By Tony Attwood
It was a sad way to say a personal farewell to watching Arsenal coached by Arsène Wenger last night, but even so I’m glad I went to see just one more Wenger game and reflect back on 22 years of the Wenger teams I’ve watched.
And indeed to try and remember what it was like at the start. I’m not a diary keeper nor a programme collector so trying to recall it all comes from looking at the records and the old history books I’ve accumulated.
Leicester away will thus stay in my mind as the last Wenger match I saw, and it led me to thinking about the first just to put the 22 years in perspective. And that turned out to be difficult because when exactly did Arsène Wenger join Arsenal? Do you count the time he was appointed or the time he made his first transfer arrangements or the time he actually turned up and started being abused by the media? Let me explain…
According to the notes I have gathered as part of my work running the Arsenal History Society, Arsenal spent the pre-season in 1996 having a wretched time losing friendlies:
- 27 July lost to Birmingham 1-0
- 31 July lost to Celtic 2-1
- 3 August lost to Ranger 3-0
- 7 August lost to Fiorentina 2-0 and Benfica 3-1 in two tournament friendlies played with different XI’s
- 10 August drew 1-1 with Ipswich
And then on that day of that latest very disappointing pre-season result, 10 August 1996, The Daily Mirror reported that Arsenal were going to sign Patrick Vieira. It seemed very strange – a very un-Bruce Rioch signing, and so it was not surprising that on 12 August Rioch was dismissed. In his previous job he had just taken Bolton to the League Cup final and promotion, and to me his playing style always looked like that. In my book he never fitted.
And now he was gone and that Vieira story looked like just another semi-skimmed rumour from an over-imaginative journalist. But how wrong that thought was because two days later on 14 August Patrick Vieira signed for Arsenal for £3.5m. Of course it meant nothing to most of us (or to be exact, it mean absolutely nothing to me) as I’d never heard of Vieira. And indeed I’d never heard of Remi Garde who also signed on the same day.
So there we were with two new players, a manager dismissed, and in the coming weeks two temporary managers (Houston and Rice) and rumours everywhere concerning what was going on. Arsène Wenger was announced on 22 September as the manager and formally appointed on 1 October, but clearly had been involved from before the moment the Mirror leaked the Vieira story on 10 August.
And thus now, having just seen my last ever Arsène Wenger game with Arsenal, when did I see my first?
Clearly Mr Wenger was the man who said “get Vieira and Garde” and so maybe I can say it was 17 August 1996 for a 2-0 win against West Ham. If I can’t count it until he had been formally announced as manager then it was 28 September for the 2-0 win over Sunderland. If it was not until he was formally appointed it was 19 October with a goalless draw with Coventry.
But actually the one I remember without looking anything up, was Vieira’s first appearance coming on as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday on 16 September 1996. Of course we had no idea who he was or what he could do, but I still remember turning to my pal in the North Bank and saying, “look at that new fella – he’s come in and taken over the whole of the centre – everything’s moving around him. He’s amazing…”
Of course I can’t be sure that I actually said that, but my pal (so sadly no longer with us) and I used to have that sort of conversation and we always joked thereafter that it was the one prediction I got right. My one bit of foresight in decades of watching football. Vieira was a total footballing genius.
So it was Vieira’s appearance that really made me aware of Arsène Wenger, before Wenger even arrived. The old duffer Peter Hill-Wood actually got it right when he said, “I believe Arsène Wenger is going to be a great success and drag football in this country into the 20th century. There is no doubt in my mind we are blinkered and backward as a sporting nation. Look at the British results in Europe, they were not good, including ours. We keep telling ourselves we have the best league in Europe, but it is not true. We need to catch up with the Continentals and we think Arsène is the man to help us.” An amazingly perceptive commentary from a man not normally remembered for such things.
I’ll settle for 16 September 1996 as my first encounter with anything Wengerian, and last night of course as my last. I was sad seeing him turn away as the whistle went for the end of the game, and walk down the tunnel. The end of the longest era within a lifetime of supporting Arsenal, a lifetime of Arsenal being a very important part of my life.
Of course Arsenal is not the most important; my children and my friends are far more important, but still a central element in what I am, and Arsène has been at the centre of that centre for 22 years. 16 September 1996 to 9 May 2018. My time watching Arsène Wenger’s teams.
And I remain utterly certain and convinced that the football I have seen between September 96 and May 08 has been at a consistently higher level than ever I saw before. Even on the bad days.
Farewell Arsène. You don’t know me, but I sure feel I have got to know you. Farewell old friend. I’ll miss you.
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