Growing up with Arsene Wenger & Arsenal
India opened its economy to the world in the year 1991. As investments, companies and more tourists poured in, so did an increased amount of western television. Premier league Football started to seep through Indian television in the 1990s. As every decade witnesses a new metamorphosis, so did English football.
The Premier League competition was formed in early1992 breaking away from the First Division and the ‘goal’ (no pun intended) was to leverage on lucrative television rights deals. The era, also saw the dominance of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
Liverpool, then the arguably undisputed English heavyweights were a fading force and Ferguson’s Manchester United, in his own words had begun to knock Liverpool “off the effing perch”.
Premier League after Premier League they bagged, silverware after silverware was buffed, throw in an FA cup here and a charity shield there, and of course there was the famous treble winning year in 1999. United were a club that everyone admired.
Fandom in the UK and all across Europe was more sacrosanct. It was based on family loyalty, coupled with regional, social, political and sometimes even religious loyalties. Yes, there was personal choice, but if popularity were the only barometer then Halifax Town wouldn’t have any fans at all.
India was far ensconced from all of that. Why would a fan in Delhi or Bombay (as a Bombay native, I absolutely refuse to call it Mumbai) support mediocre Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers or Sheffield Wednesday? There was no incentive or biding ties. In fact there was no reason for fans in India to support any other club then.
If trophies weren’t enough, Man United had the aura of a “cool team” around them. An eclectic mix of British and Irish stars, with prima donna David Beckham, followed by a pugnacious Irish skipper Roy Keane, a temperamental Gary Neville, and the more assiduous Paul Scholes and ‘also-rans’ (perhaps literally) in Nicky Butt and Phil Neville.
And then there was the gaffer — Fergie. A legend and stalwart among football managers, knighted by royalty but eschewed from any royalty like mannerisms. When his mouth wasn’t busy chewing gum, it was spouting boorish insults at rival managers, referees or the authorities; akin to his working class Scottish roots.
Yet fans in India perceived the eccentricity and temperamental manners of Ferguson, Keane, Cantona, Neville to be something that was in their words “cool”. Supporting United seemed the right choice for these fans, they had the flair, the elan, the picture perfect poster of British and Irish players and it just so happened that United had history. Lot of these fans were mesmerized by the team at first and then later learned about the history of the Busby Babes under legendary manager Sir Matt Busby and the United Triumvirate of stars in Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best.
These would have been the same fans who if born in a different era would have supported Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in 60s or Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps if Doncaster Rovers were as successful as Manchester United, they would be screaming for the Rovers.
I could never follow the herd mentality. United seemed the obvious choice then. Fan following in India in the 90s and for most of the early 2000s was divided between a majoritarian Man United cohort and a meagre group of others. Fans in India weren’t aware of Liverpool’s glory days then, and under a mediocre Gerard Houllier and a talismanic Michael Owen, they could hardly compete with United.
There was something different about Arsenal though. Highbury was far from the cavernous imposing size of the Old Trafford, dubbed the ‘Theatre of Dreams, but the tiny North London pitch seemed just as welcoming as the fans.
I have been an Arsenal fan for over two decades now; but the last decade has been a waning passion for many years. I struggle to remember the last full ninety minute Arsenal match I watched. This was a far cry from my days of starting the Arsenal Mumbai Fan Club, as the first chairperson. The passion started to dwindle when I was working as a sports producer at ESPN STAR Sports. The irony isn’t lost on me, perhaps it’s the sausage theory that applies here— when you like something so much, don’t see how it is made.
Despite all that, I still remember a bespectacled Arsene Wenger taking charge over two decades ago amidst queries of ‘Arsene Who’?
He came from Japan, he was the first Non-Englishman to be in charge at Highbury and came in with unique views on player’s diets (which was pretty much liquid diet back then), how to blend sugar in tea, and used his pragmatic economics degree to talk about football transfers. Hence, the sobriquet — the professor or Le Prof!
Most of us don’t remember an Arsenal without Arsene, and isn’t just his two decades plus in charge. It’s because Arsene was the transformational force that gave the club and the game a much needed facelift.
He transformed Arsenal to the juggernaut of a force they are, mesmerizing attacking style of play and epitomized what the beautiful game was all about! The one-two-the two-one- the Ljungberg to Pires to Bergkamp back to Pires to Henry — GOAL!
It was clinical, it was sublime, it was Arsenal!
Unsung teenagers and twenty somethings like the imitable Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and so many more owe their careers and statures to Arsene Wenger. Even the Dutch legend Dennis Bergkamp who came before Wenger, credits Wenger for much of his personal success.
It didn’t matter to the Highbury faithful that Arsenal at one point didn’t have any Englishman in their squad. The team was about beautiful football, far from the scrappy 1–0 wins under George Graham and hence the chant ‘boring boring Arsenal’.
The rivalry with Manchester United for us Arsenal fans was more severe than it ever was with Spurs. As someone who grew up far away from North London, I respected the rivalry, but Tottenham were mediocre and were never really a threat to Arsenal. It’s no wonder, I loathed seeing Robin Van Persie in a United jersey. Such a transfer wouldn’t have taken place at the height of Wenger and Ferguson’s rivalry or when the league was a two horse race between United and Arsenal. I remember telling a friend that I rather see Van Persie wearing a Spurs Jersey with a captain’s armband and lifting the Champions League high instead of scoring against Arsenal at Old Trafford.
Even the Man United fans in India abhorred Arsenal more than they despised Liverpool, Manchester City and a lot of them would be unaware about the traditional rivalry with Leeds United (think War of the Roses).
It’s hard to imagine a stalwart as shrewd as Wenger was barely the individual he was in the early part of his Arsenal career. From never finishing below second in the Premier League, Arsenal became known as the annual fourth place trophy club. It seemed incredulous that Wenger was the same individual who guided Arsenal to be the first club to go an entire season unbeaten, to never winning the league again under his tenure. From his first season to winning the double, and repeating it a second time in 2001/02 to not winning a trophy in nearly a decade doesn’t seem very Wengeresque.
These anomalies don’t make sense, but perhaps they do. He let his best players get away — Vieira, Henry, Fabregas and never replaced them in the traditional sense. One could argue that you couldn’t replace Henry, but I assure you an Eduardo or a Chamakh were no replacements. Football changed in the noughties as well. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich came in and changed the fortunes of rival London club — Chelsea. The chequebook was out and Chelsea virtually bought all the trophies they won with fancy new signings. Enter Sheikh money from the Abu Dhabi United Group and another mediocre blue side Manchester City were flushed with cash and ergo trophies. The Real Madrid Galáctico era had come to England.
Arsenal, were certainly tight in the books after a new stadium. Arsene Wenger couldn’t compete in the same manner, or perhaps he was too stoic and parsimonious in his ways to not dilute his own perceptions of footballing principles. Hence Arsenal stopped being serious title contenders, rarely had big name signings and even saw themselves deprived of Champions League football.
Going down memory lane, Wenger was candidly asked by the late Danny Fiszman when he was interviewed for the job, as to what his ambitions were for the club? Arsene said: “that when I leave, it will be in a better state than when I arrived”
Arsenal rose to the highest echelons in English football, became a phenomenal global brand and yet faded into also-rans under Wenger. Such was his dichotomous legacy in North London. And perhaps there is a fear that Arsenal will fade away into obscurity, as a whole generation of kids will never have seen the legacy of Arsenal for the talent they were. But with all certainty, one could easily attest, that without Arsene Wenger, Arsenal would not have been part of footballing zeitgeist the way they are now.
In an ephemeral world, where managers don’t last 22 days, Arsene’s 22 years isn’t just testimony to time, but reinstates the notion of timeless brilliance. One may argue he didn’t get better with age, but it did get harder to say goodbye every passing year.
In an epic documentary epitomizing the rivalry between United and Arsenal, former skippers, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were the protagonists. On each being asked who was the best manager they had played under; Vieira without blinking stated Arsene Wenger. Keane boldly, confidently and with aplomb said without a shadow of a doubt: Brian Clough.
The interviewer paused and asked him “Not Sir Alex”? Keane as he has done ever so often, cockily juxtaposed with a polite manner retorts “you asked me a question and I have given you an answer”.
United and Arsenal fans of that era know there is nothing anodyne about this. Perhaps, ironically a Man United’s legend’s answer about his manager highlights the gargantuan stature of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
Thank you Arsene!
Thank you for the memories and making Arsenal an integral part of my teenage years.
Au Revoir Le Prof! Or better yet #MerciArsene