Arsene in the archives: Wenger’s contribution to Arsenal and Islington
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Arsene Wenger takes charge of his final home game on Sunday. He leaves having changed Arsenal, and Islington, for the better. The Gazette looked through the late ‘90s archives to assess how he set about that change.
Only Arsene Wenger could say a whole nation of people is fat and do it with graceful eloquence.
As Mr Wenger prepares for his last Arsenal game in Islington on Sunday (the Emirates Stadium match against Burnley), the Gazette fished through the Islington Local History Centre archives. We wanted to size up the impact he had on the club – and the borough – when he was appointed as manager in autumn 1996.
So, back to the fat thing. From the outset, this Frenchman, whose last job was in Japan, was clearly unlike anyone Arsenal had ever encountered.
“I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables,” he lectured reporters at one of his first press conferences.
“I lived for two years in Japan and it was the best diet I ever had. The whole way of life there is linked with health. Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, fish and rice. No fat, no sugar. You notice when you live there that there are no fat people.”
Mr Wenger, labelled “Arsene Who?” when he was appointed, was an outsider. He didn’t care.
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At his very first press conference in Highbury’s South Stand, the 47-year-old acknowledged literally no head would turn if he walked Gillespie Road, Avenell Road or Highbury Hill.
“I don’t suppose many Arsenal fans would recognise me. But that doesn’t worry me.”
It didn’t take long for Mr Wenger to be recognised: on the pitch (Arsenal finished third in his first season) and off.
As the Gazette reported on May 15, 1997, Mr Wenger was driving to work at Highbury when he saw an injured woman in Holloway Road.
She had been hit by a ladder, which had blown in the wind, and was lying on the pavement near the junction with Hercules Street. Mr Wenger’s passenger was a doctor, and because there was no ambulance at the scene, he stopped to help out.
A punter in the Hercules Tavern said the Mr Wenger took control of the situation: “He put his coat over the woman and kept very calm and went around telling everyone not to panic. He was first class.”
My Wenger blushed: “I did what any good citizen would do.”
The woman was eventually taken to Whittington Hospital in an ambulance and wasn’t seriously hurt.
The 1997/98 season is remembered by most for Tony Adams’ iconic Highbury goal to wrap up the title against Everton.
In 1996, the captain had publicly acknowledged he was an alcoholic. On the dawn of 1997/98 season, the Highbury and Islington Express asked Mr Wenger if he had anything to do with Adams’ recovery, and his new-found interest in the arts.
“No,” he replied. “He has changed his life. In the past, he found answers by drinking, now by thinking. The second solution is better, because with the first one you destroy yourself. With the second one you improve your mind. That’s a very positive thing for me.”
As well as overseeing a change in mentality at the club, Mr Wenger was also an early influential voice in the club’s move out of Highbury Stadium.
In October 1998 – a time when neighbours were vociferously against an expansion of Highbury – he told the Gazette: “The logical way is to move out. That is only my personal opinion and this decision does not belong to me alone.
“I would say yes, the ideal is to stay at Highbury, but that is not realistic. The re-organisation will be too difficult and compared to the improvement in the capacity it will be too expensive.”
But perhaps the greatest measure of Mr Wenger’s impact was a Gazette editorial after he won the Double in May 1998.
He had such a revolutionary impact on the club – and on the borough – that we called for him to be given the freedom of Islington just 18 months into the job (he was eventually bestowed it after the Invincibles season in 2004).
The column read: “Gunners sides of the past, while being outstanding in terms of achievement, did not win many friends outside the immediate circle of supporters for their style of play and commitment to the community. That all changed this year. Much of the credit must go to Arsene Wenger: triumphant without being triumphalist, confident without being cocky.”
And as Jeremy Corbyn told us last week: “Thank you, Arsene, for everything you’ve done for our club and for our community. You took the club to a higher plane.”