September 30, 1996

A rather unremarkable day, Sept 30th of 1996.  According to Wikipedia, who ought to know, nothing happened that day. Wikipedia, however, is stupid, because a very, very big thing happened that day.  

George Graham was an Arsenal legend.  227 appearances and 60 goals for Arsenal, and some other stuff for some other teams but whatever (he ended his playing career with the California Surf!).  After retiring as a player, Graham coached at Crystal Palace and QPR before getting the managerial gig at Millwall in 1982.  After several successful years there, Arsenal took notice - they had fired Don Howe in March of 1986, and Graham was made manager at that point.

The accomplishments of George Graham's Arsenal were immense.  Two First Division titles, including one you may have heard of; An FA Cup, two League Cups, and a European Cup Winners' Cup.  So it's fair to say that when Graham was fired, in February of 1995, for accepting bribes in the signing of players, there were some big, big shoes to fill.  Stewart Houston saw out 1995, and then Arsenal appointed Bruce Rioch.

Rioch was unremarkable - he lasted a season, and didn't accomplish a whole lot.  He did, however, manage to make a mark as the guy who signed Dennis Bergkamp to an Arsenal contract.  He left after a season due to disagreements with the board, and for the next 10 games of 1996, Arsenal were managed by Houston and Pat Rice.

Then, September 30 arrived, and Arsenal's new manager took control (so young!).

It's fair to say, as someone who followed English soccer pretty closely in the early to mid 1990's, that nobody in the world of English soccer had heard of Arsene Wenger.  He was hired from a Japanese team called Nagoya Grampus Eight, which sounds like a species of fish or a chemical compound, but is apparently a soccer team.  Who knew?  Anyway, I remember reading about his appointment and thinking "Why on earth would a team like Arsenal hire a manager from Japan?", because in those days in English soccer that was just not done.  English soccer was for English (or Scottish) managers, and the idea of going half way around the world to find a manager was pretty much crazypants, or so everyone thought.

But what we all didn't know, and what the Arsenal board did, was that Arsene Wenger was more than just a manager.  He was a revolutionary.  I don't use that word lightly - Arsene Wenger had ideas that, at the time, were unheard of in English soccer, and probably most everywhere else as well.  Arsenal saw that, and wanted it, and went out and got it.

Arsenal, as with most other English teams, were a booze-sodden club throughout the 80's and early 90's.  Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, and the rest of them were all no stranger to not one, but many pints on their off days - the English game as a whole was like this, and Arsenal were probably table-toppers in that league as well as the league on the field.  

Training usually consisted of an hour of light running, head tennis, and the occasional kickabout, followed by a bunch of gambling, drinking, and eating of fried foods.  And drinking.  Half time team refreshments consisted of cups of tea and water.  This is pretty much the way English soccer went from the 1930's until 1996.  Road trips were basically a rolling bacchanal - get to town, find pub, drink, train away hangover, nap, wake up, play game, drink, repeat.  

For some crazy reason, Arsene Wenger didn't think this was the most productive way to be a top flight athlete.  You will hear a lot of "professor" cliches about Wenger, because he's got degrees in both electrical engineering and economics and your average soccer manager has degrees in, well, soccer, but Wenger also saw something that nobody else either saw or wanted to see.  He saw how badly players on English teams treated their bodies, and he knew that had to change.

So, he changed it.  He changed the training ground diet from meat pies and fried crap to pasta, fish, vegetables, and lean proteins; he tried to get them to stop the booze as much as possible (and wouldn't allow booze on team flights or other away journeys); he put together diet plans for every Arsenal player; and he developed a fitness regime, tailored to each player in order to maximize that player's ability and skill, that was unheard of at the time in England.  The players, at first, rebelled against it (as you would expect) - Tony Adams, in particular, was very vocally skeptical about the new regime.

But, slowly but surely, it took hold - and once the nutrition changes and training changes took root, the playing style changes started to follow.  Wenger inherited "Boring, Boring Arsenal" - a team that would score one or two goals and then grind opponents into the ground under their heel.  As those players started to age, Wenger started bringing in players that played a different way - Patrick Vieira (Wenger insisted the club sign Vieira before he agreed to take the job), Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, a teenage Nicolas Anelka, and Freddie Ljungberg were the first wave of this new breed of player.

Some have argued that the initial success Wenger had was because of the defense he inherited from George Graham and Bruce Rioch - the legendary Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon back line - and they may not be wrong.  With that solidity at the back, and the newly created speed and movement up front, Arsenal were becoming an unstoppable force - culminating, of course, in the 2004 season of The Invincibles.

The convenient, oversimplistic narrative is that it was all downhill from there.  You all know the drill; no trophies since 2005, lots of pretty soccer with nothing to show for it, frail defense, blah de blah de blah.  And I do think that Arsene has gotten the balance a bit wrong in the last few years - attack isn't the best form of defense, defense is. But I think that people (especially non-Arsenal fans) tend to overlook one thing:  Arsene hasn't stagnated so much as the rest of the game has caught up to Arsene, both on and off the field.

What used to be rare and exotic is now commonplace - top teams routinely employ nutritionists, have varied fitness regimes, and generally exert more control over their players' routines than ever, and we have all seen what happens on the field when Arsenal comes up against a team that doesn't "let them play" as Arsene used to like to put it.

For a lot of reasons, this is a pivotal season for Arsene and Arsenal - but that discussion is for another day.  Today is for recognizing what Arsene Wenger has done for Arsenal, and for thanking him for that.  Arsenal would not be what it is today without Arsene Wenger, and his contributions to the game in general are immense as well.

Happy anniversary, Arsene.  Here's to another 15 years at the top.

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