“IT WAS A MIX OF ANGER, DEFIANCE AND CONFRONTATION” – Daniel Taylor of the Guardianfootballwriters.co.uk looks at the media coverage of Arsene Wenger’s most amazing press conference
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
TWO THINGS took the assembled football writers attending Arsene Wenger’s press conference on the eve of Arsenal’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munich by surprise. Firstly, that a manager known for being so helpful to the media suddenly turned on the French equivalent of the hair-dryer and secondly, that a story about him being offered a new two-year deal upset him so much.
Whatever the validity of the story – Wenger, whose current contract has 15 months to run, denied it – managers usually go on the attack if their future at a club is questioned, not about to be extended. Wenger turned on Neil Ashton, football news correspondent of the Daily Mail, in what some papers called the Frenchman’s Travis Bickle moment. As the character played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver was a punk-haired former US marine suffering from insomnia and depression who tried to assassinate a senator the comparison is a little unflattering, if inevitable.
Sam Wallace of the Independent said: “For some managers, especially in the days before television cameras, a blow-out at a journalist would be nothing out of the ordinary. But this was Wenger, a man more likely to serve his players chips and lager than to get in a public row with the press. The same press whose efforts he usually treats with the good-humoured detachment of a charismatic schoolteacher presiding over a class of unremarkable students.
“This was a peculiar departure, for those who have watched Wenger over the years, especially on the occasions he has diffused difficult situations with humour, or ribbed the press – justifiably much of the time – for our readiness to proclaim a crisis. There is no wish to see a manager who has achieved as much as Wenger, and done it in such style, pushed into a corner but here he was fighting back like a man who has lost his patience.”
Bickle’s famous line was: “You talking to me?” Wenger looked at Ashton and asked: “Why do you look at me?”.Ashton replied: "Me? Because it is your press conference."
Wenger: [ironically] "OK, oh, thank you. I just thought you had given this information out."
Ashton: "No, I am looking at you because it is your press conference."
Wenger: "Oh, OK, thank you very much [sarcastic]."
Ashton told talkSPORT’s Drivetime: “He's always been polite, dignified and respectful, but I don't think he was today. There was some mild embarrassment for him, but it makes no difference to me. Maybe managers should call out journalists a but more often, although perhaps in private, not in a live broadcast.” Speaking to footballwriters.co.uk Ashton added: “I’ve experienced this sort of thing with other managers. Sometimes it happens. He pulled me out over a story that was written in another newspaper. It wasn’t my story, maybe he just got the wrong person. He’s in a difficult position. It was more embarrassing for Wenger than for me.”
Those who have worked closely with Wenger have enjoyed his press conferences because he is a manager who will answer any question. Talk to him about the Greek economy, Russian meteors or unemployment figures and he’ll have a view. Football writers leave Wenger’s talk-ins with notepads full and back page leads aplenty.
David McDonnell of the Daily Mirror said Wenger’s “urbane exterior masks a tetchy side when under pressure.” Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph tweeted: “Wenger's general media approach: no names, no 1-on-1s, humour to defuse questions, discusses any issue. But more curt and hurt these days.”
Wenger is right when he said “you will miss me when I’ve gone,” but John Cross of the Daily Mirror believes this was “dropping a huge hint about his future.” Cross said: “In dismissing the notion of staying longer he fuelled the prospect of his departure.”
Simon Yeend of the Daily Express took a different view and said: “The Arsenal manager is correct. [He’ll be] missed for the flair and elan he brought to the English game with his teams playing, at their height, some of the best football we have seen in this country. Missed for his willingness to face the media in victory and defeat. And missed for his passion.”
There was no shortage of that at London Colney and Oliver Kay of the Times said: “That exchange [with Ashton] seemed to be a sign of sad, confusing, turbulent times at Arsenal. Wenger usually exudes charm, serenity and wisdom in front of the TV cameras – at least pre-match. Yesterday he came across as tetchy and insecure.”
Steven Howard of the Sun called it “a mixture of anger, defiance, conspiracy theories and dripping with sarcasm that suggested here was a man at the end of his tether. He has lost the plot often enough out on the touchline. And there have been occasions when he has got the hump at press conferences. But never quite like this – and never in front of the TV cameras.”
Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph said on talkSPORT’s Keys and Gray show: “What surprised me was he did it in public. I’ve seen him lose it before, away to Celta Vigo when Edu had to take an anti-doping test and it was taking a long time. It was midnight local time and we had a plane at 01.15. Wenger is a stickler and he was screaming at staff in the tunnel, his language was just toxic because things weren’t going to plan. I texted one member of staff he had a go at and they expressed surprise that I should be surprised at Wenger losing it.”
Winter prefers to remember the funny side of Wenger than the fury. He said: “When he first arrived Arsenal sat him down with all the correspondents at Highbury and you knew then this was a new force, a new spirit with new ideas because he talked so intelligently. If it is the beginning of the end, and I’m not sure it is, let’s remember the good things. It’s sad to see him like this. He said you’ll miss me when I’ve gone. I think he’ll miss Arsenal, he’ll miss English football.
“Usually in press conferences he will crack some fantastic jokes. We were teasing him once that he was so obsessed with football...it was his birthday and we asked him if he was going out to the theatre or cinema. He said ‘no, I will stay at home and watch a Bundesliga game. But I will put some candles on top of the television.’”
Daniel Taylor of the Guardian hopes Wenger’s players show the same passion as their manager. He said: “Wenger was doubtless trying, through a show of strength, to demonstrate that Arsenal are not finished yet and that anyone who writes them off does so at their own peril. At times, he was deeply impressive, arguing his case coherently, pointing out that we ‘live in a democracy of experts and opinion’ and that, put bluntly, he is sick of misinformed opinion and lack of expertise.
“Unfortunately for him, there were also moments when he floundered badly and resorted to the default setting of going back through history to make his point. In doing so he ignored the fact this is the problem for his club's supporters: everything is in the past tense. Wenger pointed out that Arsenal were still the only team to qualify for the Champions League final without having conceded a goal and, voice thick with sarcasm, that they had done it ‘despite the fact that we have never a good defensive record’. That is not a great consolation, however, when the team have just lost to Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, been eliminated from the Capital One Cup by Bradford City and are 21 points off the top of the Barclays Premier League, facing the possibility of an eighth year without a trophy.
“That was in the broadcast section but it was when the television cameras moved away that he properly let out all that pent-up frustration and we saw Wenger in a way that nobody in that room had witnessed before. It was a mix of anger, defiance and confrontation and it is just a shame, perhaps, that not all of his players can show the same passion. If he could bottle it and pass it to his team before their game against Bayern Munich, then maybe it will not be the ordeal that so many anticipate.”
“The truth might be that any hurt he feels right now stems more from the fact that he cares so deeply about Arsenal and takes it personally, as every once-successful manager does, when the old magic no longer seems to be there. His team need to do what Chelsea did last year and find something in adversity, but the question is whether they have the same mental fortitude.”
The pro-Wenger camp say that despite the eight-year trophy drought he has worked a minor footballing miracle to keep Arsenal competitive without the financial clout of a sheikh or oligarch Manchester City and Chelsea enjoy or the tradition and magic that give Manchester United an edge in the transfer market. On the other hand, it is impossible to think of any other top club in Europe who would keep faith with a manager after eight blank years.
Matt Law of the Sunday Mirror believes Arsenal have accepted complacency. He said: “No wonder so many Arsenal players think Wenger is the perfect manager. Not many people would dislike a boss who pays out big and turns a blind eye to so many errors.
“The coaches don’t have to worry, either. Despite having all the tools to become one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, Wojciech Szczesny is struggling badly. And yet coach Gerry Peyton is seemingly just allowed to get on with things, despite the fact a goalkeeper has yet to improve at Arsenal since Jens Lehmann left five years ago. [Chief executive Ivan] Gazidis cannot be feeling too much pressure, given the fact he has survived Arsenal losing Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Song and Robin van Persie under his watch.
“How anybody involved in the decision to allow Van Persie to join rivals Manchester United for £24m in the summer is still in a job is a mystery.”
The Sunday Times’ Jonathan Northcroft tweeted: “Wenger's right: we will miss him when he's gone. Personally I hope Wenger fights back and doesn't end on this note - but he can only do that, not with talk, but a trophy. But surely 'Arsene knows' it's also right he's questioned - and the questions are coming from intelligent fans and reporters who know AFC.”
Arsenal seem unlikely to sack Wenger even if the trophy cabinet at the Emirates has no new addition this season. And as critics try to think of a better, realistic successor to Wenger, as other clubs have found out – be careful what you wish for.
Wenger has never broken a contract and the smart money would ne on the Frenchman at least seeing out his present contract. Yet how ironic a manager many would like to see leave Arsenal because of underachieving is being linked with Real Madrid, the most successful club in European history.