By Adam Bate with Clare Tomlinson.
As Arsene Wenger celebrates 20 years in the job, we recall his early days at Arsenal with the club’s head of communications at the time, Sky Sports presenter Clare Tomlinson…
“At first,” admitted Arsenal captain Tony Adams, “I thought, ‘What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?'”
Arsene Wenger had enjoyed a distinguished career in France, winning a title with Monaco and forging a reputation as an astute coach with a knack of developing players. But it says much for the insular nature of the English game that Adams’ view was the prevailing one.
Although the Evening Standard never did run the ‘Arsene who?’ headline, those words did appear on billboards around the capital. And yet, Wenger not only took it in his stride but two decades on he’s still at the helm. The longest-serving league manager by a decade.
Sky Sports News presenter Clare Tomlinson joined Arsenal as the club’s head of communications just weeks after Wenger’s arrival and worked closely with him in dealing with the demands of the English media. She could not have been more impressed.
“It was widely known that he was coming beforehand but I don’t think anyone in English football really knew who he was,” Tomlinson tells Sky Sports. “But he’s one of the most professional and intelligent men I’ve ever met.
Clare Tomlinson on Arsene Wenger
“The players were a very tight-knit group under George Graham and then under Bruce Rioch there were slight changes but certainly the senior players were keen to know that he wasn’t going to come in and rip everything up.
“Of course, that was Arsene’s genius. He didn’t. He came in and he spoke to the senior pros and there was very much a continuity. He made them a part of what he was trying to achieve. He got them on side very, very early on.”
Nigel Winterburn was 32 when Wenger arrived but he soon realised he wasn’t too old to learn. “Everything was so precise in training,” he tells Sky Sports. Ray Parlour agreed. “I used to love going to training,” he added. “He certainly made my career much better.”
And longer too. “One of the things they didn’t like was the stretching that he brought in,” recalls Tomlinson. “They had to do these long sessions at Sopwell House. But it was just best practice stuff that they didn’t know about.
“He explained it to them. He didn’t just say, ‘Right, you’ll do this’. He explained what it would do for them and they reaped the rewards. Steve Bould later said it elongated his career by a couple of years.”
But it’s the personal recollections that animate Tomlinson the most. “He’s got quite a good sense of humour, Arsene, but it doesn’t always come across,” she says.
“I think that the amount of media commitments that he had was a surprise to him when he first came. He used to come into the office on a Thursday for reserve-team matches when we were at Highbury and I’d go in with a pile of things that people wanted him to do.
“He’d go through it all patiently turning them down. By Christmas I was going in with two pieces of paper and he’d say, ‘Is that all?’ I explained that I’d already said no to the rest. ‘Ah, Clare, you begin to understand me!’
“But he wasn’t really fazed by anything. His only complaint was that he didn’t want to spend too much time on the media because he wanted to get on with the football.” That part went pretty smoothly. Wenger won the Premier League in his first full season in England.
And Adams’ concerns over the manager’s language skills? They proved unfounded too. “His English was always terrific,” adds Tomlinson. “I remember he used to complain that his English never got any better because nobody dared to correct him.
“There was an issue with Patrick Vieira early on. Patrick had these telescopic legs and he wasn’t always in control of where they went. Occasionally he’d commit the odd foul and get sent off and the press would fixate on this for a bit.
“Arsene would always defend Patrick saying he’s young, he’s learning and it’s a new league. The verb ‘to fight’ in French is ‘se battre’ but what he wanted to say in English was that he wanted his players to fight as in to be competitive. But he used the word fight.
“This absolutely played into this idea about aggression. I said to him that maybe we could use the word competitive instead of fight and he said: ‘Clare, that’s the only time you’ve ever corrected my English.’ But who would dare!
“He’d say that he wasn’t learning anything or getting any better because of it. He reached a plateau because nobody would ever say that maybe there was a better way of saying it.”
It’s an indication of how Wenger was able to establish his authority at the club from the outset. “He doesn’t have a president buying players for him and telling him how to coach them and also to pick the team,” said former chairman Peter Hill-Wood. And he never did.
Clare Tomlinson on Arsene Wenger
Tomlinson says: “He always had the support of David Dein in those days. David was very hands on with the transfers and the commercial side, but he and David were very close friends. It was essentially David who brought him in so he had great clout from the start.”
Twenty years on and that clout remains. Everything else has changed. The man who’d arrived to scepticism now finds himself as the grand old man of English football. “His legacy at the club is enormous,” adds Tomlinson. “He’s right up there with Herbert Chapman.”