First published March 24th 2017
Arsene Wenger should be afforded the chance to decide for himself when he steps down as Arsenal manager, according to his predecessor, Bruce Rioch.
The under pressure Frenchman has faced increased hostility from Arsenal supporters unhappy at the club’s lack of domestic silverware or progress in Europe.
The well-documented ‘ArsenalFanTV’ has featured heavily on social media by calling for Wenger to walk away, and the campaign reached new heights when a minority of disgruntled supporters arranged for a plane to fly a banner overhead during Arsenal’s recent defeat at West Brom.
The banner read: “NO CONTRACT #WENGEROUT”. And although a second plane was flown over The Hawthorns with the message, “IN ARSENE WE TRUST #RESPECTAW”, the away end was awash with hand-held banners protesting for the ex-Monaco manager to call it a day.
Wenger himself has indicated that he will be mindful of the fans’ wishes when he makes a decision on his future at the end of the season, with a two-year contract offer on the table should he wish to continue his tenure in North London.
But former Gunners boss Rioch believes that Wenger’s contribution to his club and English football in general, should be remembered during these uncertain times.
“I think he’s earned the right, with the board of directors, to make the decision himself as to when he decides to step down”, said Rioch.
“I think he’s been outstanding as a manager in this country. 20 years, plus, at Arsenal, second only to Sir Alex Ferguson in longevity in recent years. He’s won three titles, the same as Mourinho and it’s not easy now to win the Premier League.
“His standing in the game is immense. He’s brought a style of play that, when they’re playing well, you sit and admire the way they’re playing.”
A heavy criticism thrown at Wenger and Arsenal is that they rely too heavily on Champions League qualification as a marker for success. For the fans and world-class players such as Alexis Sanchez, a place in the top four is secondary to the quest for titles – something that Rioch sympathises with.
The ex-Championship-winning midfielder with Derby County continued: “If you’re in the top four every year for 20 years, that in itself is success because it’s Champions League football.
“But it’s not seen as total success necessarily by supporters, and going back to my days as a player, to get into the European Cup you had to finish first. Top four is about money and boosting the Champions League, which again, I think has spoilt it in many ways.”
With Sanchez reportedly unhappy with the club’s perceived lack of ambition, Wenger faces a battle to not only stave off the pressure from supporters but also to maintain a harmonious dressing room.
Having not won the title for 13 seasons, Arsenal have struggled to keep hold of their big players, with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Ashley Cole having all moved on to the Gunners’ rivals and won the Premier League.
According to Rioch, the uncertainty surrounding the manager’s position may continue to have a detrimental effect among the squad.
“When Sir Alex made the announcement that he was going to leave Manchester United, the results of the team went down hill.
“He changed his mind and reversed it, and when he ended up winning the league, then he called it a day.
“I think what’s happening at the moment, unfortunately, and I’ve thought about it a lot, must have an impact in some way in the dressing room.
“And then you’ve got to work with those players to get the best out of them, they’ve got to be 100% clear every day when they go out onto that pitch and I think it can have an unsettling effect.”
The Arsenal board should be commended for standing firm in their beliefs that Wenger is the right man for their club. In modern day football where the average managerial shelf life is a little over 13 months, the 21 years that the 67 year-old has been in charge is unlikely to ever be repeated.
And whilst we may be witnessing the last few weeks of Wenger’s reign, Rioch believes that football fans should be careful in their demands for change.
“I’ve had this saying,” said the ex-Scotland international. “It’s about footballers as well as managers.
“If we keep campaigning that they should be out of the team or out of the club as a manager, once they’re gone, you’ve lost them. You can never get them back so cherish them while you’ve got them.
“It’s a little bit like Wayne Rooney. You keep Rooney in there as long as you can because he’s been such a great servant to club and country. Don’t throw him out; don’t want him out too soon.
“Let the board of directors and Arsene Wenger decide when he’s going to go, he’s earned that right. He’ll go when he’s ready, he’s sensible enough, but once he’s gone he’s gone.”
Should Wenger make the announcement at the end of the season that he is to step down, the list of potential replacements will stretch around the globe.
Rioch was not only the last manager of Arsenal before Wenger, but also the last British boss at the North London club, replacing George Graham after Stewart Houston’s caretaker spell in charger.
Having won promotion to the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers by winning the 1994/95 Division One play-off final, the man who called upon the experiences and advice of Bill Shankly in his early managerial days swapped Lancashire to be closer to his Hertfordshire home in the summer of 1995.
It is understood that Rioch beat another British manager in Bobby Robson to the job, yet in 2017 there are no British managers at the world’s elite clubs.
Despite having won promotion to the Premier League and then earned plaudits for their teams’ style of play, it seems nigh on impossible that Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe or Burnley’s Sean Dyche would ever be given the opportunity to take the reins at Arsenal.
Brendan Rodgers might be the only British option to step into Wenger’s shoes, given his transformation of Liverpool during the 2013/14 season which came so close to ending with a league winner’s medal.
Appearing to be comfortable and at ease in the hot seat of one of Europe’s most demanding clubs in Celtic, can surely only serve to further increase his credibility.
Having made the jump from a mid-sized club to a ‘big’ one himself, Rioch is well placed to give his opinion on why we are unlikely to see a young, British manager in the Arsenal dugout.
“You’ve got to know that you can move from a club like Bolton, Middlesbrough, Southampton or Everton, and go to Manchester United or Arsenal, and the difference is immense. It’s huge.
“You have got to win. At some clubs you can be mid-table, even sixth or seven is fine, but at those clubs [United/Arsenal] you’ve got to win.
“So the pressure is there to win, and the players who play for those clubs know they’ve got to win and that’s why they’re there. There is a different mentality and you have to be of that mentality to go into that club.
“I can understand why Ancelotti, Pellegrini, Conte, are coming to England to come to the top clubs, because they’ve been winners in other countries in Europe and they’ve been brought up as players in big clubs.
“They’ve played for Juventus or AC Milan, they’ve had that aura around them all the time, it’s there every day when they’re playing. And then they become managers and the pressure is on all the time to get results, it’s an ongoing process.
“Then when you come into a big club [in England] you know it’s no different to where you’ve come from and you’re expected to win.
“Whereas if you’ve come from a club down the bottom end where mid-table’s been ok and you move to a big club, it’s a totally different ball game.
“The expectancy is enormous, that’s the difference.”
When David Moyes made the switch from Everton to Manchester United to replace Ferguson in 2013, the similarities were not lost on Rioch as he thought back to his experiences of moving from Burnden Park to Highbury.
“I nearly rang him up to say ‘I did this, I should really tell you what the difference is. You might think you know the difference, but the difference is this…’,” said Rioch.
“I didn’t make the phone call because I thought well, he’s got enough experience he’ll know how to deal with it. But he didn’t deal with it and he wasn’t there long.
“That was my experience, you see, and I’m sad I didn’t make the call.
“He might have thought cheeky so-and-so and I didn’t think it would be right for me to do it, but looking back I wish I had.”
In modern football, we are quick to forget the good that someone has brought to a club. Fans and pundits will tear into a player or manager at the earliest opportunity for jumping ship, claiming the moral high ground over loyalty. Yet praising the hard work of a player or manager becomes much less attractive.
Are we really to assume that Wenger did not have opportunities to leave Arsenal when they were in a far worse state off the pitch than they are presently?
The stadium move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006 decimated the playing budget, meaning that Arsenal went from Champions League finalists to a selling club, just to be able to scrape into the competition. This didn’t happen to Ferguson, Mourinho or Guardiola.
Wenger’s shrewd recruitment meant that he was well prepared for the sale of his best players, but there is no question that he would have preferred the budgets of Chelsea or the Manchester clubs. What manager wouldn’t?
Wheels in motion
We will never know the vast amounts of money he may have been offered to move elsewhere, only to turn it down in defiant loyalty to continue to help build the club into the global brand we see today. The easy option would have been to walk away.
The Gunners have always been a big club across Europe, “they were a major name, they had a presence. It was ‘The Arsenal’, of course,” confirms Rioch. But let us not forget another of their nicknames under George Graham’s tutelage was ‘boring, boring Arsenal’.
Rioch himself was not given the time needed to transform the style of play, but some may argue he put the wheels in motion with the signings of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt.
But it was Wenger who brought with him not only attractive, attacking football that lead the way across Europe until Guardiola rolled into Barcelona in 2008, but also the professionalism to ensure that players looked after their bodies.
Tony Adams and Ray Parlour extended their careers for an extra year or two due to Wenger’s strict policies surrounding alcohol and diet.
For Rioch, having seen first hand during his time at Highbury that drinking vast amounts of alcohol was the norm amongst the players, Wenger’s intervention was essential.
“There was a drinking culture in the club and it was a big one”, said Rioch.
“A glass of wine every now and again I don’t have a problem with, but these guys will openly admit they were going way beyond that.
“I’ve listened to Tony Adams on Sky, and he admitted he was in one hell of a state on a regular basis.
“I met him down at Plymouth Argyle a few years ago at a game and he came across and actually apologized to me for his behavior when I was at Arsenal.
“He’s an incredible guy, a fantastic man. It was a cultural thing in this country, and I think it’s changed quite a bit over the years.
“But that’s sometimes the difficulty you have in a club. Longevity gives you the chance to change it, but when you’re short-term it doesn’t happen.”
With longevity comes the opportunity to bring about change, whilst a short-term approach may not. That should be remembered when discussing the future of one of British football’s most influential figures of all time.
Feature Image: Getty Images