Strasbourg's Sweet Scientist Lives To Fight Another Day

Last updated : 17 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

It was in the wee hours that night when I heard a recording of the tail end of Wenger's encounter with the written media, broadcast on the radio. I guess it was the heady mixture of frustration over our wanton failure against Bolton, whereby the Gunners' pale imitation of the Invincibles of only a couple of months back, has gifted our rivals with what the vast majority of pundits seem to perceive as an unassailable lead and his anger at being interrogated about Fergie's remarks, where Wenger was pressed to the point of provoking the sort of outburst which must have made the gossipmongers day.

For Arsène to succumb to this sort of journalistic bear-baiting is indeed a rare occurrence. What's more it might be common practice with many managers but the rat-pack are rarely so bolshie in Wenger's presence; perhaps because they'd rather not be belittled in front of all their peers. Some of them are only too aware that Le Prof is perfectly capable of running erudite rings around many of the sort of tabloid hacks who don't rate much higher than the amoeba on the evolutionary scale (bang goes my syndication deal with the Daily Star!).

I only wish I'd been there in person as I might have tried to rescue him from all the "red top" tittle-tattle by letting him off the hook with a proper football related question. Heaven knows I'm hungry for answers to some far more relevant on pitch matters than the height to which Arsène raised his hands at Old Trafford (Strasbourg's Sweet Scientist versus the Govan Gobshite sounds ideal for WWF but can you seriously envisage these two squaring up to one another in the tunnel - at least not while sober!). For example how does Arsène intend to restore the sort of hunger which appears to be motivating Mourinho's mob, when a lack of genuine competition for places leaves most of the Arsenal players in an unhealthy comfort zone, knowing that their names will continue to appear on the team sheet no matter how far below par their form falls.

What's more I wish Wenger would put dumbfounded Gooners like myself out of our misery, with some explanation of his decisions during the last couple of matches. If Pires is playing hide and seek out on the wing, pining for an early bath, what makes our manager think he's less likely to go on the missing list for the last 30 mins in a far more crucial position in the middle of the park. I swear I saw Robbie get stuck in at least once against Chelsea. But in general Le Bob is far more likely to jump three foot in the air to avoid any possibility of a painful tackle and otherwise, his interpretation of "ball winning" is to dangle out an ineffectual leg.

However I have to admit that despite a decidedly unsatisfactory afternoon all round I found some solace in hearing how our boss swallowed the journo's bait after Saturday's match. It came as a reassuring glimpse of Le Guv'nor's incandescent passion which is customarily kept so well hidden behind Arsène's inscrutable exterior. Perhaps it's part of the Zen philosophy he discovered during his time in Japan, where I suspect those who wear their hearts on their sleeves might be perceived as weak, when so vital an organ is such easy prey for ones enemies. But don't be fooled by the phlegmatic facade. Mercifully our manager is no Kevin Keegan, but although he usually suffers subcutaneously (and thank heavens not nearly so often!), I'm sure Wenger's wounds bleed just as effusively.

Not that I've ever had cause to doubt the depth of feeling Arsène has for the British example of the beautiful game, nor have I ever questioned his commitment to the Arsenal's cause but I wasn't expecting to witness a demonstration within 24 hours of departing Bolton. I imagine like many footie fans, after a disconsolate defeat I tend to avoid the Sunday papers. In this instance I definitely didn't want to be reminded of the chasm which now exists between us and the Blues, in black and white over my breakfast cereal. What's more, in my depression, I was rapidly going off the idea of dressing up in a ridiculous penguin outfit to attend a Football Writers dinner dance later that day.

Some kind soul had thought to invite me because Arsène was due to be presented with a special tribute. Following the brouhaha in the papers resulting from his press conference contretemps, I doubt Wenger was quite so appreciative of the delicious irony of breaking bread with the self same bods who'd bedeviled him the day before. I even wondered if he'd bother turning up. It wasn't until I arrived and saw his image staring down at us from screens all round the dining room at the Savoy that it dawned on me he didn't really have a choice, as in fact the entire evening was in Wenger's honour.

I'm delighted that we both made the effort because it proved to be a blinding night. Aside from an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of my footballing heroes, George Graham, Pat Jennings, David O'Leary and countless others amongst the game's great and the good (even the previous day's party pooper, Sam Allardyce had the front to turn up), the evening proved to be a perfectly timed tonic for my recent disillusionment over the way our sport seems to have been hurtling headlong towards commercial oblivion.

The craic was ninety when it came to Arsenal fan Clive Anderson's turn to speak. The satirist's staccato machine gun volley of comedy had me splitting my sides. Perhaps it was merely the pressure of the Liverpool job but I'd previously been left with an impression of Gerard Houllier as a bit of a grouch. Houllier gave this the heave-ho with some humorous asides about Arsène's love of pizza and his good mate's 20/20 vision. However it was the sincerity with which he spoke about his pal and his tale of taking Arsène to his first match in this country (coincidentally Liverpool v Man Utd) which touched me. Houllier admitted that they were both hooked on the British game, but at that point neither of these addicts could have possibly dreamed that they'd both end up managing two of the country's greatest clubs.

When it was the guest of honour's turn to respond to becoming the first foreigner to be awarded this prestigious recognition from the game's professional critics, following in the footsteps of the illustrious likes of Matthews, Moore, Best and Clough, Arsène's off the cuff speech was somewhat introspective and particularly revealing. I suppose it was the unfortunate timing which set the tone, as amongst other things Wenger wondered whether it was a tribute to what he doesn't see, or the fact that he doesn't get on with certain managers. We'd just been treated to a compilation of highlights from the Wenger years on the TV screens which demonstrated exactly why he deserves such recognition. The pictures moved our manager to comments on quite how much he's aged in the eight years since a fresh-faced "Arsène Who?" arrived at Highbury, intimating that each and every wrinkle or worry line is the manifestation of the immense pressure of the job,

In pointing out his penchant for studying the ugly mugs of the other managers during TV interviews, Arsène highlighted his theory on how the current state of health of each club is reflected in the head honchos phizogs. I suppose it's true in many cases that these faces are far more honest than some of the bluff and bluster emitted from them. Although I imagine his focus on the ravages of his work will have amused the likes of Allardyce since the majority of managers are forced to struggle with sides that are substantially inferior by comparison. Yet the fact that Wenger is more successful than most doesn't stop him from taking his work home with him. It was the first time I've heard Arsène refer to his family when he turned to express his gratitude to his long-suffering wife, Annie as apparently she is the one who has to endure his rare failures.

I don't doubt that his demeanour would have been totally different if his undefeated team were still flying quite so high. But this was an Arsène Wenger who appears to have had cause to take stock of his managerial lot, perhaps contemplating a finite period of time for him to continue giving so much of himself to the Arsenal's cause. For the sakes of us Gooners and all those other students of the beautiful game who've luxuriated in the lavish fruits of his labours, I sincerely hope that the Arsenal's occasional crimes continue to escape Arsène's attentions for a good few years to come.