When Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal as manager in 1996, Tony Blair was the leader of a Labour Party in opposition and was living in a terraced house on Richmond Crescent, a ten-minute walk from Highbury in the north London borough of Islington.
Two years earlier, Blair and his chancellor-in-waiting Gordon Brown had met at another landmark of 90s Islington, the Italian restaurant Granita. There, over chilled glasses of vin santo and plates of olives, they formalised their plan to take control of Labour’s future.
Once a thoroughly working class neighbourhood, Islington was in the midst of gentrification. Wine bars and modern restaurants were springing up as parts of the old community were being moved out. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades had debated the future for communism in Islington’s pubs. At its end, Blair and Brown were consigning the left to history in its restaurants.
At Arsenal, George Graham and then Bruce Rioch practiced a decidedly old-school brand of direct football. Now here came Wenger, with his ideas about passing the ball and eating vegetables. Like Blair, he had come to change the organisation he had been put in charge of.
While those on the left of the Labour party dubbed Blair and his associates the “Savile Row tendency”, a riff on the Militant tendency that cast them as well-heeled, right-wing insurgents in expensive suits, the new leader was presenting himself as a moderniser, a man to drive his party forward into a slicker, brighter future.
From now on, it was going to be TV-ready sound bites over socialist rhetoric, private-public partnerships over nationalised industries. From now on, like Bill Clinton’s Democrats, Labour was going to embrace the Third Way, that synthesis of centre-left and centre-right politics that, as a BBC collage from the time helpfully illustrated, put Tony Blair somewhere in between Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher.
The arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal promised similar change. Presented to the media on the pitch at Highbury, Wenger, in his double-breasted suit and crisp white shirt, even looked like he could be one of the more professorial members of Blair’s entourage. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher”, Arsenal captain Tony Adams observed. “Does he even speak English properly?”
The shock of the new was as hard to take. “We want our Mars bars”, the Arsenal players chanted on the back of their bus after Wenger had banned them from eating chocolate. Wenger had won titles in France and Japan but what did that mean to players like Tony Adams?
Today, after Arsene Wenger has announced that he will leave Arsenal in the summer, there will be no such complaints. Wenger revolutionised Arsenal and he changed British football. His nutritional, tactical and cultural demands were embraced by his team and following Wenger’s announcement, Adams hailed him as “the greatest Arsenal manager”.
Like Blair, Wenger turned his team into serial winners. Like Blair, he was the future once. Like Blair, he outlived his welcome. Unlike Blair, he leaves now with the love and appreciation of those he led. Watch this space to find out if he goes on to enjoy great success as an after-dinner corporate speaker and freelance consultant to the world’s great kleptocracies.
Le Prof’s departure seems, also, to signify another nail in the coffin of a time and a place, the Islington of Tony Blair and the culture that came with it: Clive Anderson on panel shows, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, Cool Britannia, the books of Nick Hornby, a newfound comfort with and attraction to money, the prizing of the individual over the collective, the slick duplicity of spin and PR, the deadly synergy of public and private, a fascination with olive oil. Leading Blairites like David Miliband and James Purnell even had Arsenal season tickets in the glory days.
Blair’s Third Way and Wenger’s vitamin-infused tiki taka were dominant for a time, re-worked by others and then ceased to work.
Working under circumstances that were often relatively constrained for a big club, Wenger managed to achieve some success in the afterglow of his team’s greatest period, between his arrival in 1996 and the middle of this century’s first decade. He remained a great manager, but one caught in the grip of a dream of long ago, still staring at a vision of beauty that faded and fell further into disuse as each year passed.
In announcing his departure Wenger has, perhaps, accepted that the world has moved on and that he must too. No such acceptance has come for Tony Blair. The politics he championed are unfit for our world but he remains forever in 1998, dreaming of a modern future in which technocratic neo-liberalism with a friendly face, a dash of social democracy and a side-order of perpetual military engagement abroad delivers prosperity.
Labour is led now by Arsenal fan Jeremy Corbyn. The intellectual energy in the party is on the left. If Arsenal’s directors can see this moment clearly, they will bring in a man who marks a departure from Wenger, a Diego Simeone or a Thomas Tuchel, someone who can see that what this time needs is a football of high intensity, with a strong commitment to the collective. In that way, they will move on from Wenger, while still honouring him.