Wenger's passion reflected in team of ultimate panache

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The Independent Football

Once Islington Council approved the plans for the Ashburton Grove stadium development, and the bankers agreed the loans, there was never any doubt that Arsène Wenger would agree a new contract at Arsenal. That the team is playing some of the best football the English game has ever seen is a bonus, but for Wenger the deciding factor was this investment in bricks and mortar (or rather, tubular steel and plexiglass).

Once Islington Council approved the plans for the Ashburton Grove stadium development, and the bankers agreed the loans, there was never any doubt that Arsène Wenger would agree a new contract at Arsenal. That the team is playing some of the best football the English game has ever seen is a bonus, but for Wenger the deciding factor was this investment in bricks and mortar (or rather, tubular steel and plexiglass).

Not that flesh and blood are irrelevant. Wenger has a relationship with his board, in particular vice-chairman David Dein, that most managers enjoy only in their dreams. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, for all his successes, has often been at odds with the Old Trafford hierarchy, the undercurrent master-and-serf hangover of the Martin Edwards era exacerbated by the constraints of Manchester United being a plc.

At Arsenal, Wenger has carte blanche when it comes to the team and is an influence on many other aspects of the club. The state-of-the-art London Colney training ground was designed to his exacting specifications and he has long advocated the move to Ashburton Grove - readily accepting the limits this imposed on his transfer dealing. Such is the respect in which Wenger is held that Peter Hill-Wood, the chairman, has spoken of his someday being given a seat on the board. At Old Trafford, when it seemed Ferguson would retire, he was only offered a nebulous roving ambassadorial role. The contrast with Real Madrid, the only serious contenders for Wenger's signature in recent years, is even greater. The Real president, Florentino Perez, regards managers as mechanics. He buys the car, they do the servicing. If the coach loses matches because he has been given an unbalanced squad the coach is changed, not the players.

In England, though not in Europe, Wenger was unknown when he took over at Arsenal in September 1996. Though he had been successful at Monaco, and in Japan, his appointment was still a gamble. Jozef Venglos had just failed at Aston Villa and the new foreigner was greeted with the question: "Arsène Who?" But one Englishman knew. Former international Mark Hateley, who had played under Wenger at Monaco, declared: "Wenger is the best coach in Europe. He will make Arsenal great."

Three championships, including two Doubles, have followed with the lowest finishing position, third, coming in Wenger's first - incomplete - season. His success opened the door for Gérard Houllier, Rafael Benitez, Jacques Santini and Sven Goran Eriksson. He has made world-class players of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole and turned Arsenal into a team which across the continent challenges Real Madrid for the neutrals' support.

He was lucky to inherit a squad which had begun to play more attractively under Bruce Rioch yet retained the mean defence George Graham had painstakingly constructed. Wenger also inherited Dennis Bergkamp, a Rioch signing, and arrived within weeks of Tony Adams following Paul Merson in admitting he was an alcoholic. Adams was the dominant dressing-room figure and his confession made him receptive to the changes in diet and lifestyle Wenger was to institute.

The Gunners' one blank has been in Europe with Arsenal yet to reach even the semi-finals of the Champions' League - a feat achieved by Manchester United, Leeds United and Chelsea in the last five seasons. Continued failure will not be for want of trying.

In an early interview, Wenger told me he knew nothing of London, just the journeys from his home to Highbury, London Colney and Heathrow. Little has changed. Even Dein, now a close friend, can rarely lure him away from football and what spare time Wenger has he spends with his partner, Annie, and daughter, Leah. This need to immerse himself daily in football is one reason why Arsenal were also confident Wenger would not respond to overtures from France, Japan, Germany and - if Dein could be outflanked - England, to take over national teams.

Though he is usually calm and often funny, there is a tension within Wenger which is evident on the touchline and has exploded at times - notably at Old Trafford at the weekend. This intensity goes with the job and, like most of his counterparts Wenger has paid for it. There is a photograph in an old magazine of him chatting to George Weah, the great Liberian forward he discovered in Africa and moulded at Monaco. Wenger has luxuriant brown hair and a youthful face. He looks in his late thirties. Then you examine the dateline: August 1996 - barely eight years ago and, significantly, a month before he arrived at Highbury. The 55-year-old Wenger is now grey-haired with bags under the eyes and lines on his brow.

Upon signing his previous contract, soon after Houllier - his friend and compatriot - suffered a heart attack, Wenger admitted that extending his tenure as a Premiership manager could shorten his life. He was sanguine. "Maybe I will die early but this is the life I have always wanted and that is all that matters," he said. "It's a choice between a passionate life and a really quiet one; and, for me, that's no choice."

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