This was first published on February 21 but is very much still relevant…
There were two relieved football managers at Gander Green Lane on Monday night; one had won and avoided humiliation to dwarf every other humiliation (and there have been many); the other had lost and was elated to return to life in the shadows. He had only lived in the glare of a single spotlight for three weeks. His unlikely adversary has been blinded by a million lights for so long that even the sunshine hurts. And yet given the chance to crawl into the darkness, Arsene Wenger is still reluctant to fall to his knees.
“I’ll be glad to get away from this, from a personal point of view, to just go back to the normality of living my life,” said Paul Doswell, who described the circus surrounding Sutton in recent weeks as “bizarre”. “People will criticise you for whatever you try to do,” he said, but his small window into this over-exposed, over-analysed world has been adorned with curtains of the softest velvet.
Sutton have indeed been criticised for squeezing every last penny out of this cup run – and losing some dignity in the process – but Doswell himself has been immune. Every word he has uttered has not been forensically scrutinised, every team selection has not been derided, there is no Sutton FanTV, no Piers Morgan, no national newspaper columnist willing to bend numbers in a desperate attempt to prove that actually, Barrie Williams’ FA Cup run was far more impressive.
While a bruised, jaded Doswell gets to walk away and prepare for a much quieter day at Torquay on Saturday, there is no such reprieve for Wenger. For him, the circus simply packs up and moves back to north London, from where he can watch Manchester City knowing that their Champions League exploits will bring further censure on Arsenal whatever happens. Either they win and the comparison is stark or they lose and English football is going to hell in a handcart with Wenger’s hand on the tiller.
By the end of the week, at least six or seven ex-footballers will have criticised Wenger and offered advice from the comfort of an armchair and a Level One coaching certificate, before his pre-match press conference is broken down into a thousand news stories. The build-up to next Saturday’s visit to Anfield will be dominated by statistics about Wenger’s failure in big games in comparison to Jurgen Klopp, while at least one player’s agent will brief a journalist that they would rather play for the German, whose reputation has not suffered over 20 years of scrutiny.
Defeat at Anfield will potentially leave Arsenal in sixth and then we will see the full force of the media, who have been waiting too long for Wenger to fall to the foot of the elite mini-league; they will have willing allies amongst Arsenal fans who have gone way past the expiry date on their patience. Then comes the dead rubber against Bayern Munich and all the accompanying japery before another no-win FA Cup tie where they are cast as the villains. Even if they draw at Anfield and beat both Bayern and Lincoln, the results will come with asterisks and caveats. At this familiar point in the story arc, there is no respite unless Wenger pulls off the highly improbable.
This is the life that Wenger has led for over 20 years, with the dangerous ingredients of an increasingly all-consuming, 24-hour, multi-platform media and over-familiarity being blended to form a thick, viscous paste that sticks to everything. We can no longer judge one 90 minutes from Arsenal without the context of thousands more. We cannot hear Wenger say “mental strength” without groaning; there is little acknowledgement that we would all find ourselves repeating certain phrases were we to be interviewed hundreds of times a year for 20 years.
Familiarity breeds contempt and English football has become contemptuous of a man who probably should have walked into more loving arms some years ago. The French would celebrate his homecoming and laud him for turning Arsenal into a member of the European football meritocracy while still largely maintaining his dignity. They would not compare his first signing with those made 15 years ago. They would not greet his first disappointing draw with ‘plus ca change’.
And yet Wenger remains here, where he is derided, judged and mocked on a daily basis. There is no guard at the door and yet he remains captive, an institutionalised man suffering from severe Stockholm syndrome. There must still be fun to be found on the training ground and there must be fleeting moments during matches when this still feels like the greatest job in the world. But the sleepless nights, the abuse, the constant questions, the lack of freedom? It must squeeze the joy into ever-diminishing pockets.
While his Premier League adversaries are excused blips with talk of ‘transitions’ and ‘projects’, there is no such hiding place for Wenger, who is judged with the weight of history on his shoulders. Some will say that he has been amply rewarded for his stress, but that’s precisely how we know he is not driven by financial gain. He will have gathered more than enough for his retirement many years ago and yet still continues to grow old in unflattering light.
There will never be another Wenger, who at least had the luxury of becoming an emperor at a time when we all assumed they were wearing clothes. He had relative darkness in which to innovate and make the mistakes that inevitably form part of that process, but no manager appointed in this decade will be afforded that luxury. We know too much, or at least think we know too much, to be fooled. In 2017, we notice when our emperors are missing a sock; Chris Sutton will have an opinion.
“It’s not been the best three weeks of my life,” said one manager on Monday night. We wonder whether the other envied him his escape.