Like many oft-quoted phrases, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King’ is widely misunderstood and often misused.
Translated from the French “Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!’ the phrase actually expresses the immediacy of accession: that King is dead, long live this new one. Often however, for example in relation to Elvis or Michael Jackson, it is used to convey the sense in which the memory will live on, even after the death of the individual concerned. Occasionally, too, the phrase is used to describe an individual with an apparent propensity for resurrection, in the metaphorical, rather than seasonal sense – think of Mickey Rourke, or Gazza perhaps.
These three interpretations of the same phrase are roughly equivalent to the options currently available to the most broken looking man in English football (which is some achievement, given the state of Harry Redknapp’s face): Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Wenger looks like he is at a crossroads. He could step aside and allow another to ascend to his throne. He could continue on, in the hope that his past achievements will inspire the continuing love of his subjects. Finally, he could rebuild himself (and his team) and come out fighting with a different set of weapons next time around.
All three options seem feasible, but how did it come to this?
Immanuel Kant wrote of David Hume in the introduction to his Prolegomina that he was interrupted from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ by the work of the Scottish empiricist. – this was Wenger’s effect on Arsenal, and English football more generally.
When he turned up at Arsenal in 1996, Le Professeur bewitched us all with his twinkly spectacles and sexy voice. The England into which Wenger so quickly assimilated himself and his methods was an England ripe for change. Seven months after the Frenchmen’s arrival Tony Blair’s New Labour populists soared into power on a ticket of modernisation:
‘New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works. The objectives are radical. The means will be modern’
Labour Party Manifesto, 1997.
This was Wenger’s agenda too. By integrating the continental talents of Bergkamp, Vieira, Petit and Overmars with the very English merits of Adams, Dixon, Seaman and Parlour, Wenger created in North London a blueprint for the cosmopolitanism Blair sought for his Britain.
Like Blair’s country (remember ‘Cool Britannia’?) Wenger’s football club enjoyed a period of popularity unequalled in recent history. The Frenchman transformed Boring Boring Arsenal into everybody’s second favourite team.
As Wenger’s years in charge at Arsenal accumulated so too did the trophies (3 Premier Leagues and 4 FA Cups). The high point came in 2004 when he led his team (which still included Martin Keown and the Romford Pele) through an unbeaten Premier League campaign. The last trophy though, as everybody knows, was won ‘all the way back’ in 2005 (6 years is a long time in a sport that only came into existence in 1992).
2005 was also the last time Labour won an election.
Sustained success creates problems of its own. Labour rode to victory on the back of general dissatisfaction with a Conservative government that had been in power for 18 years. The managerial position at Arsenal became available to Wenger (in a slightly roundabout way via Bruce Rioch) after George Graham (in charge for 9 years) became too big for his boots and succumbed to the temptation of illicit riches. Both Blair and Wenger seized opportunities for rejuvenation offered them by the malaise effected by familiarity. Blair and his party have since paid the price for their own over-familiarity and there are those in the media and in the stands suggesting that Wenger may be about to suffer the same fate.
Hence his position at the crossroads.
New Labour, finding itself in that same position, tried each of the paths. Blair stepped down; Brown came in. Brown ‘rebuilt’ the country as a pseudo-collectivist state and seemed to have resurrected himself in the process; he survived numerous attempted ‘coups’ and emerged, seemingly stronger, a different man with every passing party conference. The final option, leaving us with the memories, was rather foisted upon them; Brown used his last public remarks to remind the country of his party’s achievements then left office with this still rather touching shot.
Perhaps he had no other option, but in trying all these well-trodden paths Brown let a lot of people down. I was disappointed that having been caught by Sky News calling Rochdale’s Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’ Brown obsequiously apologised for what he said. By all means apologise to the pensioner you insulted but don’t pretend you don’t think what you think.
There’s a lesson in that somewhere for Wenger. At the end of Brilliant Orange, when summing up the phenomenal and continuing legacy of Johann Cruyff on Dutch football, David Winner quotes from a number of current thinkers on the game. One of these, Arthur van den Boogaard, comments:
‘He is a genius in a team sport so he needs these other people. It’s very difficult for him [but] He still follows his ideas, and he will until the end because he knows it works. It is the solution. It doesn’t mean you always win, but it means you’re always striving for perfection’
This is the option Wenger too should take, lest he end up in the New Labour purgatory (the men didn’t even get invited to the wedding for pity’s sake). No doubt the media will continue to protest along with increasing numbers of impatient supporters, but he has already survived on the treacherous route down which his principles (and, most likely, circumstances) have led him than the Blair-Brown juggernaut managed. The path for Wenger remains the path less trodden; I’ll follow him: Long live the King!
Check back tomorrow for Graham on how everybody loves a trier,