When Arsène Wenger was officially unveiled as Arsenals first foreign manager, it was not much of a shock. The secret had rather got out. Wenger was managing Grampus Eight and although his club had agreed to release him, it would be at their season break, and they didn't want it announced until then. Unfortunately the press found out and it was all over the papers long before Peter Hill-Wood gave the game away. At the shareholders annual tea, biscuits and platitudes meeting, Hill-Wood was asked why he couldn't confirm the new managers' name. Hill-Wood replied that it was because he was under contract to another club, and that guarantees had been given. When asked to whom these guarantees had been given Hill-Wood rather innocently replied 'Grampus Eight'. Oops.
The general feeling amongst fans was echoed by a press headline 'Arsène Who?' Johan Cruyff and Bobby Robson had been touted as potential managers with Cruyff the fans choice by a long way. It was hardly surprising, as at the time Wenger was generally unknown in the UK. All most fans knew of him was a report a few weeks earlier where Hoddle wanted him in the England set up (which he refused) and a vague memory of George Weah dedicating his World Player of the Year award to a quiet, studious looking Frenchman. But Wenger managed to impress the fans even before he officially arrived, thanks to a gangly young French midfielder.
On the 16th of September 1996 we played Sheffield Wednesday at home in the league. Patrick Vieira came on as sub to give most Arsenal fans their first chance to see this 20-year-old Milan reserve we'd paid £3.5m for. And he didn't disappoint. By the end of the game Vieira had shown that we'd finally got the midfield presence that we'd been missing. After the game the general feeling amongst fans seemed to be that if he could solve the midfield problems before even arriving, then maybe the guy deserved a chance.
Winning over the players would be another matter. In his book 'Addicted' Tony Adams admits his first thought were not exactly complimentary, but the 'new' Adams was prepared to give him a chance, especially when he found the new manager was prepared to listen to him and treat him with respect. Indeed, although Wenger wanted to change Rioch's formation of three centre halves to a flat back four; it was after Adams explained to him how they'd become comfortable with Rioch's formation that he decided to stick with it for the season. An excellent decision. Wenger had already started to revolutionise the club, and maybe he thought the players needed to have a common point of reference on the field at least.
Virtually before he arrived a whispering campaign started. A totally unfounded rumour spread around the financial institutions that Wenger was a paedophile (apparently started by scum supporters). Wenger kept his private life very private, which led to the rumours escalating, with various papers commenting on a scandal regarding Arsenal's new manager, without quite going into detail. Things reached a head when a certain radio presenter (a lifelong tiny tott) repeated the rumour on his radio show, even saying he had photos in front of him to prove it. Later in the programme (no doubt reminded of the laws regarding slander and libel) he backtracked to say the pictures were obviously faked, but the rumour was well and truly out and Wenger was under pressure already.
The Arsenal press office advised Wenger very strongly not to comment on the rumours, but that just wasn't his way. Reporters were encamped outside Highbury waiting for developments when Wenger suddenly and unexpectedly appeared on the steps outside the main entrance. The reporters were expecting at least a statement denying things, and were no doubt hoping for a juicy resignation story for the next days papers, but they weren't prepared for what was to happen. In fact, it was probably the last thing that any of them expected to happen, because rather than a statement, they got a challenge! Wenger asked them what the rumours were. Wenger challenged them to repeat the rumour in front of witnesses. He even challenged them to print any story they thought they had. The reporters were dumbstruck by what was happening, and apart from some pathetic chants still being chanted by certain clubs fans that was the end of the matter. Wenger had 'won' his first battle with the English press, and they knew they had someone slightly different on their hands.
As an aside, it must be asked why the radio presenter wasn't prosecuted. He clearly stated on his radio show that he was in possession of child pornography, which is obviously a very serious crime. Many people, myself included, contacted the police regarding his broadcast and admission, but no charges were brought due to 'insufficient evidence'.
Wenger had 'beaten' the press, and was starting to win over the players as well. Paul Merson spoke of the 'unbelievable belief' the manager instilled in the team, and it was obvious on the pitch. Arsenal were playing with a previously unseen fluidity and joy. It was as though the weight of Graham's tactical plan had been lifted and the players were enjoying their football. A third place finish (behind Newcastle on goal difference) ensured UEFA cup football, but it would have been Champions League football if it hadn't been for an incident against Blackburn. We kicked the ball out of play to allow one of their players to be treated, and at the restart the ball was thrown to Winterburn to clear. Instead of being allowed to clear the ball, Winterburn found Chris Sutton bearing down on him and conceded a corner, from which they equalised.
Wenger's first full season in charge was preceded by a raft of transfers. In came Boa Morte, Grimandi, Manninger, Petit, Upson, Overmars and Wreh (and Anelka, who joined late the previous season). Freeing up pegs in the changing rooms were the departing Bartram, Kiwomya, Helder and the much loved Paul Merson (following Dickov, Hartson, Hillier, Linighan and Morrow who'd left the previous season). The Wenger revolution was well and truly under way.
Arsenal started 97/98 in sparkling form, and the 'unbelievable belief' that Merson had talked of was spreading to the terraces. The team was playing with confidence, no one more so than Dennis Bergkamp who achieved the unheard of feat of taking the first three places in the September 'Goal of the Month' competition. Also in September Ian Wright became Arsenal's leading all time scorer (beating Cliff Bastin's record) at home against Bolton. Ironically for a player who'd scored so many cracking goals, the one that broke the record was a tap in from 3 yards! But in a pattern that was to be repeated in Wenger's early years November was a disastrous month and by the time we were well beaten at home by Blackburn in December things didn't look too rosy. Tony Adams, in particular, had a terrible game hampered by injuries. After the game a couple of things happened that changed the course of the season. Firstly (in an Arsenal tradition dating back to Herbert Chapman's reign) a 'frank and open' team meeting was held. The defence felt that the change in formation to Wenger's preferred 4-4-2 had left the defence exposed, and it was decided that the Vieira/Petit axis in midfield should provide more cover. The second occurrence was Adams deciding that he could no longer do himself justice on the pitch with the injuries he was constantly carrying and decided to retire. Adams and Wenger had a long meeting at which Wenger agreed to send Adams to the South of France for make or break treatment.
A rejuvenated Adams returned from France to an Arsenal team in the middle of a remarkable run. Some bookies had already paid out on Manchester United winning the title, but between January 31st and May 3rd we conceded 2 league goals in 14 games (dropping only 2 points) in a run that included a 1-0 win at Old Trafford and brought the title to Highbury with two games left. The title was won with an emphatic 4-0 home win against Everton with the forth goal saying more about Wenger's Arsenal than any journalist could. Picking up the ball in midfield Steve Bould chipped a delightful ball through to the player breaking through, who of all players was Tony Adams! Adams took one touch on his chest and hammered a left foot shot past the keeper before turning round with arms outstretched to savour the moment. Wengerball had truly arrived.
But the season wasn't over yet, there was the little matter of a trip to Wembley on May 15th to face Newcastle United in the FA Cup final. The game turned out to be an easy 2-0 win with Arsenal dominant and Newcastle quite pitiful. The double had been won in Wenger's first full season, and the future looked very bright indeed.
The summer saw Ian Wright depart for West Ham, and Nelson Vivas arrive. Also arriving in the coming months were Freddie Ljungberg and Nwankwo Kanu. It was a season that would promise much but ultimately deliver nothing in trophies. With Arsenal and Manchester United neck and neck we were drawn to meet each other in the FA Cup semi-final. A closely fought tie was finally settled in extra time of the replay, and not in our favour. United had the impetus and would finally win the league by one point, with the tiny totts (in a pattern they'd often repeat) capitulating at Old Trafford on the last day of the season.
One incident that aroused much comment came in a home FA Cup 5th round tie at home against Sheffield United. Basically, during a United attack one of their players went down injured. The attack broke down, the ball was cleared, United re-grouped and attacked again, totally ignoring their injured player. We won the ball back and tried to go forward but a tackle made the ball go out of play for a throw in in our favour. At no point was the ball put out of play for the injury to be treated. After a few minutes treatment play resumed with our throw in. For some reason the United players expected the ball to be thrown back to them, but it was thrown to Overmars. In the confusion United didn't react and the ball was crossed to Kanu who slotted the ball past the keeper, and was rather bemused to be surrounded by angry opponents. The referee naturally gave the goal, which led to Steve Bruce (their manager) doing a passable impression of a child having a tantrum on the touchline, even trying to call his players off the pitch. He was screaming so much I swear his nose went straight for a second! We won the match 2-1, but in an unprecedented act Wenger approached David Dein immediately after the final whistle and before the players were changed we had offered to replay the match, despite having won. Later that evening the FA agreed to the unprecedented request and 10 days later we won the replayed match, again by a 2-1 score.
The summer was dominated by the Anelka saga. The £500,000 signing from PSG decided he was unhappy at Arsenal and wanted to leave. Essentially a very shy young man, his lack of apparent on field emotion didn't help his popularity in replacing Ian Wright and he was receiving unfavourable press. He put in a transfer request which was turned down and then the machinations began, involving him and his brothers who touted him around Europe. He was a very hot young property, and decided he wanted to join Lazio and no-one else. Then he changed his mind. And again. And then it was Real or nothing, with Anelka even threatening to go on strike and take court action against Arsenal for restraint of trade. Eventually Dein saw no other action than selling to Real and on the eve of the new season Anelka was sold for £23.5 million. Not a bad profit, but if some reports at the time were true it was far better than that. Having a firm offer of over £30m from Lazio Dein is alleged to have insisted on a clause in the contract that stated Real would give Arsenal 50% of any transfer fee received by them for Anelka over the next 3 years. Real couldn't believe that anyone would want to leave them and agreed. If true (and in a television programme about the saga Dein didn't seem to deny it) then his sale the next summer earned us another £10m+.
Also leaving in the summer, with far less controversy, was Steve Bould. Martin Keown had usurped him in the first team, but it was a sad moment for many Arsenal fans as this was the start of the end for the amazing defensive unit that had done so much for Arsenal over a decade and more.
Part of the deal for Anelka involved Croatian striker Davor Suker come the other way. The move didn't prove as successful as hoped, but his professionalism and sheer enthusiasm made him popular. We also signed a young French winger called Thierry Henry from Juventus. Henry had played under Wenger at Monaco as a striker, and this was the role Wenger had in mind for him.
Henry initially found it hard to settle into his new role, indeed a fair few supporters saw him as a complete waste of money, and not a real striker/goal scorer. In what was a difficult season for Arsenal he ended up as top scorer on 26 goals and has obviously gone from strength to strength since, now acknowledged as one of the best in the world.
The Anelka transfer on the eve of the season had obviously disrupted the squad and Wenger's plans, and there were more problems for Wenger to deal with. The Vieira / Petit axis in midfield wasn't working as well as it had, due mainly to injuries and suspension. Petit, in particular, wasn't the dynamic player he had been and was obviously worried by a persistent knee injury. On the wing Overmars was bottling more and more challenges, prompting one senior player to tell him he was playing with a pole vault stick up his behind! Although the team finished a comfortable second, this was a massive 18 points behind first place. A UEFA cup final appearance against Galatasaray produced an insipid performance, but with the streets of Copenhagen awash with violence this was maybe understandable. Two Leeds United fans had been murdered by Gala fans in Turkey before a semi final match, and many of their fans had come to Copenhagen for revenge (alongside fans of a few other English clubs).
Overmars was obviously off in the summer, and when Barcelona offered an obscene amount of money for him, and wanted Petit added to the deal, it went through fairly smoothly. Although the press drew comparisons with the previous summer sale to Spain, in reality this was very different in that these were players that were becoming a liability. Coming in for far less money were Lauren, Robért Píres (from under the noses of Real Madrid), Sylvain Wiltord and (eventually, after various passport problems) Edu. The first phase of Wenger's revolution was over, and the players were in place for stage two.
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