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Insight: Arsene Before Arsenal

Arsene Wenger turns 65 today. He now defines Arsenal as much as it defines him. But where did Arsene learn the ideals that helped him revolutionise the club? Sean Curtin investigates.

When you look back on Arsene Wenger’s life, it’s easy to imagine his rise through management was some sort of manifest destiny. Looking back at what is known of the man prior to his first professional management job, Wenger has been a manager-in-training since the age of six.

It was at six that his father began taking him to games, mainly to see Borussia Mönchengladbach who it should be said were not particularly good. Undeterred the young Wenger lapped it up. This footballing education was supplemented with some early studies in people management.

Wenger describes his time as a child spent in the pub with his parents as an insight into human psychology and this education would stand him in good stead in later years when dealing with problem players.

There is no better psychological education than growing up in a pub when you are five or six because you meet all different people and hear how cruel they can be. You hear the way they talk to each other like saying ‘You’re a liar.’ And from an early age you get a practical psychological education into the minds of people.

It’s fascinating too just how quickly Arsene became infatuated with football and importantly, learning. Previously known as ‘petit’ by his team mates in the local team a growth spurt at sixteen put an end  to that. By that stage Wenger, though not captain, was described as the undisputed leader of the team.

The local manager took a rather hands-off approach to their management, leaving a young Wenger to fill the void. His talent did not go unnoticed. Third-tier club Mutzig recruited the Frenchman. Perhaps this is where his admiration for beautiful football came about, Mutzig were known as the amateur football club who played “the best football”.

It was at Mutzig Wenger would meet a man who would become his mentor; Max Hild. Wenger often accompanied Hild on scouting trips to Germany. They would spend the long car journeys discussing football, the teams and players they had seen ad of course, some more football. Through these trips Hild instilled in Wenger an understanding of the different managerial styles they saw in their Bundesliga adventures.

While studying in Strasbourg University for an undergraduate degree in Engineering, followed by a Masters in Economics he joined semi-professional team  Mulhouse. It was here he met another manager who would affect his view of football, Paul Frantz. The Mulhouse manager was years ahead of football in his use of nutrition and isometrics to improve player performance.

After a stint with Frantz, Wenger rekindled his partnership with Hild, Joining the midfield of Hild’s new club ASPV Strasbourg. When Hild was hired by RC Strasbourg to manage the reserve team he along with Frantz recommended Wenger be signed. Wenger played several times for the first team but acted predominantly as a coach to the youth teams.

While still a player and with an eye to the future, Arsene Wenger travelled to Cambridge for an intensive three-week English Language course. His reason for going, English was the language of Football.

Before even venturing into managing Wenger possessed men of the skills he would need to effectively govern players. Plenty of experience with younger players thanks to his time at RC Strasbourg. An appreciation of good football from his playing days with amateur outfit Mutzig. An understanding of different tactical styles due to those long scouting trips with Hild & of course he was a believer in the benefits of nutritional science, isometrics and focusing on specific aspects of a players game thanks to Frantz.

His first foray into official management was as Assistant Manager at AS Cannes. Yet within a year he had done enough to sufficiently impress Michel Platini’s father; Aldo. Platini Senior recommended Arsene for the Managerial vacancy at Ligue 1 outfit Nancy.

His time at Nancy ended in relegation but he had done enough to earn the interest of AS Monaco. Here he honed his ability to scout players signing Glenn Hoddle on a free along with George Weah. Bayern Munich came calling but the Wenger took a bold decision

He left Monaco for Japan. There, at Nagoya Grampus Eight he spent a fruitful 18 months. His lessons with Frantz were backed up by the healthy way of life the Japanese enjoyed. In Japan, Wenger began to respect the power of empire building and looking to future. Wenger noted the Japanese business mindset was focused on success for a 100 years, not just the short-term.

By 1996, everything was in place for Wenger to take England by storm. He had wooed David Dein, member of the Arsenal board the previous season when visiting the club for a match. A year later Bruce Rioch was gone and Dein convinced the board to appoint Wenger.

It’s funny to think now how revolutionary Wenger’s approach to the game was compared to how backwards the English game of the 90s appears. To think the Frenchman revolutionised the game by introducing stretching to training seems quaint now, but it was ground breaking at the time.

His willingness to learn whether it be football tactics, language or a new training approach revolutionised English football and for that we should all be thankful. Happy Birthday Arsene.

Sean Curtin, Pundit Arena .

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