Once upon a time, Arsenal managers emerged out of the backrooms, the corridors, the dressing-rooms, or the treatment rooms at Highbury: and essentially they would be men with Arsenal in their DNA; an Arsenal pedigree which counted for more than just coaching badges. They were schooled in the ways of the club; bore all the hallmarks of the class and distinction implicit in the name of Arsenal Football Club. The board wanted a chief-of-staff who could oversee the smooth continuation of a great institution: one which in its heyday became a byword for success and propriety. Then upon the very cusp of the modern game, Arsenal went against this dictum that insisted we promote from within: temporarily dropping the idea that the Arsenal, was for the Arsenal, and by the Arsenal. Billy Wright, the Beckham of his day, a man whom Denis Hill-Wood referred to as ‘that jolly good chap’ was appointed manager, a man, while being a keen Arsenal follower as a kid, had no prior association with the club. When times became difficult he had nothing in the bank: no Arsenal heritage with which he could be marked down as one of us.
The response to the experiment of Billy Wright was to look for stability and to appoint a man built in the image of Arsenal past: Bertie Mee, who, like Tom Whittaker before him, moved from treatment room to manager’s office. Under Mee, and another Highbury old boy Don Howe, Arsenal for a while once more sat astride the football world. Then Terry Neill, the youngest ever club captain at Highbury, became, in 1976, the youngest ever manager at Highbury: leading the club to the 1979 FA Cup; three successive Wembley cup finals; and a season in 1979/80, which, following a magical run of games, including the victory against Juventus when Paul Vaessen’s star blazed for a night in the Turin sky, and the defeat of Liverpool in the cup semi-final 3rd replay, culminated, with car crash fascination, in the heart-breaking failure of two cup final defeats in five days. After the brief interlude of Howe’s tenure, it was the turn of another old boy, George Graham, to once again fill Highbury with fire and brimstone, and the raucous echo of days gone by.
Of course, since then, the Graham years have been followed by a year of Bruce Rioch, and hard upon his heels came Arsène Wenger, and now Unai Emery: whatever can be said of them none had, or has, an Arsenal connection which predated their arrival, let alone an Arsenal pedigree. Despite all the shimmering glories of his reign, was the slow, at times painful, unravelling of Wenger’s tenure in part because he didn’t quite understand Arsenal’s history: did he re-build the club so comprehensively in his own image that in doing so failed to pay sufficient heed to the qualities which pre-dated him: the Bertie Meeness that is there in almost every great Arsenal team?
What once was understood to be the essential ingredient of every successful Gunners manager: to be an Arsenal man, now seems to be perhaps nothing more than a mere added extra, something to generate good PR. Does it matter though? Is it important that, whereas once Arsenal closed ranks and promoted men from within, men steeped in the way Arsenal did things: living and breathing the club, that now the perception of technical excellence is deemed a far superior and more desirable quality? Is it just the way of the modern world, modern football? But didn’t Arsenal once break the mould and build empires from their own raw materials?
Perhaps the concept of promoting from within, for the sake of some internal cultural continuity is an anachronism too great for the modern game? When management teams are rated on their ability to attract the best players from around the world rather than moulding a group of largely local youngsters into a side over a period of years, perhaps, quite reasonably, a certain profile is demanded? Is it just the case that in the past twenty-plus years it is simply that no suitable candidate, one anointed son of Arsenal folklore has emerged?
And, of course, a non-Arsenal man, Herbert Chapman, once dressed the club in a livery of greatness; Wenger too? But the King is dead, long live the King!
I hope Unai Emery is here for years and builds a dynasty of great memories and deeds, but if not then give me an Arsenal man every time: this magical club is best served by someone who knows the club, is part of the club, lives the club. There are a host of ex-Arsenal players out there now coaching, or in senior management positions: Vieira, Arteta, Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell, Bergkamp, Lehmann, Henry, Edu, and Overmars to name a few; or are the days of ‘the Arsenal man’ model, like Highbury, lost now forever in the mists of time?
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