Just hours before Sir Alex Ferguson won yet another trophy, when Manchester United lifted the Carling Cup beating Aston Villa, there was a very interesting programme on ESPN Classic.

It asked the question: “Who has been the greatest manager in British football?”

Now you would expect Sir Alex to win that title hands down. The Carling Cup was the 34th trophy that Ferguson has brought to Old Trafford since coming down from Aberdeen to manage the club in the winter of 1986. It was three years before he won anything, his first being the FA Cup win of 1990, but since then it has been a quite astonishing run. And let us not forget that this includes the unique treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League that Manchester United won in 1999.

But, despite all this, the viewers of ESPN Classic thought that he only deserved the number two spot. Number one went to Arsene Wenger. The immediate suspicion (and I must confess I am a Tottenham fan) is that most of the people taking part belonged to the other half of north London.

However, on reflection, it is clear that this is not only a remarkable verdict but one which shows that at least some football fans are growing in maturity if not sagacity. There is no denying the achievements of Sir Alex, including proving that a manager brought up on Scottish football can be successful in England (in fact the United board hesitated to appoint him because of the poor track record of managers reared on Scottish football). However it is Wenger’s achievements which are the more remarkable.

Wenger’s (pictured) success may not compare with those of Sir Alex although they are not to be brushed aside. They include winning the double twice and going through an entire season without being beaten. But what makes him unique is that he has engineered a remarkable football revolution at Arsenal. For the first time in English football he has proved that you can marry brawn to beauty and still play winning football. I know he hasn’t won anything for five years but let us for the moment ponder his astonishing cultural revolution.

Traditionally, Arsenal’s success was built on a very functional style defending dourly and often winning games by a solitary goal. Hence the chant on the terraces 1-0 to the Arsenal. In 1970-71, when Arsenal won the double, nobody could doubt the team’s commitment but for the neutral their style of play did not compare with the beauty and artistry displayed a decade earlier by Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham in becoming the first team in the 20th century to win the double. I still meet older taxi drivers, by no means Tottenham fans, who remember that team with pleasure.

Later under George Graham, when Arsenal won the league and cups, there was much to admire in the football machine Graham had constructed and no denying the joy of the Gunners fans. But the football served wowed few neutrals .Wenger changed all that. In his time Arsenal have played some of the best football seen in this country and claimed admirers far beyond Highbury and the Emirates.

What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that, traditionally in this country we are proud of our sense of irony and like our arts and culture to be nuanced and delicate, but when it comes to sport we prefer brawn over brain.

This explains why since 2005, as Wenger has failed to win trophies with his football, and despite the fact that the neutral continue to drool over the fare served up by his teams , the fans at the Emirates are getting restive. The failure to bring any silverware to the club for five long years has meant that there is more than a little anxiety that, for all the accolades this pretty football wins, it does not produce the trophies for which the fans crave.

Arsenal fans restive with their French professor are hardly unique in this. Indeed this divide between the desire to win and the desire to play pleasing football can be so great that it has even opened up a chasm between fans and owners.

Take Chelsea. Under Jose Mourinho, the flamboyant Portuguese, they won two Premierships, the first such honours for the club in half a century. But the football was unmemorable and the Russian owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent millions on the team, has never stopped moaning about his team’s lack of personality. Mourinho, despite his success, went. The result: in his search for a team that will please, Abramovich is on his fourth manager. But Chelsea fans still mourn the loss of the Special One as Mourinho called himself. His style may not have pleased the owner or the neutral but he was a winner and that is all that most Chelsea fans care for.

This reflects an historic feeling in English football that what you want are players who exude the power that English beef and porridge gives. Neat elegant passes may thrill but could often result in a mistake costing a goal or even the match. Notice this is a charge made increasingly against Wenger’s teams. Very simply English football, or for that matter English sport in general, has an instinctive distrust of what Vinne Jones, the hard man of the kick and rush Wimbledon team of the 80s and 90s, called fancy Dan footballers.

But, much as the English fans distrust the artist and prefer the artisan, when it comes to the arts we as a nation always opt for subtlety over the obvious. Other nations may fall about when the banana skin skit is played, but we prefer the many layered Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. That still remains the epitome of classic English humour. Such is the fan distrust of the sporting artist that such players are often made to feel they are outsiders and treated with great suspicion.

So, through much of the 80s and 90s both in cricket and football, delicate players like Glen Hoddle and David Gower were shunned – Glen Hoddle’s nickname of Glenda said it all. The feeling was that, while they may have been wonderfully artistic, they were simply not beefy enough regularly to produce a winner.

Part of the reason for this is that, unlike America, this country has always had a huge divide between sports and arts. In America men of letters made no apologies for writing about sport. Many of America’s best writers started off as sports writers. True, Neville Cardus the doyen of our sports writers, was also the music critic of the then Manchester Guardian. But, while he used musical analogies to describe cricketers, he never invoked cricketers to describe a Mozart or Beethoven sonata.

Why does all this matter? It matters because, in the past, English passion and brawn could out muscle the fancy Dan foreigners. But they have now allied their skills to an English muscularity with the result that England’s beef and porridge gusto is not, on its own, strong enough to triumph. In the past a Brazilian touch artist could be hustled off the ball by a beefy English player. Now the Brazilian, as likely as not, would have enough power to hold off the Englishman without having lost any of his artistic touch. What this means is that these foreigners are demonstrating that there need not be a sporting divide between brain and brawn. English football, indeed all sport, needs to learn from that if the sporting world is not to pass England by.

And, while Arsene Wenger may not have produced a trophy in five years, I have no doubt that his way is the way of the future.


Share |
Categories: Football | No Comments »



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo