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Wenger: My Life and Lessons in Red and White

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Arsenal fans may benefit from, but ultimately take issue with his insights regarding finances and the reality of the restraints on the club’s ability to delve into the transfer market in his latter years. The book just fails to come to life – I was at many of the games featured in the book but almost never did I feel that the book was adding anything to spark my memories of the matches. And many iconic moments are simply not mentioned at all. From the outset, we embark on a near 70-year retrospective where life is totally interwoven with the sport. He takes as the starting point the family-run restaurant in Alsace where Wenger was first exposed to football, courtesy of the weekly gatherings of the local village team, culminating with the intensity of his time in North London where his sphere of influence ultimately permeated every aspect of Arsenal’s daily activity. I did enjoy it, and there were times (especially at the beginning and end of the book) where he went into more detail, which was a good read, but I wish he had done it more. I’m no wiser as to any specifics of what went on behind the scenes at arsenal in his 22 years there, for instance, nor was there any other real storytelling, insight into the specifics of management, or his side of the story on some of the most famous incidents he was involved in. I can’t help but feel he could’ve let the reader into much more. So it’s mixed feelings. Every defeat plays on my mind. And you have to think not what you should have done, but what could you have done?

Many of us deplore the growing inequality in football, where Premier League clubs ‎have incomes of many millions and lower league and semi-professional clubs struggle to survive, mirroring other industries and services, where the economic system produces extreme wealth for a few and poverty for many. How can supporters, players and managers come together to change this? Obviously I'm slightly biased, as a long-suffering Arsenal fan, but this was a great read. It plays out pretty much how you'd expect it to - beginning with his early years in starkly rural Alsace and all the challenges that encompassed, to his position as a player-coach as AS Nancy and Cannes, through his troubled tenure at Monaco, his famous 22-year life at Arsenal and ends on his current position at FIFA. Nonetheless, this book gives a great insight into the various transfers and dealings. I loved the story of David Dein's daughter crying silently into her dinner when she realised her favourite Ian Wright was being sold. I did the same when I heard the news.

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I was at the training ground to interview Wenger the afternoon before the last game of the Invincibles season, and while I was waiting for him in his office, a Frenchman I didn’t recognise came in and slammed his hand down hard on the manager’s desk. “Stupid English regulations,” he said. I expressed sympathy. “We are trying to sign a player, an incredible player. Yaya Touré. He has much more power than his brother. But they won’t let us.” It was a story that provided me with great currency among fellow fans, especially a few years later, when Touré was tearing up the midfields and defences of every other Premier League team. It is the absence of revealing stories here that will most disappoint Wenger’s many admirers. When asked at a press conference, shortly before he left Arsenal, whether he was writing a book, he replied: “Not at the moment. Because I don’t like to talk and not tell the truth. As long as you are in work, you cannot really tell what is going on.” One should point out that he is still in work, at Fifa, perhaps the most political of all sporting bodies. What we have instead is a lot of quiet, thoughtful musings on the qualities necessary for management, coaching and playing, with lots of abstract nouns: “The action [today’s manager] needs to take should be based on a three-pronged approach: giving people responsibilities, personalising and openness, through clear and constant communication, based on today’s science.” Roy Keane probably wouldn’t have written that sentence. Hostility no, competition yes. It was vital [at Arsenal] that you beat Tottenham for the respect of the club. Competition is important, as long as it’s not crazy. When you [were due to] play Tottenham, at the start of the week everybody was a bit more nervous than usual.

I found myself invited to David Dein’s house that evening. He had said to me: ‘We’ll talk about football.’ I mainly recall a very sociable evening with a lot of laughter and games, a kind of charades. I seem to recall one of the subjects they asked me to enact was A Midsummer Night’s Dream – no easy task – and I got through it pretty well!” He says. “The friendship, complicity and understanding between David and me date from that first dinner, and from all the times we’ve seen each other since.” Sometimes Wenger’s competitiveness spilled over, notably in his epic, bristling clashes with first Ferguson and then Chelsea’s José Mourinho. But anyone expecting mud-slinging from his autobiography has misread Wenger. There’s mention of Ferguson’s “crushing authority” on English football, but he nimbly sidesteps anything more damning; Mourinho isn’t mentioned once. “I didn’t want it to be a book of revenge or frustration or of injustice,” he says. “I didn’t want to show: ‘Well, he did that to me’ – all these things. But you know what happened in your life and you have to rise above that. I wanted it to be a positive experience of life. You cannot have the life I’ve had until now and be negative.” Therefore, as I am sure you have realised, I have a profound emotional investment in Mr Wenger's autobiography; or certainly a huge part of it. Wenger has not returned to the sidelines since leaving Arsenal, but as of November he has brought characteristic rigour to his role as Fifa’s head of Global Football Development. He separated from his wife, Annie Brosterhous, in 2015; their daughter Léa is finishing a doctorate in neuroscience at Cambridge University. He divides his time between London, Paris and Fifa’s base in Zurich, often staying in hotels, and he admits that the hardest part of Covid-19 for him was when most of the leagues around the world were suspended. “I don’t know why but football games are my life and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he says. “So I missed it very much.”

I did however learn a lot about Arsene Wenger the man. I knew that he was very committed to his role as a manager, but hadn't realised quite how much football had taken over his life. Although in many ways a solitary man, it was clear from the book that he had many friends and colleagues that he thought highly of. Although of course with this being an autobiography it is a subjective book, he came across as a very fair man who cares passionately for the wellbeing of his players and is prepared to put in a lot of effort personally to nurture up and coming players. His book tells us that he did have a life before Arsenal and now has another after his long relationship with that hallowed club. The classic tale of determination against all the odds to succeed is played out. Some very interesting facts about his life are also relayed. Of course the major part of the book is his time in the Premier League and how he changed it. His ideas, his philosophies and his methods of how he turned my club into not only Premier League Champions, but also changed the whole way of how they played the beautiful game. What to say? That this book left me underwhelmed is an understatement. I don't think anyone going to read this ever thought Wenger would lift the lid and dish out some nastiness or air vendettas against people, but what I expected was more emotion. More honesty. I was there for all the events he described. I know what happened. But I didn't need that. I wanted to know how he felt after the big decisions, the big games. Especially where he felt there were injustices. Towards the end of My Life In Red And White, former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger ponders the conversation that will take place should he eventually reach the gates of heaven.

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