As Arsene Wenger surpassed Sir Alex Ferguson’s record for taking charge of the most Premier League game’s last weekend, I was reminded of a conversation we had at Arsenal’s London Conley training ground back in 2003.
Wenger was at the peak of his powers as he was overseeing Arsenal’s legendary unbeaten Premier League season as Sir Bobby Robson celebrated his 70th birthday while still in charge of Newcastle United.
I asked whether he could imagine himself still managing Arsenal at the age of 70 and his response was telling. “No chance,” he declared with a smile. “Bobby Robson is just a phenomenon because at 70 years old, he gets up and goes out training in his tracksuit to motivate his team. Not many men can do that at 70. He is incredible. I certainly don’t see myself doing this job at 70. Tell me to stop if I’m still doing this by then!”
Well Arsene, you toasted your 68th birthday in October and find yourself moving rapidly towards the age you requested to be advised to retire, with that date looming large on his horizon.
Sadly, the glorious exit Wenger should have earned following the success he oversaw during his first decade as Arsenal manager may now elude him as slowly but surely, his vice-like grip on power at Arsenal is loosening.
Wenger so nearly saw his reign as Arsenal manager ended last summer, as senior members of the club’s hierarchy voiced concerns about extending a managerial dynasty that began back in 1996 and has been increasingly loaded with acrimony in the last decade.
Three FA Cup wins in the last four years have not been enough for supporters who got used to the glories Wenger brought to Arsenal in the first half of his reign, with their current plight all-too predictable for those who signed up to the #WengerOut campaign long ago.
Sitting sixth in the Premier League table against of a game against champions Chelsea at Emirates Stadium, the mediocrity Wenger now oversees has long since become tiresome for Arsenal fans.
While Wenger still laments the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea – with his financial war chest helping to blow his invincible Arsenal armada off the Premier League’s top spot – it really didn’t need to get to this point for a manager who showed have bowed out with grace long ago.
If Wenger had walked away from Arsenal after ending his trophy drought with an FA Cup final win against Hull back in 2014, he would have left as a legend.
He had another chance to make a graceful exit last summer, when his record breaking seventh FA Cup win in a final against Chelsea offered him a route to sail into the sunset as a winner.
However, it is has been clear for sometime that Wenger doesn’t know how to end his Arsenal reign, with the club equally confused by the chaos that they fear will follow when he steps aside.
The new two-year contract he signed last summer was greeted with annoyance by many of the clubs fans and even though Wenger has now confirmed he will review his position again at the end of this season, it seems hard to imagine a scenario that will allow him to leave with the dignity this great man merits.
“I sit down with the board at the end of every season and see where we go from there,” confirms Wenger. “I have two years on this contract and I will always try to go the end of my contract, but I always have the honesty to sit down with the board and to see where we go from there. That’s quite simple.
“My hunger, my commitment is bigger than ever. I question myself a lot, don’t worry, and that is why we sit down every year to see where I go. The present for me is about style of play, winning trophies, winning every game. Don’t think I don’t know. It’s essential.”
Whether he agreed to it or not, Wenger’s control at Arsenal has been diluted in recent weeks following the appointment of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat to key positions in Arsenal’s recruitment department.
The Arsenal boss appeared to have secured victory in his battle to retain control of the club he has managed with an iron fist since 1996 when he won his power battle with senior members of the Arsenal board pressing for change earlier this year, yet the arrival of former Barcelona Director of Football Sanllehi and new chief scout Mislintat were key appointments that were not given the prominence they were due.
Wenger has not confirmed that he had the final say over the arrivals of Sanllehi and Mislintat, with the lack of fanfare surrounding their appointments viewed as evidence that Arsenal chiefs did not want to rile the manager by promoting the significance in the Gunners set-up.
Sanllehi and Mislintat would not have agreed to join Arsenal if Wenger was still the dominant decision maker at all levels of the club, so the evolution to life after the club’s most successful manager of all-time appears to be underway, with the duo likely to be consulted when the time comes to appoint a new Arsenal boss.
Arsenal headed into 2018 sitting sixth in the Premier League table and no closer to ending their enduring wait to win a trophy Wenger last got his hands on in 2004 and so long as this manager is in charge, Arsenal will not win the biggest prize in English football again.
Everyone must appreciate that unfortunate reality by now and all that is left now is to work out how to end a story that has been tarnished his legacy by a manager whose refusal to accept his time was up long ago.
MOST PREMIER LEAGUE GAMES
Arsene Wenger – 811
Alex Ferguson – 810
Harry Redknapp – 693
David Moyes – 508
Sam Allardyce – 495
Mark Hughes – 443
Steve Bruce – 393
Martin O’Neill – 359