LONDON – When you are a multimillionaire and you are two years past the retirement age with most of those who judge your work urging you to leave your job, why not call it a day?
At 67 you could go anywhere in style. First-class flights, five-star hotels. See the world in luxury, take your foot off the gas. Move on from those protesting about you.
Why on earth even think about continuing?
But when you are an addict it is not easy to give up your habit, whatever it is, especially if there is no desire to quit. And Arsene Wenger cannot contemplate life without football. It is his drug and he is addicted to it, specifically Arsenal.
He needs his daily fix despite his habit being 90 percent aggravation and 10 percent satisfaction. His words, by the way (though after last Tuesday those percentages may be nearer 95 and 5).
If he isn’t manager of Arsenal next season he will be a manager elsewhere. Going on a safari, touring Australia or the United States is not Wenger’s cup of herbal tea. It’s 25 C in Dubai in February, yet he prefers shivering Stoke.
Money is not Wenger’s motivation. It never has been though he has millions in the bank with little chance or even the urge to spend it. Wenger’s idea of a good night out is a night in watching football on television. Benfica vs. FC Porto? Wonderful. Monaco vs. Marseille? Even better.
An occasional glass of France’s finest is this Frenchman’s biggest vice. It is impossible to imagine him popping out for fish and chips or a seriously hot curry. Wenger’s time in Japan with Nagoya Grampus taught him the value of a good diet. He hates cigarettes so much he probably doesn’t eat smoked salmon.
Wenger is not one to attend football dinners and not just because of the food — he might miss Barcelona vs. Celta on TV. In the 21 years I have worked with Wenger I could count on one hand the number of conversations I have had with him that were not football related even if reporters have few opportunities to chat to Premier League managers outside of press conferences.
Perhaps understandably, they rarely hang around to pass the time of day with those who have just asked them if they think it is time to leave. Wenger has a generally good relationship with the media even though it must be difficult to be civil to a hack pack questioning your ability to do your job.
He has, unsurprisingly, become more tetchy recently, but he remains the most charming, friendly, charismatic and intelligent manager I have covered. Unlike some high-profile managers, who for the sake of argument we shall call Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, he does not throw his toys out of the pram in the wake of criticism, ban a journalist for a headline he did not write or send his assistant to a press conference as perceived revenge after getting the hump about a true story that was printed.
Wenger deserved a dignified end game to his time with Arsenal, but like all addictions there is pain and another 5-1 defeat by Bayern Munich four days ago represented a sad epitaph to his 21 years in charge. In the second half some players were looking for a sponsored towel to throw in. The 10-2 aggregate loss is a tattoo for life. It’s just as well Bayern didn’t get out of third gear.
Alexis Sanchez may be Arsenal’s best player, but behind the scenes he can be destructive and Sir Alex Ferguson would have moved any troublemaker out before the atmosphere turned toxic. Wenger has been too loyal to his players and those who say they are behind the manager have a strange way of showing it.
In turn, Wenger has an unusual way of showing he is the man to take Arsenal forward. The Gunners have finished in the top four every season since he took charge. He has delivered 15 trophies and a magnificent new stadium, but this will be the 13th year without a league title. While Arsenal fans are fed up with their European Groundhog Day — the club has been knocked out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage in seven consecutive seasons. “In Wenger we rust” read one banner.
The huge bank of goodwill he has built is diminishing rapidly. Fans can separate their immense gratitude for what Wenger has achieved, but the successes of his early days should not provide carte blanche for a manager to choose when or if he has had enough. It is impossible to think that any other leading European club would have tolerated someone who cannot take the club to the next step for so long, while losing 5-1 home and away to Bayern — the heaviest defeat by an English club in the competition — would mean the end for the manager.
Arsenal is accused of putting profits before points and is happy with a man who may no longer be a title winner, but Emirates Stadium tills remain alive to the sound of money.
Wenger’s credibility plummeted Tuesday when he blamed the Greek referee, who correctly sent off Laurent Koscielny, for Arsenal’s 5-1 home defeat by Bayern, a decision that “revolted” him.
He must know whether he is going to sign the contract on the table, but he is keeping everyone guessing. Arsenal has said the decision will be “mutual and announced at the right time.” When that is remains to be seen and it could be that Arsenal, if not its fans, is happy to continue with a second-, third- or fourth-place finish. There is no guarantee a successor would make Arsenal a genuine title contender or reach the business end of the Champions League. Most Arsenal supporters would like the chance to find out.
Wenger is clearly tiring of the inevitable questions at just about every press conference. He said: “I have worked in the job since 33, I am now 67 and I have to convince people I can do my job? I have to sit here and answer every question about my ability to win football games. I know what I give.
“I respect my contracts. I am here for 20 years because I have respected every single contract. What is important for me is that this club gets to the next level.”
“Winning the Premier League,” he said. “I think I can do that, but if someone else comes and does that even better than me, I’m happy.”
Wenger could end the season with a seventh F.A. Cup and on Saturday his side faces Lincoln City, a side in great form at the top of the Vanarama National League, one below League Two. A 10-2 defeat by Bayern is bad enough,but if Arsenal does not beat Lincoln then the curtain must come down on Wenger’s career at Emirates, mutual or not.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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