One night with Arsene Wenger

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Arsene Wenger took time out from his busy pre-season schedule to make an appearance at a charity event last night, organised by the Football Writers’ Association, to raise money for the London Fire Relief Fund.

As those who’ve been to an Arsenal’s AGM will testify, Wenger is a captivating public speaker; his delivery is poised, his answers thoughtful and he’s also partial to an amusing anecdote or two. He didn’t disappoint at Soho’s Ham Yard Hotel.

As host Jacqui Oatley remarked, the Frenchman was very much the rock star of the evening with the audience and his fellow panel members at the Q&A event hanging on his every word. He even spent the entire 15-minute interval shooting the breeze with guests and posing for selfies. Even the Sp*rs contingent couldn’t resist his charms.

Before we get to the boss’ best bits, the rest of the panel each deserve a tip of the cap for their contributions.

Les Ferdinand spoke touchingly about growing up in the shadow of Grenfell Tower and the community work he’s helped QPR coordinate in the last few months. Paul Elliott, the former Chelsea player who is now on the FA Inclusion Advisory Board, came armed with a portfolio of stats about the development of England’s young players. The Times’ chief football writer Henry Winter shared thoughts on the state of modern sports journalism and Gary Lineker, who slouched in his chair like the naughty kid at school, garnered the laughs with his dry sense of humour.

And so to Arsene, who looked sharp in his single-breasted navy blue suit, polka dot tie and brand new monk-strap shoes.

Not for the first time, he admitted to feeling guilty for the football bubble he lives in, especially when the disparity between the haves and have nots of our society is brought so sharply into focus by horrific events like Grenfell and the ridiculous money that is thrown about in the transfer window.

Unsurprisingly, Neymar’s move to PSG was a hot topic and in turn, it spurred debate over the development of young players. Wenger, who in the past has happily described himself as an educator, underlined the fine balance between appeasing supporters who demand big name signings and the risk associated with giving first team minutes to Academy talents looking to establish themselves.

“You pay for the education of young players with points,” he remarked.

“I play a young central defender of 20-years-old and I know he will cost me points in the season. I have to stand up for that.

“If I play a 28-year-old centre-back, maybe less talented, he will cost me less points, but then I will not be giving a chance to a young player.

“At some stage, I must say, as a manager sometimes you feel lonely to stand up there and say, ‘No, I want this boy to play because he deserves it.’

“But just to deserve it, I know as well that he will make mistakes, because you learn your job at 23-years of age. 23 to 24 you have a player. Until 23 he will make up and down.”

In the context of Arsenal’s upcoming season, that bodes well for someone like Rob Holding (you know) and not so great for Gabriel who might well end up with a favourite seat on the subs bench. We’ll see.

The pressure of life as a top-level manager was also highlighted by Wenger’s reflections on last season. He’s admitted in pre-season that his dilly-dallying over a new contract probably cost Arsenal their Champions League status, but for the first time (in public anyway), he also confirmed that the first team squad confronted him about it.

“At some stage, the players came to see me and said, ‘What’s going on boss? When do you go?’

“I created, with me not deciding [about my future], a lack of clarity in the dressing room and there’s nothing worse than that in the dressing room, you know. When you’re not completely in or the players feel you’re not completely in, it’s difficult to tell them, ‘We go.’

“At some stage I had to tell them, ‘Look guys, I’m with you but we have to win games.'”

Faced with a question from the floor about his endurance and how long he might stay at Arsenal, Arsene turned to humour, with his take on a witticism first coined by Sir Clement Freud.

I’m paraphrasing at this point, but it went something along the lines of this.

“A manager goes to his doctor for the secret to a longer life. The doctor tells him to give up cigarettes, give up alcohol and to give up being a manager. The doctor then clarifies that he won’t actually live longer, but it will feel like it…”

Wenger signed off with, “At that point I signed a new contract.”

It was only missing the ‘badum-tish’ of a house band drum. I’m not sure I’ve done the gag justice, you had to be there. (UPDATE – you can watch Arsene tell the joke here)

A question about the worst defeat he’s suffered at Arsenal led to a darker tale about a breakfast encounter in a South African hotel when a Kenyan commentator, joining him at his table, promptly revealed that his cousin had recently committed suicide because Arsenal had lost to Manchester United.

I think the point the boss was trying to make is that he carries with him the expectations of so many Arsenal supporters across the globe that there’s no single defeat that burns. Because they all do. Every single one. Without exception.

Not long after, Wenger’s cameo was done and dusted. He waved to the crowd, departed to applause and in my head he was home an hour later, settled in front of a French second division match, eating a bowl of steamed broccoli…

If all of the above sounds like it was written by a fanboy, then yeah, I guess it was. We know he has his faults, he knows them too…but before another football season kicks off it was nice to be reminded that our Arsene is one cool guy.

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All proceeds from last night’s FWA event will be doubled by sponsor William Hill with the funds being directed to the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster. A big high-five to the organisers.

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