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Oct 4, 2012

Arsene Who?

In 1996, Arsenal were looking to build a dynasty. After the relative success (on the pitch certainly, if not completely off it) of George Graham, there were two short-term tenures for Stewart Houston and Bruce Rioch, but bar the signing of Dennis Bergkamp there was little to get excited about until the arrival of a complete unknown. French boss Arsene Wenger arrived in October and the club would be changed forever.

As a player, Arsene Wenger did not set the world alight. Picked for the French university team when he was studying at Strasbourg, a young Wenger toured Nigeria, Lebanon and Uruguay as a student in the 1970s and was part of the Strasbourg squad that won the club's only French championship in 1979.

But it was in management where he made his name. Shortly after his title triumph, Wenger ended his playing career and moved to take charge of the Strasbourg youth teams. He then picked up his first major job at Nancy before leading Monaco to the title in 1988 - the year when he also first arrived at Highbury to take in some football over Christmas and was invited out to dinner by Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. Famously they end up playing charades at Dein's house and became firm friends.

A rather odd spell in Japan with Nagoya Grampus followed, but Wenger remained on the Arsenal radar. Still in contact with Dein, he was top of the list when Bruce Rioch was sacked after only a year, in August 1996. Chairman Peter Hill-Wood said then: "He [Rioch] hardly talked to us. We did not know what was going on or what his thoughts were and that is not healthy. We employed him in good faith and thought he was the right man for the job. He was not."

On Rioch's removal, WSC journalist Boyd Hilton wrote: "For all the clichés about Old Etonians, Marble Halls and 'doing things the Arsenal way', it has been clear to supporters for years that our club is no different to any other: the board are just as ruthless (if not more so) and determined to safeguard their own power."

The move to appoint Wenger bore a strong resemblance to when, ten years previous, the board had grown tired of Don Howe's negative tactics and went behind his back to try to persuade Terry Venables to be their new manager. They failed then, but a decade on had finally got the man who they believed would bring them attacking football and made him the first non-British manager in the club's history.

"I remember when Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names," Arsenal fan and author Nick Hornby told the Guardian. "It was [Terry] Venables, [Johan] Cruyff and then at the end Arsene Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan, I bet it's f*****g Arsene Wenger, because I haven't heard of him and I've heard of the other two. Trust Arsenal to appoint the boring one that you haven't heard of."

The players were similarly shocked. "At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He's not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?" revealed then-skipper Tony Adams.

The Evening Standard agreed; they had no idea who he was and published the now immortal headline of: 'Arsene Who?'. A few weeks later, they sought him out and interviewed him, delving into his very soul to answer the key questions for themselves.

"I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables," Wenger told them of his philosophy for the future. "I lived for two years in Japan and it was the best diet I ever had. The whole way of life there is linked to health. The people there are known to work harder than anywhere else and they have the highest life expectancy. Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, fish and rice. No fat, no sugar. You notice when you live there that there are no fat people. Well, no fat people among the middle-aged and elderly."

Changing the diet of the Arsenal players was the first of many things to change. The traditional pre-match steak, accompanied by a side order of chips, was removed. Along with post-match Mars bars as well.

"It's silly to work hard the whole week and then spoil it by not preparing properly before the game," Wenger added. "As a coach you can influence the diet of your players. You can point out what is wrong. Some are wrong because they are not strong enough to fight temptation and some are wrong because they do not know. As a coach I can teach the players what they do wrong without knowing it is wrong."

Wenger also made changes in his squad, turning to the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira (followed a year later by Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars) to complement a team already boasting England institutions like David Seaman, Lee Dixon and Tony Adams. It was a stroke of genius and something that would eventually lead the side away from the 'Boring, Boring, Arsenal' and '1-0 to the Arsenal' chants of old. Much success would follow.

"I could understand the public not knowing who I was but I was surprised the specialists didn't," Wenger told journalist Matt Weiner years later. "I'd taken Monaco to the Cup Winners' Cup final [in 1992], helped them to win the league [1988] and won the cup three times [1989, 1990, 1991]. But it didn't bother me much because at the end of the day that meant they had low expectations of me."

What happened next? Arsenal finished third in the league at the end of Wenger's first season, but in his first full campaign he would change expectations. The Gunners trailed leaders Manchester United by 11 points at one stage, but came back to be crowned Premier League champions with two games to spare and won an FA Cup within two weeks to claim their first Double since 1971. Over 15 years - three league titles (including the unbeaten 2003-04 season) and four FA Cups - later, he made himself Arsenal's most successful manager of all-time and one of the best in the world.

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