When Arsenal’s new manager Arsene Wenger was appointed in September 1996, he was greeted with a typically forthright headline from one British newspaper: “Arsene Who?” it blared.
Thirteen years on, the Frenchman is still in charge, having brought the club three Premier League titles, including the double in 1998, four FA Cup triumphs, four Community Shields and a runners-up spot in both the Champions League and the Uefa Cup.
Wenger turns 60 on Thursday and his team is bursting with potential for honours, with the club having gone four seasons without winning any silverware.
Faced with a similar barren period in terms of trophies, many clubs would have said thanks and waved Wenger goodbye in search of a man to yield immediate success.
But it is a mark of his ability and just how highly he is rated that Arsenal have never even given that thought a minute’s consideration.
Wenger’s contract expires in 2011, but as he prepared his team for their Champions League clash at Dutch side AZ Alkmaar he said he had absolutely no plans to retire from the game he loves so much.
Coveted on several occasions by the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, not to mention England, Wenger has always stayed faithful to Arsenal where he is again developing a young team with title potential.
It seems funny now, but Wenger was recommended to the Gunners by the then Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. He eventually replaced Bruce Rioch in September of 1996 and right from the start, he made his mark, even if none of the players had ever heard from him.
“He arrived unnoticed at the training ground,” Lee Dixon, one of the famous Arsenal back-four that Wenger kept intact, said years later. “A meeting was called, the players filed in and in front of us stood this tall, slightly—built man who gave no impression whatsoever of being a football manager.”
Wenger was the antithesis of the likes of George Graham, who led the side to the league title in 1989 but whose brand of football was never attractive on the eye. While not touching the defensive back line, the Frenchman built a side that played fluent, pleasing football, bringing in several world class players to add to those he inherited.
Quietly spoken, his influence went well beyond the pitch as he, more than anyone else, was responsible for transforming the face of British football, ridding it of its drinking culture and adding nutritionists and fitness experts to the club.
Having grown up in a pub in Strasbourg, Wenger knew all about the perils of alcohol, especially on professional footballers and insisted that “not a drop should touch a player’s lips”. The players began eating together and the spirit he created was instrumental in their success, which was almost immediate.
Wenger backed his captain Tony Adams when he admitted his own problems with alcohol and the players responded to his influence by playing the kind of football that others could only envy.
His Arsenal side won the double in 1998 and repeated their Premier League success in 2002 and 2004, while the list of players who graced his sides range from the artistry of Dennis Bergkamp to Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Ian Wright.
The Frenchman stood up to the mind games of the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and his latest side looks capable of winning things again, with Andrey Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshire, Robin van Persie and captain Cesc Fabregas all names who could go down in Arsenal folklore in years to come.
Whatever they do from here, though, Wenger’s place in history is already assured and he shows no sign of slowing down.
“If I have health, I want to work as long as I live but adapt to my potential,” he said. “It doesn’t always need to be physical work, it can be more intellectual. I don’t know long I will manage the team. From now on I have to assess every two years because this job is hands-on.
“I am in a job where you always look in front of you. Unfortunately, the older you get, the less distance there is in front of you but football is exciting because when you have a team like I have now. You know there is potential in this team and it’s down to me to get it out.”