Wenger at Nagoya Grampus Eight: how Arsene rediscovered his greatest love in Japan

Arsene Wenger Nagoya Grampus Eight

Before Arsenal and the Premier League, there was Nagoya and the J.League. John Duerden remembers Wenger's halcyon days

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If Arsenal fans were none too excited about the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, the same could be said of Nagoya Grampus supporters in January 1995.

The Frenchman succeeded Bruce Rioch in north London, and followed another ex-Wigan Athletic boss in Gordon Milne to his new post in central Japan. Milne - once signed by Bill Shankly for Liverpool - had excellent overseas experience after leading Besiktas to three Turkish league titles, but struggled in Nagoya. The 1994 season ended with the team finishing bottom-but-one of the overall standings in a league that was split into two sections, with the winners of each playing off for the title.

After a similar story in the first J.League season of 1993, expectations were not high as 1995 dawned – and the identity of the new coach did little to excite.

“No one trusted Wenger at first,” said defender Tetsuo Nakanishi. “They all said ‘here comes another foreigner’.”

Arsene Wenger Nagoya Grampus Eight

Not just 'another foreigner' 

They were wrong. Wenger’s time in Japan was fairly short but it ended up being very sweet. There was no sense of this Frenchman outstaying his welcome – quite the opposite. By the time that he said goodbye to fans at the Mizuho Athletic Stadium in September 1996 (and to a nation watching on television), there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Shintaro Kano of Kyodo News remembers it well.

“He wasn't around long enough to leave a legacy,” Kano tells FourFourTwo, “but the brevity of his time in Japan only heightened the fantasy of what he could have built had he been around longer – like a kick-ass teaser to a summer blockbuster film.”

Wenger had been fired by Monaco in September 1994 – a team he'd led to the French title in 1988 – after a poor start to the season. Only months earlier they'd reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, losing out to eventual winners Milan, who hammered Barcelona 4-0 in the final. 

Wenger was ready for a new challenge and Nagoya, whose big-money outlay on Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojkovic had not brought expected results, needed something new too.

Gary Lineker Nagoya Grampus Eight

The club had started life as Toyota's company team before becoming fully professional with the new J.League in 1993, and their officials had heard the Frenchman speak at a 1994 conference. They were impressed. Negotiations soon started, and Wenger headed to the industrial city to take in a game late in the 1994 season – Lineker’s last ever professional appearance.

In December, Wenger agreed to sign and take charge for the upcoming third season.

NEXT: A whole new world...