Peter Hill-Wood on appointing Arsene Wenger in 1996: ‘Our ambitions are to win a trophy or two...’
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The 1996 Arsenal AGM was held in the first week of September in one of Highbury’s distinguished oak-panelled rooms.
Normally a placid affair interspersed with the rubber stamping of minor points of order, the meeting held that autumn was one of the fieriest anybody could recall up to that point.
Shareholders, the majority of them long-standing supporters of the club – the same ones that ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke forced out with his leveraged buyout in the summer of 2018 – were up in arms over the way the previous managerial incumbent, Bruce Rioch, had been relieved of his duties. They were also concerned at the lack of visible movement from the club on appointing a new boss.
The chairman, Old Etonian Peter Hill-Wood, the last of three generations of his family to run the club, a ‘gentleman investor’ and a City man to the core, was unused to such open hostility.
He told the many disaffected stakeholders, in words that would come to be seen as prophetic and visionary in years to come, yet seemed anything but on that fateful day: “We have acted in the best interests of the club.
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“We have identified a replacement of considerable reputation who has agreed to join us. We cannot announce his appointment officially as we have given an undertaking not to do so.”
In a touch of farce which brought comic relief to the fraught proceedings a voice from the floor asked in an innocent voice: “An undertaking to who Mr Chairman?”
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Without thinking, the dignified custodian of The Arsenal, whose family connections to the club stretched back to the early years of the twentieth century, immediately replied: “An undertaking to Mr Wenger of course.”
Cue much laughter, which almost drowned out what he had to say next. Which was to announce the signings of Remi Garde and a certain Patrick Vieria while adding with deadly precision: “Our ambitions are to get the squad right and win another trophy or two.”
Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal, the worst kept secret in football was confirmed on Monday, September 17, 1996. The same evening the rudderless club were due to take on Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.
Strictly speaking Monsieur Wenger’s tenure was not to begin for another two weeks due to seeing out his contract with Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan.
The symbolic contrast between the opening 28 minutes of the Owls game when the stuttering Gunners fell a goal behind to their Yorkshire visitors, and the remainder of that glorious opening-of-an-era match when Vieria came on and influenced proceedings singlehandedly as Arsenal walked to a 4-1 victory was evident. To the extent that no-one who was there will ever forget it.
It was also hugely emblematic – for it pointed the way to the changes that would occur at this grand old London institution, for long derided as unadventurous, conformist and cautious.
In the words of the Irish poet YB Yeats: “All changed, changed utterly,” – all of which stemmed from the unintentional revelation from Mr Hill-Wood on that tumultuous day 22 years ago.
This passage has been adapted from Layth’s first Arsenal book. Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures. Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29