It was just after 11.30pm on Monday night when Arsene Wenger took to the stage at Grosvenor House to address an audience assembled in honour of his remarkable career.
Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Jack Wilshere, Per Mertesacker, Gilberto Silva and Robin van Persie were just some of the former Arsenal players at the Legends of Football dinner, which raised £521,000 on the night for music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins.
Wenger had watched Van Persie and Lee Dixon describe the paternal effect the Frenchman had on their lives, while managing director Vinai Venkatesham and head of football Raul Sanllehi looked on at a retrospective of the man who shaped the club they now run.
After footage of the 2003-04 ‘Invincibles’, the Double-winning years of 1998 and 2002, Wenger got to his feet and, after acknowledging some of the headline achievements of his 22 years in charge, it felt somewhat pointed that he chose to highlight the spell during which the club were forced to sell players to help self-fund the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium.
“I arrived from Japan on October 1, 1996, because of David Dein and with only one luggage piece,” he said. “I knew it could be [a] very short [stay].
“As much as I pushed the club — we travelled every Sunday with David to look for new training grounds — to build a new stadium, to give you a picture, the turnover of the club was about £70million. Two years later, it was £90m and that was divided in three: £30m gates, £30m sponsorship and £30m television. Today, the turnover of Arsenal is about £420m, with £180m from television. That means the television money has been multiplied by six.
“When we decided to build the stadium, we’d go to £200m, to £400m, and we had become an industry and not a football club anymore, because we spoke in all the board meetings about how much we can pay back. We moved up to £428m. This was the time where we had £90m turnover and we had to pay back £22m per year to pay back the stadium and, overall, that means a completely different state of life for Arsenal.
“At the same time, in 2007, David Dein left and the banks asked as a guarantee that I signed for five years. I agreed to extend my contract. This was the difficult period — from March until the end of May, I didn’t sleep. We had to be every second year at least in the Champions League because the income was very important. As much as I get credit today for the first 10 years, from 1996 to 2006, the hardest work I did was during that period where we were on the edge.
“We had to sell our best players and at the same time came Chelsea with unbelievable money, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City. We were on a level where we could not compete financially. Having said that, I turned down many offers because I felt always that I was in a club who had a touch of class. There was a respect for tradition, there was an audacity to more forward and a feeling of being together.”
Wenger is understood to have turned down Real Madrid on more than one occasion during those lean years and, since leaving last summer, he has rejected a host of offers from across the world, including in America and China.
He turns 70 this month but is thought to be keen on managing again but has also been weighing up a job heading FIFA’s technical department.
Looking reinvigorated after a spell out of the game, Wenger’s thirst to sit in the dugout again is obvious, but when asked what his plans were, he said: “To share what I have learned in the game. Maybe with FIFA, yes. World football has a huge responsibility now and if I can help a little bit, why not?”