Jonny Singer takes an alternative look at Arsene Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal…
Between my fifth and six birthdays, two events took place that would shape not only my childhood, but also my teenage years and much of my adult life to this point.
On October 1 1996, Arsene Wenger began his 20 years as Arsenal manager, sparking the most successful period in the club’s history.
About nine months later, just as Wenger prepared for his first full season in charge, in which a young boy would become a regular in the West Stand at Highbury and watch Dennis Bergkamp make sport into poetry on the way to a double, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.
Two decades on, and it seems fitting to examine the legacy of Wenger at Arsenal. Several brilliant articles have been written on it, notably Joe Bernstein in the Mail and Barney Ronay in the Guardian, while John Cross’ book on the Wenger years is a pretty complete analysis.
But none of them, as far as I can tell, have touched on the key aspect of the legacy debate – the Albus Dumbledore problem (more on that later).
And that is because none of them, as far as I can tell, have pointed out the obvious parallels that are immediately apparent to a child who lived through both Wenger and Potter.
The first decade, of pure beauty and success. The books. Sure, some prefer the 98 double squad, with it’s dogged defence remodeled into a beautiful painting to the Invincibles, all pace, power and relentless attacking brilliance, just as some of us find the early, child-friendly novels more satisfying than the darker, and literarily more complete later books.
Overmars or Pires? Chamber of Secrets or Half-Blood Prince? The choices are tough ones.
But all agree that this is the canon. Or the Cannon if you prefer. The first iterations, the key characters. The truest sense of Wenger and Rowling.
Then comes the attempt to capture a new audience. The move to the Emirates, and Hollywood. The necessity of children to keep the project moving along.
Some, like Cesc ‘Emma Watson’ Fabregas, blossoming into genuine stars (before going in slightly odd directions after leaving the franchise). Some, like Denil‘Rupert Grint’Son were fun at the time, but you can only watch back through your hands at the enormity of the averageness.
That era brought in lots of money, but, artistically, couldn’t reach the same levels. The simplicity of the early times was made clumsy. The beauty was still there – and at times still elevated the soul – but the joy was more sporadic, and the terrible set pieces abounded, on the pitch and on the screen.
Now, as we reach the end of the second decade, there is a third way. A way that, for now at least, looks closer to the first chapter.
The Cursed Child is not the Philosopher’s Stone. Too much time has passed. And Mesut Ozil is not Dennis Bergkamp. The world is a different place.
But Wenger, like Rowling, is doing something new. And might just be about to recapture that pure, joyful beauty of the early years.
Now that I’ve convinced you of the truth of the analogy, there is the important matter of the Dumbledore problem, which typifies the debate around Wenger’s legacy.
The problem stands thus; every discussion of Arsene Wenger’s legacy can be compared to the disagreement between Dumbledore and the rest of the wizarding world between the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
For those of you unfamiliar with the entire plot of the Potter franchise, here’s a brief summary.
At the end of the third book, Harry saves his godfather, previously thought to be a mass-murderer, and identifies the true villain. Only Dumbledore (and we, the reader) believe him. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, does not.
Fast forward on a year, Lord Voldemort (the bad guy) returns from the not quite dead, and Fudge and his supporters (ie the whole world that isn’t Harry, Dumbledore and the people we are told to like) don’t believe it.
They refuse to act and thus, by the time they realise it’s true (at the end of the fifth book) it’s too late to stop the rise of evil. A very bloody, and avoidable war ensues (books six and seven).
Where does Arsene Wenger come into this? Well if you are an Arsene Knows Best sort of a person you will see the metaphor straight away. A venerable old man, known for his incredible brainpower and past achievements, mocked by the establishment and the press for seeing a truth no-one else will listen to.
There is a scene, near the beginning of the Order of the Phoenix, when Fudge, all power-loving, puffed-up arrogance, states ‘I have no reason to believe that your views are anything other than bilge, Dumbledore.’
We, the reader, knowing the old man’s brilliance, are almost stunned by the arrogance. How can Fudge, who has achieved so little, talk like that to a man he knows, deep down, is cleverer, more powerful, and right?
Fudge, therefore, is Piers Morgan, and Wenger Dumbledore.
The problem is, that everyone thinks they are Dumbledore – and I’m sure Mr Morgan could make the case for himself being the wise old head.
Look at it from a Wenger Out point of view. Morgan (Dumbledore) points out what the establishment (the club) fail to see, that while they are living their comfortable life evil (Chelsea, City, Spurs, United etc) is growing stronger.
They ignore this, arrogantly sure that they know best, all the while costing themselves the chance to right the wrongs before they become insurmountable.
In this case Fudge, the arrogant man clinging to power but refusing to change his methods, is Wenger, while Morgan stands, as Dumbledore, an easy target for mockery yet unshakable in his views.
The Dumbledore problem is not a new one – it has been applied plenty of times to Jeremy Corbyn and his opponents, with both sides making a case. But it seems to work perfectly for discussing Wenger and his legacy.
Both sides are convinced that they are right. Which side you see yourself on entirely shapes how you view not just the past 10 years, but the next 10 too.
At some point, as we knew Dumbledore would die and Harry would have to go on alone, we also know Wenger will leave Arsenal.
Will he have left those remaining behind enough to help them defeat evil, or at least stay ahead of Spurs? That remains to be seen.