Sometimes these days when you are watching Arsenal it feels better not to watch at all. It can be that painful. Hands over your face stuff. Watching Arsene Wenger in these last few seasons has been like watching an old man who thinks he can still do all the new fangled dance moves while still wearing his sensible old man shoes.
He can’t and sometimes it hurts just to watch him try.
Yesterday on the first day of a brand new season it was especially cruel. Manchester United were ready when the curtain went up for the early game. They beat Bournemouth comfortably. In Bournemouth. Zlatan looked like the right mix of big star and big bruiser who can thrive in the English game. And Pogba waiting in the wings seems pointedly like the sort of player Wenger will just never sign. Maybe Pogba will prove to be worth the money. Maybe he will fall just short. But for Arsenal fans he will always remind them of the Viera like presence that they don’t have anymore.
Mourinho, The Joker to Arsene’s noble Batman, did the business yesterday. Two hours or so later Arsenal were being booed off at the Emirates by a section of their own crowd. The game with Liverpool had ended 4–3. For a time when Arsenal were 4–1 down I actually worried about Arsene’s short term future for the first time. After all he has done for Arsenal he deserves the right to end his tenure on his own terms. On the other hand the argument that he just can’t move with the times grows stronger every time he steps onto the dance floor and does his old man shuffle. He has grace but he isn’t going to win Strictly.
Jurgen Klopp is another of the new breed of manager who jives around the floor while Wenger’s feet look like they are nailed to it. The German was up and down the line yesterday like Michael Flatley after too many diet cokes on a night out. He was kicking every ball with his team, his fists were pumping and his glasses were falling off. Klopp wears his heart on his sleeve and usually that sleeve isn’t attached to an expensive suit.
Klopp wouldn’t fit everywhere but he fits in Liverpool where the people are more impressed by passion than by Armani. They have been crying out for a messiah with red blood and a beating heart. Klopp has spent money reasonably well and sensibly ( Mane already looks like good value) yet I think his team are still a work in progress. Scoring four at the Emirates is impressive. There are pieces of the jigsaw which are still left to be filled though and this new Liverpool must learn to manage a game of football from a winning position. Their ancestors in red were masters of that art. For now though they play exciting football and 4–3 probably won’t be an unusual scoreline for them this season. And if they keep showing progress the Anfied faithful will be very happy that their place isn’t being run by an old grey man.
Summer is always a difficult time for Arsenal fans and it doesn’t help that the team have only once opened the PL campaign with a win in seven seasons now. Arsene behaves in the transfer market as if he believes he is the financial guardian of the club. In a world awash with money he is still hoping to find good value for his family. Every now and then he breaks out and buys an Ozil or a Sanchez but generally every club in the world knows that Arsenal have a lot of money and that they need a centre half, a combative midfielder and a world class striker. When they see poor Arsene coming into the store there are no bargains for him. They know what he needs and they know what he ought to pay. It’s not fair but it’s football.
If Arsene wants to win again he will have to accept that since the last time Arsenal were champions the world has kept turning. You pay silly money because by and large that is the only money there is in the Premier League.
The stadium which Arsene helped the club build is wonderful but the people who pay so much to get into that stadium are well past the wonder years. They want to see myths and legends created through winning trophies an putting other great clubs to the sword. Arsenal this year are likely to play breathtaking football against teams like Bournemouth and Hull but put together a league table of performances against the other top six clubs and they will fall short.
They call Arsene, The Professor, and the nickname is supposed to refer to his aloofness. If you are tall and French I suppose being aloof is always going to be the first thing thrown at you. I was tall and Irish (still am) so I was Big Quinnny. Big Wengy just does’t suit Arsene.
I think though that Arsene is the way he is because of his background and how he was brought up. It’s not aloofness, it’s caution. His family owned a small business selling car parts. When Arsene went to play football he was relatively old as footballers go and he wasn’t escaping poverty to have his shot at the world. It went against his nature to put all his eggs into one basket. He always thought that he would play some football and then come home and run the car parts shop again. So his football career went hand in hand with his education.
He was the sensible kid that every mother who hands her boy over to a football club hopes she has reared. There were no Wenger wags and no shisha pipes. Wenger got himself a degree in economics and the lessons he learned back then both at home and in the University of Strasbourg have had as much an influence on him as anything he’s picked up in football. He is still a shopkeeper at heart. He’s just trapped in a world of day traders who drink too much caffeine and think lunch is for wimps.
And Football doesn’t answer to the laws of economics anymore. Last year Arsenal sneaked into second place on the last day of the season. Yet they earned more money from the Premier League than anybody else did because they were on television more times. It’s a long, long time since Arsenal were champions but every year they charge their fans the highest ticket prices in the league. What happened to economics?
I wasn’t a great student but the one thing I remember about economics is that the most basic lessons were about supply and demand. I hope Arsene starts to supply what Arsenal fans demand and that he does it soon.
Or it is going to be very painful to watch.
On Saturday morning in a hotel lobby in Brentford I ran into a familiar face. A good few years have passed since a skinny young lad from Cork called John Egan arrived over to see Sunderland with his Mam and Dad. He had his Dad’s name. It wasn’t too much of a gamble to take that he would have his pedigree as a sportsman too.
I had a Dad who performed some great feats on the hurling field and when the chance came for me to try my luck in England at a soccer club Billy Quinn let me spread my wings with a heart and a half. True greats never want to make their children live for them all over again. They just want to see them reach their potential. So the son of an eight time All Ireland legend came to Sunderland to be a footballer.
Young John has been haunted by bad luck and injuries over the last few years. He’s had a few loan spells and a run at Gillingham where the potential really began to shine through. On Saturday he was making his home debut for Brentford, a good progressive club where he will thrive. I’ve always kept an eye on his progress over the years so it was a thrill to see the video printer report John Egan scoring two second half goals against Ipswich.
I’ve said it before he made the breakthrough and I’ll say it again. He will bring the same honour to the green jersey of Ireland as his late Dad brought to the green and gold of Kerry. And if he has an inkling that meeting him near Sky Studios on Saturday brought him good luck I’m available most weekends.
John was the sort of young player that Liam Rasher Touhy would have appreciated. When I was young, Rasher was the doyenne of Irish soccer
for us young lads. A man of great wisdom, wit, generosity and kindness he was the essence of an Irish football man. Long after I’d flown the Irish Youth Nest he admitted he once dropped me for a friendly international to annoy Arsenal who had earlier refused to release me for a World Youth Cup qualifier. He could holda grudge with the best of them but let it be noted we qualified.
His proteges Brian Kerr and the late great Noel O’Reilly went on to have as much influence as Liam had on our game. Irish football lost a true and loyal servant on Saturday when Liam passed. We often say in Ireland when a good man passed that his like won’t be seen again. In this case it is absolutely true.