It is a story that Arsène Wenger has told on more than one occasion in different company over dinner and it always has the desired effect. The Arsenal manager talks of a book he has read in which an assassin is able to stop his heart when he kills and then restart it. “I’m looking for a striker like that,” he says.
What is not to like? It has Wenger, a trained killer, resurrection, death and football. As the Frenchman’s eyes twinkle, an acquaintance who has heard the punchline describes how his audiences are hooked. “Arsène has them eating out of his hand,” he says. “He is a magnificently charming companion.”
Wenger is a bewitching raconteur when the mood takes him and as the Arsenal support – and the wider football world – pour out the sentimentality following the announcement that he is to leave his post of almost 22 years at the end of the season, it is his ability to connect on a human level that ought to be celebrated.
There have been several well-documented phases of Wenger at Arsenal but the constants have been his front-of-house grace – even when under intolerable pressure – and behind-the-scenes encouragement.
“Beyond football, he’s inspired the people around him,” Ivan Gazidis, the club’s chief executive, says. “He does this through his human qualities; his understanding and his empathy for people. He’s able to make them believe that they can achieve great things, on and beyond the pitch. He inspired George Weah to believe not only that he could become the world’s greatest footballer but to have the conviction that he could become the president of a country.”
It has been an education and a privilege for many journalists to document Wenger’s career and all of us have experienced the moment when he smiles and calmly explains why he is right and everybody else is wrong – often in the face of challenging odds.
There have been numerous occasions when the tape been replayed and holes picked in various strands of his argument. But here’s the thing. At the time, you believe him. It all makes sense. It is easy listening, perfectly diverting.
Wenger is at his most engaging when tackling weighty issues – which are not always about football. “Why don’t we just talk about politics, that would be more interesting?” he once said. Regrettably, it did not happen. The imperatives of the day held sway.
Much is made of Wenger’s economics qualification but he is as much a psychologist and a sociologist. When he starts a sentence by saying: “We live in a society of … ” - it is invariably the cue for thought-provoking observation. He has talked of a society of opinions, of instant judgments, of an obsession with the next big thing. And so much more.
“The most important thing is to believe in human beings,” Wenger said last Christmas. “When you are such a long time in the job, you’re not naive. You know all the strengths and weaknesses and how, sometimes, people can be selfish or mean. But you still have to believe that there is a light in every human being that you can get out. The ultimate goal is to make people happy. Unfortunately, you don’t always manage that but you try to do it.”
More than anything, it has been Wenger’s dignity in press conferences that has shone brightly, particularly in the final, more traumatic phase of his reign. It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he has lost his composure and lashed out – and the provocation has been extreme. Wenger has been asked at regular intervals over the past five years, at least, whether the time might be right for him to stand down, with the interference being that the questioner thought he was no longer up to the job.
Following one of the rare occasions when Wenger did lose it – before a Champions League game against Bayern Munich in February 2013, after being asked about his contract – a Manchester-based colleague remarked that there was no way journalists would have dared speak to Sir Alex Ferguson in similar fashion. Perhaps it is because Wenger does not have a confrontational bone in his body.
Wenger’s relationship with the press has cooled to the point of freezing and most journalists feel the decline began when he stopped holding his newspaper briefing in a separate room. When he used to do that, the mood was invariably more relaxed and often light-hearted. The conversation would flow.
There has always been a fascination to uncovering any detail on Wenger and in the more intimate environment he coughed up a few. Who would have guessed that he liked the singer Plastic Bertrand?
Wenger is more than happy to discuss the issues of the day but he is notoriously guarded about his private life and personal feelings. As such, his admission that he thought the uncertainty over his future last season had affected the team was faintly shocking.
Wenger has consciously maintained a distance between himself and the 21st-century British press, whom he views not as individuals but as an amorphous mass. He never addresses journalists by name and he never goes off the record. The us-and-them feeling has become pronounced.
As his tenure hit the buffers he has become increasingly introspective and evasive.
Some of his briefings have been as short as five minutes, shaped at the outset by him taking a long and deliberate look at his watch. The twinkle in his eye has been missing, the answers predictable – both of which have felt symbolic.
Yet Wenger retains the capacity to flick a switch and bring the room to life, to stir feelings of genuine fondness. When his departure was announced on Friday many Arsenal supporters were happy. It was what they had wanted. Yet why were they also upset?
It is because, above all, Wenger is a gentleman, who has been a part of many people’s lives for so long. For Arsenal fans under the age of 30, he is the only manager they have really known – a strangely reassuring presence in an ever changing world, in spite of the frustrations he has caused them.
A martyr to his values, Wenger will keep fighting until the final day. After all of the turmoil, there is the sense of appreciation.