James Lawton: Wenger's answer to the £100m question contains ominous forecast of bottom line
Saturday 29 September 2007
The divinity of Arsène Wenger, we should perhaps remind ourselves as he rides through English football ever higher on his white charger, is never guaranteed.
A bad call at Upton Park this weekend, a slice of good fortune for the Hammers and, who knows, the man who at the moment seems to be defining, day by day, how English football should be run, could easily be back in Pizzagate, one-eyed and snarling on the touchline, as he did so vehemently at times of frustration last season.
But then if there is enough in Wenger's track record for us to remember that no one is perfect, has anyone done more to demand our attention than the Arsenal manager when he tells us that English football is losing its soul?
His statement comes, with painfully exquisite timing, when another Russian moneyman again looms across the future of one of the nation's leading clubs. Alisher Usmanov seeks to extend his holdings in an Arsenal who have a golden tick in every box concerned with the development of a football dream: a secure and independent and brilliant manager; a new stadium, which he made possible with his achievements and which enables his team to compete with growing financial security against any football force on earth; a mother lode of talent, which this week enabled the club's second string to beat the perennially ambitious, and disappointed, Newcastle United in the Carling Cup; and a breathtaking surge to the top of the Premier League.
And at the apex of this thrilling endeavour? Wenger's glacially cool answer to the question about what he would do with a spending budget of £100m? "I would hand it back to the directors," he declared. Was that the smugness of a man on a roll? Or was it the considered response of a genuine football thinker, a man who long ago elected to do his job only on his own terms. The evidence supporting the second interpretation seems to become a little more mountainous each day.
This is the background against which Wenger's erstwhile No 1 ally David Dein works as the head of Usmanov's Red and White Holdings, but what is the point, what is the gain, and what kind of climate welcomes this enterprise?
It is one in which the great clubs of England, the old cornerstones of community, have been picked off one by one by foreign investors, and investing in what? Cash cows or playthings? In the end, it is likely not to matter to the fans. How many of them at Chelsea, for example, do not have pangs of regret when they think of a time when their club, for all its folly, was still about a collective passion more than an owner's wish?
Wenger, the Frenchman who for some now indeed represents the best of the English game, paints a bleak picture on a canvas which already has the grotesque splashes of Chelsea's recent experience.
When Jose Mourinho left Chelsea with a reported £18m in his back pocket, the Prime Minister was quick to approve a mushy statement of regret. Had Mourinho not brought so much colour and achievement to English football? Yes, Prime Minister, but also standards of behaviour which might not have passed muster in some rancorous back alley, and why would the first minister of the land intrude into all that Chelsea squalor, all that abandonment of any sense that this was a football club serving a large body of fans and not the whims of a passing oligarch?
If the Prime Minister is really interested in the national game, if he wants to know how it really stands behind the gaudy headlines and the self-promotion, he should not mourn the departure of one colourful but also hugely and cynically self-serving and, at times, dishonest operator but listen to the concerns of a man whose body of work for 10 years now has been a beacon of consistent commitment to a refined and, yes, beautiful game.
He should take a bead on this Wenger statement, not to some pillar of English opinion, or a much needed, government appointed commission to examine the governance of the national game but the French magazine, France Football: "Fans are the keepers of football. But the first signs of danger are there. Stadiums are starting to empty. The TV and radio stations are overcrowded with football. There is a kind of overdose looming."
Wenger, from the foundation of Arsenal's independent financial solidity, points out that if Manchester United have over the years of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson built the appeal and commercial power to sustain the bank borrowings that have marked the operating style of the Glazer family owners, the same formula lower down the football food chain is simply a recipe for disaster.
The strength of Wenger's statement is that he could make it without vested interest. He is not beholden to a patron or an oligarch or a bank and his point is that he doesn't know how such dependence can foster any of that old relationship between a club and its followers.
Maybe his most telling line is a lament for one of those lost dreams. He says, "You once had a child who attended matches, became a supporter of Liverpool and, after succeeding in his life, had a dream to buy the club. Things have changed since then."
Where is Wenger's child now? If he is lucky, he is supporting Arsenal. He is seeing the extraordinarily rare flowering of a club that still owns itself – and its dreams.
Jenkins' linguistic contortions indicative of Welsh rugby's loss of direction
For the coach of a nation whose poets have always been extremely fussy about the real meanings of words, Gareth Jenkins might be accused of some rather loose language in his tribute to the Welsh captain Gareth Thomas (right) on the eve of his 100th cap in the vital World Cup pool game with Fiji today.
Said Jenkins: "Gareth's importance to this team cannot be understated." What he meant, surely, was that it could not be "overstated". However, it would be idle to pretend that there is not inevitably a certain pain and ambivalence when we consider the sweep of the Thomas years, which have now taken him to his fourth World Cup tournament. A player of magnificent strength and nerve and versatility, it is Thomas's burden that he was the most commanding figure in a team who briefly promised to reignite the glory of the rugby nation.
It was a tragic brevity in which the team who stormed so brilliantly to the Grand Slam promptly disintegrated with the never satisfactorily explained departure of the winning coach, Mike Ruddock.
Not only was the Grand Slam taken, an old, brilliant way of playing the game was reasserted. A few years after the fine Welsh captain Ieuan Evans mourned the end of a national passion, said that he despaired of seeing rugby practice ever again supplanting the charms of discos and computer arcades, there were the Welsh playing rugby with a skill and a panache that they once claimed as a birthright.
Four years ago Wales erupted brilliantly against the All Blacks, who were still World Cup favourites. They harried Jonny Wilkinson and his England team-mates almost to the point of breakdown in the quarter-final in Brisbane. In a superb Grand Slam climax, they were too strong, too passionate for Brian O'Driscoll's Ireland.
One thing that can not be overstated in Nantes today is the sense that Gareth Thomas's Wales will always be remembered as the team who lost their way.
Benitez's meddling reveals doubts
The enigma of Rafa Benitez, brilliant tactician, obdurate meddler with a growing reserve of available talent, rides again.
Angrily, he protests at the treatment dealt his scoring superstar Fernado Torres by desperate Reading defenders. He says that this should be a proper matter for public concern, not his strange decision to have Torres on the bench when Liverpool played their goalless draws with Portsmouth and Birmingham – and gave themselves a possibly decisive handicap in the still infant Premier League race.
Benitez's apologists say that his rotation tendency is no greater than that of his rivals Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, and didn't Ferguson pay the price with Carling Cup defeat by Coventry?
The point is that it was defeat in the most dispensable of available trophies. Benitez has already proclaimed the Premier League his principal target this season. So why leave out the eager, brilliant Spaniard at such a critical point of growing momentum? Maybe he trusts himself more than his talent.
If it is true, the title is as far away as ever.
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