Arsene Wenger’s announcement that he will leave Arsenal after 22 years at the helm has brought his storied legacy into focus.
The Frenchman arrived at the club in 1996, and by virtue of doing so in the mid-nineties, was handed the unenviable task of challenging Alex Ferguson and his rampant Manchester United side. Wenger, who had joined from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight, earned a reputation as a sophisticated and intelligent man who had dragged English football into the modern age, where fitness and diet took priority.
One man who wasn’t impressed was of course the aforementioned Ferguson, who fired the first shot in a series of barbs that went back and forth over the following years.
“They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages? I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.”
Wenger also differed in his approach to long-held customs, one of those being the traditional glass of red in Ferguson’s office as the opposing manager after an Old Trafford game, with the Frenchman again drawing his rival’s ire.
“He never comes for a drink with the opposing manager after matches. He’s the only manager in the Premiership not to do so. It is a tradition here. It would be good for him to accept the tradition.”
The ‘pizza-gate’ scandal of 2005, wherein a tunnel brawl between both Arsenal and United resulted in Cesc Fabregas allegedly hitting Ferguson with a slice of pizza, gave rise to the peak of the insults, with the Scotsman terming Arsenal’s behaviour the worst thing he has ever seen in the sport. Wenger didn’t take it lying down.
“Ferguson does what he wants and you [the press] are all down at his feet. He doesn’t interest me and doesn’t matter to me at all. I will never answer to any provocation from him any more. He has lost all sense of reality. He is going out looking for a confrontation, then asking the person he is confronting to apologise.”
With Arsenal’s competitiveness as an elite team fading a few years later came a thaw in relations between the two legendary managers.
When Ferguson retired in 2013, Wenger was glowing in his assessment of his rival-turned-friend’s tenure at United.
“I would just like to pay tribute to an unbelievable achievement and a fantastic career. Basically the achievement is immaculate, when you look at the whole structure and consistency of the achievement. It is, of course, something exceptional. It is difficult to imagine English football without him, but it’s now a reality and a fact. Of course the next manager has to fill in and show he has the dimension to do that. It is a big task for the guy who comes in.”
Indeed it was a big task.
Given Arsene’s announcement today, Fergie was similarly respectful in assessing a career he was often the target of, stating via ManUtd.com:
“I am really happy for Arsene Wenger. I have great respect for him and for the job he has done at Arsenal.
“It is great testament to his talent, professionalism and determination that he has been able to dedicate 22 years of his life to a job that he loves. In an era where football managers sometimes only last one or two seasons, it shows what an achievement it is to serve that length of time at a club the size of Arsenal.
“I am pleased that he has announced he is leaving at this stage of the season, as he can now have the send-off that he truly deserves. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers and I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man.”