06 March 2009

Forgetful Theseus and the shiver of mortality

There's a weekly feature on the Times football blog, The Game, in which their chief football writer states his opinion on a topic and then invites readers to send in their views, after which he takes a sample of said readers' views and tells us that he agrees with those he agrees with and disagrees with those he disagrees with. This week, Oliver Kay asked You, The Reader whether or not Arsenal can progress any further under Arsene Wenger.

The Game is not the place to go for perspective, unless the perspective you want is that of someone with a ten-second memory span and whose skin burns in the wind. Kay declined to tap into the blog's well of silly (the bad kind of silly) and reasoned -- not without criticism -- that to jettison Wenger would be wrong.

Since you have made it to paragraph three and just about avoided utterly falling to pieces with anticipation as to what my own opinion is on the subject (being a blogger, my opinions matter, you know), I'll spare you any further shock and tell you that I pretty much agree with Kay. It'll take more than a season of quasi-mediocrity and a frustrating series of draws to shake my fanboyish devotion to the Wenger way. It can be tempting to wallow in short-termism. But though it's perfectly okay to be frustrated at, say, how Arsenal's season has gone -- at how particularly unsatisfactory recent games have been -- it's preposterous to believe that missing your stop is a harbinger of Death and that we must make a sacrifice to appease the vengeful god of results. To think that the right course of action would be to get rid of Wenger and replace him with...who? takes a leap that is best avoided for fear of insanity. That such leaps seem to have become somewhat more acceptable in recent months speaks less of Wenger's failings and more of the delirium which accompanies rarefied air.

Be cautious of my opinion, though, for one should doubt its objectivity. It's really not that long ago, after all, that Arsenal were supping on the dregs of the George Graham era. Sure, there was the domestic cup double and a Cup Winners' Cup; but they merely papered over the cracks. (Like, mid-table finishes?) Before that, the ghost of my great aunt tells me, it was even worse at times. Wenger's arrival was almost like cheating -- a great big deus ex machina, with the emphasis on the deus. As sad as it may be, I still find it hard to be objective about the man who liberated our stricken village and replaced our be-cholera'd drinking water with hot running chocolate.*

*Okay -- showed up at the borough council meeting in our leafy suburb and protested about the somewhat noisy and inconvenient roadworks that had been irritating us for quite some time.

But the genie is out. Now that the taboo against doubting Arsene in polite conversation has been broken, even those of us casually declining to break out the Morse code handbooks must face up to an unavoidable question. There will come a time when Wenger is no longer manager of Arsenal. No -- it's true. One day, shortly after God decides to up and leave and start again somewhere else, Wenger will slip into a retirement defined by entire days spent watching Regionalliga Süd re-runs.

Barring some extraordinary occurrence -- Alisher Usmanov deciding to slaughter him and feed him to Usmanov's own diseased soul, for instance -- this won't happen any time soon. (I don't believe the Wenger-to-Real-Madrid rumours, only in part because I don't believe any rumours relating to Madrid.) But happen it must; and what then? Wenger has had an effect on the club greater, arguably, than even that of Herbert Chapman. (He braces himself for the inevitable thunderbolt.) How does a club proceed when its defining figure is no longer there? Arsenal would, by definition, be set on a new course, because there is no-one they'll find to match Wenger's stubbornness and the brilliance and the stroppiness and the vision and his expert blend of all four.

I'm genuinely at a loss as to how to answer this. Will there be a demand for an impersonator, someone entrusted to carry on the New Tradition? Would that person create a parody or would there be an acceptance that such foolish times are best left in the old season review DVD boxes and that things should be toned down a tad? Will there be some craving for the sensible, the dutiful, the Big Sam...?

Whoa. If I knew I was headed down such disturbing paths, I wouldn't have started this post. Best leave it at that.


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