Remembering Arsène: The way one man revolutionised our club in two short years.
My favourite memory of Arsène isn’t so much a single moment, a season or a trophy success; but centres on the impact he made from when he first walked through the doors to lifting the FA Cup as part of the club’s second double at a sun-drenched Wembley Stadium in May 1998.
To truly appreciate the impact that Arsène made on the club it is vital to understand where we were prior to his arrival. The previous season the club had appointed Bruce Rioch and signed big names from the continental stage in the form of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt in a vain attempt to drag the club kicking and screaming into the brave new world of the Premier League.
Prior to that in the last seasons of the George Graham era, on the pitch the team were a dour defensive side, over-reliant on Ian Wright’s goals and while the ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ approach was suited to knockout cup football, we were miles away from challenging for the title. In fact in Graham’s last season there was even the fleeting fear of relegation looming over us for a brief period. Meanwhile off the field there were well-documented problems with gambling, alcoholism and indiscipline, in short the club was a mess. Then Arsène walked through the door and into the marble halls of Highbury.
To say his appointment was underwhelming for the Gooner faithful would be a major understatement, as famed Arsenal fan and writer Nick Hornby put it: “I remember when Bruce Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names. It was Terry Venables, Johan Cruyff and then, at the end, Arsène Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan, I bet it’s fucking Arsène Wenger, because I haven’t heard of him and I’ve heard of the other two. Trust Arsenal to appoint the boring one that you haven’t heard of.”
After some initial resistance from the players themselves, captain Tony Adams describing his first impression of the new manager as: looking “more like a school teacher”; the Wenger revolution gathered pace. With new, ground-breaking ideas on sports science, nutrition and physical preparation coupled with an encyclopaedic knowledge of continental players, within a mere matter of months Arsenal were a team and a club transformed.
Despite having only come into post in October Arsène steered us to a third-place finish, seven points behind champions Manchester United having been in contention into Spring for the first time in five years. However beyond the position in the table it was the exciting free-flowing style of football which was light years ahead of what we had become used to that hinted at what was to come.
Having already unearthed the superstar-in-the-making Patrick Vieira and unknown French teenage striking sensation Nicolas Anelka; in the summer of 1997 Marc Overmars and Manu Petit were added to the first team and other unknown but exotic-sounding foreign players came in to bolster a squad that was being transformed from its British-based roots to something that looked more and more like a continental club.
As Autumn turned to Winter though few Arsenal fans dared to believe that a title challenge was on as rumours abounded of dressing room unrest between the British core in defence, still steadfastly loyal to Graham, and the Fancy Dan new foreign players further forward in the team.
Defeat at home to Blackburn in December had seemingly handed the title to Manchester United once again, despite the Gunners having a number of games in hand. The infamous crisis meeting that saw Adams & co thrash out their differences and demand greater protection from the French midfield duo of Petit and Vieira can be seen as the turning point and also probably the moment the penny dropped for both players and supporters alike as we began to believe that maybe Arsène really did know.
The eighteen match unbeaten run in the League that followed, including that victory at Old Trafford, was truly mesmerising, the team, our team, had morphed into the sort of swashbuckling football juggernaut that we could scarcely even have imagined just two years previously.
The League title was wrapped up at Highbury with two games to spare, the icing on top of the cake being the glorious chip over the top from Bould to tee up fellow central defender Adams to fire home the fourth, a moment “that summed it all up” as Martin Tyler famously proclaimed in his commentary. Total Football was alive and well and resident in North London.
Newcastle United were swept aside at Wembley to seal the double and provide vindication for a certain bespectacled Frenchman who maybe just maybe knew a thing or two about football.
More glory and success followed, as we all know, and then there was heartbreak and a failure to recapture the glories of the past; but for a fleeting moment twenty years ago Arsène and Arsenal stood atop the football world having demonstrated that there really was a different way, Arsène’s way.