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I first met Mack on a train travelling between Sacramento and Chicago. It was an epic four-day journey across the heartlands of America in one of Amtrak's rust buckets.
One day in, we broke down outside of Reno for 20 hours, two days in the toilets stopped working and backed up, three days in the fresh water ran out, the air con broke and they ran out of food. By the time we pulled into Chicago, it felt like we were band of brothers and sisters forged together in adversity. Like a front-line battle unit in the Mekong Delta in 1969, we emerged into the pale light of a Chicago morning muttering, 'the horror, the horror'.
Mack was a pleasingly weird dude. Hair like an explosion at a cushion-stuffing factory, he ran a blues club on North Halsted Street - the best blues club in Chicago, he said, which given the profusion of such venues, was quite a claim. He was one of those guys who are relentlessly positive about absolutely everything. We thought he was a major dude in town and he sold himself like that but when we rocked up to his club, something wasn't quite right. While it was everything you want from a Chicago blues club - dark, hot, intoxicated, it wasn't exactly highly appointed. Rather it was a brick-walled cellar which, if it had passed code, it had only done so through bribery and corruption. Yet, the photos on the wall showed he had managed to get some serious dudes to play there - Albert Collins, Otis Rush and Taj Mahal to name just three - and I wondered how he did this because there had to be better gigs that paid actual green and to more than the 20 people who could cram into this little sweat box.
I got talking to an old black dude at the bar who, it turned out, used to be the drummer in Magic Sam's band back in the late 60s. Of course, he was amazed this
white kid from England had even heard of Magic Sam, the fact that I not only had but owned some of his original albums on the Delmark label, meant to him, I was 'the real deal' and so he let me into the secret of his old friend Mack's success and it was thus:
"He sells a hundred bucks like it's a million, so that he always seems more successful than he really is."
It turned out that one year he'd invented an award 'The Booze n Blues Best Small Club Award'. Naturally, his club won - well it had to, because no-one else knew about the award and he was the only judge. This didn't stop him advertising this accolade across the front of the club. He did this all the time, effectively inventing his own standards against which he would always be judged to be successful, regardless of the actual facts.
Maybe Arsene Wenger missed his vocation in life as a Chicago blues club hustler because it seems pretty clear that he is trying to pull off the exact same trick as Mack: to deflect criticism and to make himself appear more successful, he redefines whatever he achieves as being successful. So Champions League qualification is a huge achievement, finishing fourth is similarly an impressive feat worthy of its own trophy and now, in defence of not signing players, Wenger is attempting to redefine this failure as a kind of success by claiming that he will not water down the quality of the squad. In the Arsene universe, not signing anyone is doing the club a favour and critics of this policy are irresponsible fools who know nothing.
He's been doing this for years now and it's remarkable how many people go along with it. On Saturday he asked his critics to tell him who he should have signed, claiming he is looking at all the players in the world all the time. Really? So why do so many clubs with less money and status than Arsenal keep buying better players than you have at Arsenal?
He always wants to paint himself and his standards as the gold standard. This is a consequence of the bogus 'Arsene Knows' culture that has grown up over the last 15 years. He still benefits hugely from this but surely it's becoming more and more clear that the emperor has no clothes.
Understandably he's reluctant to buy anyone because so many of his signings turn out to be a waste of time, not quite up to standard, or are just downright okay. He gets things wrong and he wins nothing, so he's been forced to try and sell bad back to us as though it's good, making out that it's amazing they finish in the top four when the world's best players are not available to him.
Wenger has managed to persuade enough people that because it is him in charge then whatever he is doing must be the best thing that could be done and we are stupid to question this. In his world, Arsenal can't compete with the big three above them. But that's not true; they could. What he means is he can't compete. He is merely trying to set his standards as THE standards.
A new man with a good vision and an ability to spot a player could take over the club and make them into league champions. It simply isn't the impossible task that Wenger would claim it to be. They have huge resources available to them. The truth which he's trying to obfuscate is that great players and great prospects mostly don't want to play for Arsenal under Wenger. That's why he can't sign them. He's not being educated and responsible; he's just not being successful.
While other clubs repeatedly unearth and sign really good players in recent seasons, from Yohan Cabaye to Michu to Christian Benteke - the examples are numerous - Wenger seems to be insisting that these players would not have made Arsenal better and signs Chamakh, Gervinho and worse instead.
It seems obvious that Wenger's standards are not good enough for Arsenal but still he holds hypnosis over fans and media. They point to the consistent league finishes as proof of his quality, which is exactly what he wants. But you could easily see this not as consistently high finishing but consistently short of the required standard. If you're so near so often, why have they not progressed? Why is it always the same old story? Why can't they improve? Wenger has warped perceptions so successfully that, like Mack in Chicago, he's managed to make enough people believe that he's a major player when, in reality, it's a charade in order to pretend he's more successful than he really is.
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