
The real message from Athens may have been that Wenger's time has indeed come and gone at Highbury. Certainly he is far too shrewd not to understand that in the flux of Arsenal's last two seasons something hard and splendid has begun to erode and that it may indeed be an irreversible process.
Certainly every day that passes without his signature going on the Arsenal contract seems to increase the possibility that he could emerge as the favourite to succeed Ferguson at Old Trafford at the end of the season. There are other strong contenders, no doubt, and not least the messianic Martin O'Neill of Celtic. But Wenger has certain qualities which mark him down as a natural candidate, most notably a flair for distinguishing so quickly the difference between good and potentially great talent. That knack glowed most strongly in the signing and the development of Vieira, Petit, Anelka and Overmars. Of course like all managers he has had his failures, but in that quartet he shaped with stunning economy the nucleus of a team that threatened all rivals. Now it would not be surprising if he concludes that that particular dream has faded irretrievably.
In Athens there was an overwhelming sense of lost will and a flattened horizon, and perhaps also the idea that a superbly gifted football man had done as much as he could at a place he so quickly lifted to the stars. Athens may have been the end of something and, who knows, Old Trafford may, just, be the start of something else.