It really is true. You really don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. He was a permanent presence for 22 years, 828 Premier League games, three titles, seven FA Cups.
Just over two years since departing the English game - not, however, England entirely - Arsène Wenger brings ‘for the very first time’ his account of a beautiful, long relationship with management in ‘My Life in Red and White: “For thirty-five years, I lived like a top athlete, obsessed by my passion. I didn’t go to the theatre or the cinema; I neglected those around me.”
Oh Arsène how we’ve missed you. It was once thought unfathomable for the tall, suited Frenchman to not be on the sidelines overseeing Arsenal, in one period playing some of the most enviable and influential football on the continent.
His own not-unrespectable playing career takes mere pages, and is predominantly used as a prologue to that weighty legacy-creating coaching career. There was a Wenger before Arsenal, Le Professeur who arrived in north London in 1996 as only the fourth foreign manager in the history of top-flight English football. It’s something that the 71-year-old wants to make clear, that while his love of Arsenal is unmatched (and he no longer has anything to do with the club) he was created and moulded also by the similarly red and white of Nancy, Monaco, and Nagoya. He was the man who helped discover George Weah - the only African player to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or, and it was the Frenchman who was there at his ceremony (no thanks to suspicious security) - made Glenn Hoddle a Monégasque (a Lilywhite and Gooner in a harmonious relationship!), and won the top tier title in his native country.
It’s fascinating to read how Wenger fell into football from an almost-commune like upbringing, a village that no longer exists as the century overtook it, but that developed the boyhood Real Madrid fan into the man who undeniably helped change the game itself. We’ve all heard the story of him running around his parents’ bistro, dodging drunks and listening to tales: “It was a world of small farmers...tough, taciturn men.” One senses this communal aspect of his upbringing, ‘this closed world’ helped form the loyalty and tightness that was imbued in those great Arsenal teams across the turn of the millennium (“Years later, when I got to know other clubs, other divisions, teams that were better prepared and better coached, I discovered the strengths and weaknesses that those years in Duttlenheim had left me with.”). There’s insight into his coaching mindset, in one instance offering a five-point guide (“When expressing a negative point, one should put forward three positive points when speaking to a player or somebody who needs to develop.”).
There’s his take on why he had such a focus on youth that he became so associated with, and the riskiness of such decisions today. It would have been desirable to hear more about those early playing days and perhaps more illumination on the fallout in the French game in the early nineties, when Olympique de Marseille were embroiled in a match-fixing scandal, leading to the then-Monaco manager Wenger to depart for Japan in outrage, but he’s noticeably cautious on this area.
But the book is light and considered. Chapters have been carefully orchestrated, even, in some way announced in delicate, gentle titles that assist the tone of the tome - “Chapter 1 - The Child Who Dreamt About Football,” “Chapter 6 - A Life At Arsenal, My Home”.
It is however a book that is almost impossible to read without hearing that majestic Alsatian lilt, the sound that was as recognisable in the aftermath of Arsenal matches as the ref’s whistle was to start them.
You don’t need any recommendation to read this account of one the greatest coaches - of any discipline - football fan, it is already most likely on the wishlist, but we’ll provide it anyway.
Arsène Wenger: My Life in Red and White, by Arsène Wenger, W & N, 352 pages, RRP £25.