It has taken a while for me to finally finish the Arsene Wenger biography written by Daily Mirror Chief Football Writer John Cross. It has not been for the lack of great tales or nostalgia bait but simply due to a hectic schedule. However After powering through the second half of the book in a night and a half here we are, a review of the book at last.
While I have read several books centred around Arsenal in the past (see my review of Thierry Henry’s biography Lonely At The Top) This is the first one I’ve read that gave me almost an all access look into press conferences with Wenger, away day journeys to all kinds of places with all manner of interesting tales and tensions behind the scenes. As an aspiring sports journalist myself it was genuinely mind-blowing.
I think my biggest take-away from the book was Wenger’s emotion. Having worked in a few sporting environments by now I am well aware that what is said in front of pressing BBC or Sky Sports cameras is not always the prevailing feeling away from the prying eyes. However, throughout the book there are constant tales of Wenger’s emotions playing a part in his press conferences, interviews with the newspapers, his players – past and present, board members and rival managers. Wenger is very much a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His outbursts on the touchline and in the immediate post match interviews have mellowed in recent years and long gone are the days of explosive scenes and quotes like the ones given in 2005 in response to an interview Sir Alex Ferguson gave with the Independent. Wenger lashed out saying:
I have no diplomatic relations with him. What I don’t understand is that he does what he wants and you [the press] are all at his feet. The managers have a responsibility to protect the game before the game. But in England you are only punished for what you say after the game.
There are of course examples of Wenger’s emotion being seen in a joyous occasion and you don’t have to dig far into his Arsenal career archives to find it. When referee Lee Probert sounded off his whistle for the final time at Wembley on Saturday May 17th what washed over Wenger was relief as well as champagne. As Cross put it: “Wenger celebrated like never before. The players tried to soak him in champagne and then almost the entire squad lifted him up and threw him in the air.” His emotions make up a large part of Wenger’s DNA as manager of Arsenal and Cross details the Frenchman’s feelings expertly throughout the biography. When Wenger receives abuse from the stands while he looks oblivious to it all Cross makes it clear that he can hear it and it does hurt him to hear fans react so viciously when things are not going well on the pitch. One emotion that rarely crops up, and is therefore much more noticeable when it does, is anger. The two instances that stick out in the book are when his years at Monaco are explored and in 1993 they were consistently finishing second best to Marseille only for southern France team to be embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. The book details how Wenger felt betrayed by the Marseille hierarchy as well as officials and opposing players too. The other instance, which is chilling to the bone when reading the pages, is that Wenger faced a media storm when rumours about his private life started to circulate. Cross, via an interview with then press officer Clare Tomlinson, recalls how angry Wenger was:
All I remember is his reaction. I remember him going very still, very white. He was furious. It wasn’t like a Fergie red mist – he went white cold, just disgust, and I often wonder how close he was to just going outside, getting in a taxi and going back to Heathrow and giving up.
While many managers loath the press the book depicts Wenger as a man who enjoys their company, will crack a joke, offer sharp-tongued quips in response to questions and is even sharp when responding to text messages from more trusted members of the media. Throughout the chapters we see his relationship with the media get increasingly frosty especially when Arsenal and Wenger where under the cosh for: their lack of silverware, his future and big players leaving for rivals. However in his early days as the boss at Arsenal Wenger was often jovial with the media – even after disappointing results. After a 1-1 draw to Middlesbrough in 1998 Cross inserts a Wenger quip: ‘If you eat caviar every day, it’s difficult to return to sausages.’ Such a result today has often prompted the Frenchman to give longwinded answers about togetherness, to keep fighting and so on. Yet in this instance Cross paints the picture of a man who was under no pressure from the fans or media after the wonders he worked with the Gunners in such a short space of time. His caviar vs. sausages comparison is the type of one-liner that became synonymous with Wenger amongst the press however such humour in public dwindled as the years went by, swapped out for answers drawn out of tension or annoyance – especially when being pressed to respond to comments made by one Jose Mourinho. It’s a fantastic look into the mindset of one of the Premier League’s most respected managers.
Throughout the book Cross writes about Wenger’s interests away from football. Politics, culture and business are all hot topics Wenger enjoys discussing at length and in terms of culture Wenger enjoys engrossing himself in the culture of whichever country he is in. This has been evident since he started managing in England but it was something he learned in his early days the slender, well spoken manager embraced the culture of Japan and what Japanese football brought with it as Cross explains:
Japan seemed to reinvigorated Wenger and, in a rather understated way, seemed to help shape the way he is today. His experience there, the adulation of the fans, helped him realise the importance of embracing the culture of the country you are in, thus preparing him for his transformation into an adopted Englishman.
Details of the move to the Emirates has always been well documented in the public eye. Yet what Cross writes so poignantly about is how the move to their new home in 2006 took the best years of Wenger’s managerial career. The book mentions clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich trying to charm Wenger away from the Gunners during their baron spell. How would Wenger’s CV look had he taken one of the no doubt lucrative offers? When reading about the sums of money available, the measures taken to help pay off the £390m stadium and how the stress and boardroom unrest you get a real sense of overachievement on Wenger’s part and in hindsight – while the lack of trophies was an obvious frustration – a top four finish was often a remarkable feat considering the revolving door nature of the squad from 2006. The penny pinching did see Wenger lose out on key targets such as Gary Cahill as Cross explains that in the summer of 2011 when Arsenal refused to pay over six million for the England defender only for Cahill to join arch-rivals Chelsea six months later for just one millions more. Nobody knows what Arsenal’s squad could have looked like and achieved had Wenger been prepared to pay the extra million here and there but finishing fourth under such restrictions has to be seen as a success, to a degree at least, especially as Arsenal’s purse strings were forced to tighten around the same time Chelsea were becoming free spending. According to Cross, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and a close personal friend of Wenger said: “He had arrived, parked his tanks on his lawn and was firing £50 notes.” The expert detail in which Cross delves into Arsenal’s move to the Emirates and their finances paints a real picture of constantly fighting an uphill battle in every transfer window when it came to keeping hold of their star players as well as recruiting.
Wenger has always spoken about bringing players through the Arsenal academy. Nurturing young talent and giving them a platform to develop has always been one of Wenger’s top priorities and not just on the pitch but in life. The book articulates Wenger as a father figure who cares about the future of young players away from the football pitch. Cross writes about a Q&A seminar in 2013 while in Japan in which the Arsenal manager answered willingly and insightfully about all things football. When quizzed about nurturing young talent this was his response: “I believe one of the best things about managing people is that we can influence lives in a positive way. That’s basically what a manager is about. When I can do that, I am very happy.” It’s a common thread through the book that Wenger is always striving to win but wants the club to produce players that are not afraid to express themselves and will give any young player the chance if he thinks they are ready.
While so many clubs are obsessed by instant success and buying ready made superstars Wenger has moulded Arsenal into a club that will develop not just football players but young men. Throughout the book Cross writes about how Wenger is a very well liked man and how no players ever leave the club on bad terms with him. Such is the nature of Wenger that for many of the young, fragile players – many of them experiencing an entirely new culture for the first time – he doubles up as a father figure to them. Through listening, wisdom and protection from the media Wenger builds strong bonds with budding players who get the ultimate backing from a manger who has the upmost faith in their ability. Perhaps the most written phrase in the entire book is: “He is a very nice man.” Out of the wide range of ex players Cross interviewed about the Arsenal manager it is a common occurrence. This explains why it hurts Wenger even more when he has to sell players such as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry as he developed almost a father-son relationship with them watching them blossom from a rough-round-the-edges, enthusiastic starlet turn into a match winning superstar.
There are 389 excellent pages about one of the most complex men ever to grace the Premier League. Themes such as his discomfort when dealing with confrontation thus creating a feeling of disillusionment towards his players are often countered with honest interviews with respected members of Arsenal’s past saying he always made them feel involved and appreciated. While managers will often dictate the nature of half time team talks Wenger is a man who would rarely be heavily involved, often leaving the players to discuss it amongst themselves before delivering a concise message about how they play for the rest of the game. There is much more I could write about the book discussing how Wenger enjoys attending international tournaments and soaking up the culture or how he truly believes in his squad using a sports phycologist but the best tale I can tell is the one I endured of nostalgia, intrigue and remarkable discoveries. Over his 20 years of management we have all seen and got accustomed to Wenger the football manager but Wenger the man is a subject so brilliantly dissected that a much rounder image of the man as a whole is formed. Emotions are a large part of Wenger’s make-up while an unshakeable belief in his player’s and his own ability is what keeps him firmly at the helm of the north London club.