It is sad to see the Arsene Wenger era at Arsenal unravelling
There used to be nothing more fascinating than settling down round a table with Arsene Wenger and listening to one of football’s great philosophers pontificate on the week’s big talking points.
Back in the day, it was a privilege for those of us in the Sunday newspaper pack to be taken off into a side room at Arsenal’s London Colney training base every Friday for an audience that never failed to disappoint.
Unlike so many in his position, this was a man who had time for everyone, with no subject off the agenda as Wenger spoke about his views on world politics, drug taking in sport and whatever topic was thrown up for discussion.
Even if he had been asked the same question a week before, Wenger provided an answer that filled the pages of our newspapers and, more often than not, saved up having to come up with a headline to boot.
He was a journalists dream and if even if the novelty of meeting sporting celebrities wanes when you have been in this job for a few years, Wenger was one shining star who never became repetitive.
Here was a revolutionary who dragged English football into the 21st century, an icon who appreciated he was the figurehead of a huge organisation that has exploded in his financial muscle and its staff numbers since he arrived in September 1996.
He was also a winner, with his success in lifting the Premier League title three times and establishing Arsenal as one of the big names in world football achievements he has always been proud to promote.
Yet there has been a sense that aspects of the a job that will see him take charge of Arsenal for the 1,115th time against West Bromwich Albion on Thursday night have become a chore in recent times.
I walked up the steps with Wenger at Arsenal’s training ground last season and asked him to speculate on how many press conferences he has done in his time at Arsenal.
His answer was swift and did not come with a smile: “Too many”
It said much about the fatigue he must feel as goes through the same routine week after week, day after day, with only moderate reward for his efforts over the last decade and more.
It is telling that those previously jovial 15-20 minute media briefings are now down to four-minute exchanges that are evidently less interesting for Wenger than they once were.
In addition, other aspects of the job have also left him jaded.
He loathes the social media generation who pass an often cutting judgements on him on a game-by-game basis.
Wenger also struggles to deal with the reality that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City find themselves on the world stage simply because they have stumbled across wealthy investors.
Part of Wenger’s passion for the sport died when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and set about bringing down his unbeaten title winners in 2004, as he hints his failure to lift the biggest prize in English football is as much down to ‘financial doping’ from rich investors as it is his own failings.
If so much of his job has become a chore, why has he carried on so long with an increasing number of Arsenal fans calling for his head?
“I am still here because I love the game,” says the multi-millionaire whose £7m-per-year salary is no longer a factor that encourages him to carry on.
“When I don’t have a team to manage, I watch football games at home on TV. This is what I like to do. As long as I can walk and I am healthy, I want to be involved in football.
“Everything about the game still fascinates me. No match is the same, you never know what can happen. This is why we love it.
“Okay, there are parts of the job that are not as enjoyable any more, but the challenge remains the same and it always will be. The desire to be successful has never left me.”
Evidently, a healthy proportion of Arsenal fans are no longer listening to what are now seen as Wenger’s excuses when his side fail to live up to the promise he always eager to promote.
There was a time when the ‘Wenger Out Brigade’ used to be castigated as a deluded noisy minority who lacked the common sense to put forward a credible argument to justify the end of the game’s last great managerial dynasty.
Yet support for their cause has been gathering with each passing year since Wenger last lifted a Premier League title, with his latest failure the hardest of all to stomach.
In a year when all of Arsenal’s chief rivals for the title staggered, stumbled and collapsed to varying degrees, Wenger’s boys were gift wrapped a chance to end their wait for glory.
However, not for the first time under Wenger’s watch, his team have lacked the mental strength to get the job done when it matters most have come up short.
Leicester’s imminent title triumph is serving to highlight the inadequacies in Wenger’s make-up and their success may ultimately serve to hasten his demise.
Once hailed the mould breaker who transformed the landscape of English football, the Arsenal figurehead has tragically been recast as yesterday’s men in an era of the game when failure is a sackable offence all too quickly.
Jose Mourinho infamous snipe suggesting Wenger has become a ‘specialist in failure’ may have been cruel, nasty and spiteful.
It was also effective because it came with a damaging ring of truth.
So while those of us who have been fortunate enough to spend many a long hour with Wenger struggle to stick the knife into a man who is as likeable, engaging and intelligent, it is increasingly hard to get away from a suspicion that he is no longer the right man to lead Arsenal.
Qualification for another season of Champions League football will not be enough for Wenger this time, in the season when everything was laid on a plate for his final slice of glory.
Even if he has one year left on his contract, Wenger should not need to be told that when the minority of dissenting voices become the majority, even the most iconic of leaders should fall on their sword.
We must be getting very close to that point for Wenger at Arsenal.