Every Defeat Is a Scar in Your Heart: Wenger - The New Indian Express

Every Defeat Is a Scar in Your Heart: Wenger

Published: 22nd March 2014 07:27 AM

Last Updated: 22nd March 2014 07:44 AM

Arsenal manager Wenger talks about his highs, lows and philosophy ahead of an incredible 1,000-game milestone match at Chelsea, writes Henry Winter

It has always been the pursuit of perfection that drives Arsene Wenger, that has been his guiding light on a voyage to 1,000 games at Arsenal. It has not always been possible, certainly not in the past nine years, but Wenger will never compromise his purist principles. At times since his arrival in 1996, the Frenchman has seemed more willing to lose beautifully than win ugly.

He still has three titles and four FA Cups to his name. A competitive animal, Wenger craves the nirvana of trophies lifted through uplifting football. The balance has not been right in recent times, a point he attributes to the resources-draining move to the Emirates. "Today we can fight with the top clubs financially again," he warned.

Talking before training at London Colney yesterday (Friday), Wenger spoke of his philosophy over the past 18 years. "The ambition of every great club must be to win and to win with style, and to think of the people who pay a lot of money to come to watch the matches," he reflected. "You always have to have it in your mind that people wake up in the morning with a love of going to the stadium and for them to go home having enjoyed themselves. The real goal of professional football entails not just winning but also enabling people to discover the pleasure of watching something beautiful.

"I run on the idea of making the players perfect, having the perfect game. I run after that happiness week after week. Sometimes you touch it but it goes and you fight to get it again. Every defeat is a scar in your heart that you never forget. There is a lot of suffering as well in 1,000 games and what is for sure is what you want is the next moment of happiness."

All sorts of accolades are being bestowed on Wenger, who received a model of a golden cannon from Arsenal and a glass bowl from the LMA. Most pleasing are the paeans from his managerial peers, particularly from Sir Alex Ferguson. "I always enjoy watching Arsene's sides - Arsenal play the right way," said the former Manchester United manager.

Wenger particularly appreciated that. "Yes of course because they know how difficult it is." And these are rivals like Ferguson he "had rucks" with. "A lot!" laughed Wenger, speaking on the eve of Arsenal's "most important game of the season" against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. He is innately competitive with the likes of Mourinho and Ferguson. "Yes. If I start any game I will have to win. That's our job."

He cannot envisage any amity stretching between dug-outs. "It is impossible. You cannot be friends. You can be friends at the start of competition. The real sport on that front is rugby. They don't kiss each other before the game when they walk in the tunnel. They go out and are ready for war. They become friends after the game." He frowns on expressions of friendships between opposing footballers who know each from international duty. Too much pre-match kissing? "I don't like it."

The acclaim is all very well but what Wenger really needs is a trophy. Saturday will be billed as the Special One versus the "specialist in failure", the dismissive label from Mourinho. Chelsea's coach would love to ruin Wenger's party on Saturday. For all the tension between the pair, Stamford Bridge forms a fitting backdrop for Wenger's 1,000th match.

It was in a nearby Italian restaurant that Wenger met Arsenal's then powerbrokers, David Dein and Peter Hill-Wood, to discuss the managerial vacancy in 1996.

Amidst all the fanfare for his 1,000 games, it needs acknowledging that Wenger was fortunate to inherit one of the most redoubtable defences in the history of English football, a formidable esprit de corps embodied by Tony Adams and attacking talents of the virtuosity of Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright.

It also needs remembering the fragile early days on his arrival, the 'Arsene Who?' and 'Clouseau' scepticism. "People were asking who I was," Wenger continued. "I was a complete unknown. And there was no history of a foreign manager succeeding in England. So I was in a situation where no one knew me and history was against me."

Wenger called a meeting with football correspondents, all gathering around the board-room table, listening with increasing admiration as he expounded his philosophy: the hunt for silverware via sustained elan and dedication.

With the players, Wenger's impact was immediate and far-ranging on and off the pitch. He introduced Tony Adams to vegetables. Beer was out, broccoli was in. Wenger reacted with a huge smile when informed that Arsenal were founded in a pub, the Royal Oak. Typical.

The lean Frenchman chided the English for their love of chocolate, of sugar. "I changed a few habits of the players which isn't easy in a team where the average age is 30," he recalled. "At half-time in the first game [Blackburn Rovers away] I asked my physio Gary Lewin: 'Nobody is talking, what's wrong with them?' He replied: 'They're hungry'.

"I hadn't given them their chocolate before the game. It was funny. On the coach on the way back, the players were chanting 'We want our Mars bars back'!"

Later on, Sol Campbell was taught that if he had to take sugar with his coffee, he had to hold the spoon slightly below the surface, moving it from side to side so the granules were absorbed fully. Wenger left nothing to chance. He instructed club scouts to begin carrying their passports with them because Arsenal's focus for player recruitment was going global. He bought well, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira being his most influential signings.

He never criticised his players in public, bonding them closer to him. When Henry laboured in front of goal early on, even joking that his finishing was a danger only to the famous Highbury clock, Wenger kept the faith. He stood outside the boardroom, telling passing Arsenal supporters and dignitaries about his belief that Henry would come good. The rest is history and disheveled goalkeepers.

He has been marvelous for English football, raising the level of debate, fighting "financial doping" in an era of debt, encouraging young players as he always says "to try skills without fear of failure", and the irresistible football of the Invincibles.

"When you no longer have problems with defeats, the real luxury is to sit on the bench and just enjoy watching your team play," Wenger said of the remarkable team of 2003-04. "That's when you discover the beauty of this job."

Helping oversee the expensive move from Highbury to the Emirates, a stadium he helped design, has proved costly for the team.

"We made that decision knowing that we could suffer a bit financially but what was happening at the same time as that decision was that Man City and Chelsea made huge investments. We had the double effect. We were not only competing with the clubs who were at our level before but suddenly also two other clubs came in."

He was determined to balance the books. Unlike others. "On Jan 1, 2002 Leeds were top of the Premier League and at the end of the season they were not in Europe," Wenger added. "That was because they had to sell big players, but they dropped. It is very fragile. Bad decisions can take you down quickly. I don't think we are in that position, but for years you had to be careful.

"The difference between that Invincibles team and today's one is not enormous. One difference is that the competition is higher now, with Liverpool, Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and teams like Tottenham, who invested over pounds 100m. So maybe it's more difficult to do now. We still have some weaknesses that we will try to address in the summer."

Such words confirm he will sign a new contract. He is in tune, even in love with Arsenal's DNA, the dignity and respect for others. He is obsessed with football, once fending off questions over why he was spending a 60th birthday sitting at home, watching a Bundesliga game, with the promise to "put candles on top of the television".

He has a wry sense of humour yet a sense of sadness and also defiance emerges when discussing the 2006 Champions League final, losing Jens Lehmann for bringing down Samuel Eto'o, who he encounters again on Saturday.

"It's still an achievement," said Wenger, making the kind of comment that would have Mourinho rolling his eyes at this runner-up glory story. "It's not a trophy but we only lost a game in the last 13 minutes of the Champions League. Can you say you have failed that season? I don't think so. On top of that we managed to stay in the top four that season.

"We beat Real Madrid with Zidane and Beckham. But nobody speaks about it.

"It's like we did nothing that season at all. Why? Because at the end of the season we don't parade with a trophy. I know trophies are important but if you don't have a trophy it doesn't mean nothing happened in the season and it was disastrous."

Apart from Europe, the only task consistently beyond him has been fastening his long coat at the first attempt.

So did he ever think he would reach 1,000 matches? "Never." Salut.

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