Chas Newkey-Burden points out that the French boss is judicious in his selection of ex-players to bring back to the Emirates...
It’s become something of a mantra: Arsene Wenger freezes out his former players, letting slip a string of opportunities to add their obvious coaching potential to his backroom team. Like several negative narratives about the Arsenal manager, it is profoundly flawed.
Over the weekend it emerged again. In an interview with The Times, Patrick Vieira said of his former employer: “I’ve never been contacted by anyone to manage or get involved with the club. I was expecting something from them, but it didn’t come. It didn’t kill me.”
Asked which manager had most influence on him, Vieira did not name Wenger
If he sounded a touch passive-aggressive there, he went full-spurned-lover when, asked which manager had most influence on him, he did not name Wenger – the man who shaped his career, under whom he played for nine years, winning seven trophies including the Invincible title.
He chose someone else. But that someone else was not even Aimé Jacquet, with whom he lifted the World Cup, nor Roger Lemerre, under whose guidance he added the European Championship.
Instead, he chose Wenger’s arch enemy Jose Mourinho, who he played under for 18 comparatively inconsequential months at Inter Milan. The dig at Wenger was clear. Hell hath no fury like a former Gunner scorned.
Yet Vieira is not the first to come over all hurt because of perceived slights from Le Boss. Matt Dickinson of The Times, who conducted the interview, confirms that Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and “at least one other Arsenal stalwart” have privately told him they were surprised to have not been invited back to Arsenal to coach and have complained of their “alienation”.
Adams took on the mantle, remarking that, among other things, coaching 'isn’t Wenger’s strong point'
The grumbling began when David O’Leary, hurt by the fact that Arsenal – the club for whom he remains the record appearance maker – had not invited him back to the fold following his retirement, made a series of sour digs at Wenger in the late '90s and early noughties, even though he had never played for the Frenchman.
O’Leary’s former centre-back partner Adams took on the mantle, remarking that, among other things, coaching “isn’t Wenger’s strong point”, that the Frenchman is “not a great motivator” and sniffing that when Wenger took over, he “walked into a great squad of players”.
To enhance his revisionist hatchet jobs, Adams sometimes combines digs at Wenger with obsequious over-praising of his other former boss, George Graham. From a man who has shown such stature and courage in his career and personal life this might be seen as remarkably petty behaviour.
In the near future, Mikel Arteta, will further disprove the alienation myth
A perception has grown that Wenger freezes out former players but he has, in fact, welcomed back a succession of them. Last year he gave Thierry Henry his first leg-up into coaching with a role in the Arsenal under-18s side. It ended because the former striker sauntered off to Sky Sports. Jens Lehmann, too, has enjoyed a spell training the Emirates kids.
Steve Bould joined the coaching staff in 2001, and has been assistant manager since 2012. In the near future, Mikel Arteta will further disprove the alienation myth. Wenger has vocally encouraged the midfielder to consider a future in management and has begun to ease him towards the coaching side at the club.
The list goes on: Martin Keown coached the defenders for a while; Gilles Grimandi and Steve Morrow have come back as scouts; Freddie Ljungberg has an ambassadorial position. Wenger has not shut the door on former players, he has just chosen to be selective about when he opens it, rather than mindlessly creating a cosy old boys’ club.
Wenger has a uniquely intimate insight into the mindset of those he has coached
The idea that he has missed out on a conveyor belt of coaching talent could only convince if any of his former players were pulling up trees elsewhere. But they have yet to prove much at all. For instance, in Adams’s 16-match tenure in charge of Portsmouth he accumulated just 10 points, while his 18 months at Azerbaijani club Gabala FC are best, and all too easily, forgotten.
Wenger has a uniquely intimate insight into the mindset of those he has coached. He knows the psychological strengths and weaknesses of each individual, and can judge the merits of their managerial aspirations with that crucial knowledge.
Could it be that he has seen something in Vieira – who punched and spat at players during his Gunners career, before repeatedly disrupting the camp as he angled for a move – which makes him doubt his coaching acumen? Perhaps he also wonders if the navel-gazing Adams, with his endless and epic public discussions of his own character flaws, is managerial material?
As for Bergkamp, when fans dream of the great man as a future Gunners boss they overlook the fact that he’s vowed he will never fly again – a problematic position for a would-be coach of a Champions League club.
It could be argued that any aspiring coach who responds to an obstacle by whining to journalists, rather than rolling up his sleeves and finding a way around it, has already vindicated any doubts Wenger may hold about his suitability.
As for the rest of us, we should know better than to be seduced by the impulse that a man who was an excellent player would therefore be an excellent coach. This is such a childish and regularly disproved fallacy that it is hard to know what to say to those who still cleave to it.
Football’s narratives are not shaped by feel-good film directors. Retired captains or star strikers cannot automatically slot straight back into their former club as trophy-collecting managers for a grand Hollywood ending.
Concern among Arsenal fans over how the club intends to handle Wenger’s eventual succession is understandable, particularly given the pig’s ear they made of it at Old Trafford.
But in the meantime, perhaps Vieira & Co., who so thrilled the fans with their playing exploits in the Double-winning and Invincible sides, could call a halt to all their public wound-licking long enough to see if their ‘wounds’ are even half as real as they imagine them to be.