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Apr 30, 2011

Charming the press gang

Having enchanted London's football writers for a decade and a half, very few poison pen-pushers have been eager to plunge a fatal knife into Arsene Wenger's back as he lives through his darkest days as Arsenal manager.

As a sixth successive season looks certain to end with Wenger still locked outside of the winner's circle, an increasingly vocal clutch of Arsenal supporters have turned against the manager who transformed their club from the relatively ordinary to the exceptional in glorious fashion.

However, that change of mood at Emirates Stadium has not been complemented by a media campaign calling for his head, with the 'Wenger Out' headlines that could have complemented the extension of his trophy drought not in evidence after the club's title challenge ended with a defeat at Bolton last Sunday.

You see, while personal relationships should never be allowed to get in the way of honest reporting, this is one manager who will never be roundly condemned like so many who have gone before him. The privileges that go with being the darling of the press pack appear, for now, to be keeping Wenger on his lofty pedestal.

On face value, Wenger's refusal to address the glaring flaws that have existed in his team's make-up for half a decade could be considered to be a sackable offence, yet spending ten minutes in the company of this football fantasist would convince even his most devoted doubter that he will get it right in the end.

I have been a regular member of Wenger's congregation throughout his time as Arsenal boss and he has always been humorous, honest and fascinating, a dream subject for us reporters eager to find a story worthy of print.

In an era when managers and players have mastered the art of revealing nothing in their media briefings, Wenger bucks every trend every week by offering up strong opinions aplenty in his always entertaining and well-attended pre-match press conferences.

As he faced up to his latest post-mortem in front of the familiar faces who have quizzed him for so many years on Thursday, a reflective Wenger attempted to convey an upbeat mood ahead of a game against Manchester United and yet he could not hide from the burning sense of failure that is clearly giving him some sleepless nights.

"I go to bed every day thinking about how I could have done things better and that will never change for as long as I'm in this job," Wenger said, feeling his side's Carling Cup final defeat at Wembley in February marked the beginning of the end for his side's trophy hopes.

"There is no doubt I have made errors this season and I would never deny this, but we all have to try and improve as I believe we are closer than ever to success with this team.

"Of course, I have had moments when I doubted myself. You wonder if you are good enough to do the job and also whether this is what you want to do in life. Like anything, you try it and see if it is for you. I feel proud of my achievements at Arsenal, but I refuse to believe we cannot be winners once again.

"We are having to deal with a lot of scepticism around this team at the moment and this is understandable as the final analysis will show we did not win a trophy for another season, yet I believe it is just the smallest of improvements that need to be made to take us onto the next level.

"When you consider we are up against opponents who spend millions on new players every year and we are still showing consistency even though we are carrying the financial burden that comes with moving to a new ground, I feel there is much for this team to be proud of. People don't see it that way, but we have to continue to fight."

Wenger's desire to shield his players from the media glare has seen him hold fort for an average of two press conferences a week throughout his time as Arsenal boss, with television, radio and those of us in the written press ranks afforded time and respect from the man at the centre of so many stories.

More than a few managers opt out of Sunday newspaper briefings or ask one of their players to share the media burden, yet Wenger refuses to take a step back.

The compelling figure we are fortunate to share a room with is anything but the comical and irate touchline clown who has thrown water bottles aplenty of late, though Wenger accepts his time at Arsenal can be brought to an end at any point as American tycoon Stan Kroenke prepares to complete his takeover of the club.

"I'm just a servant of this club and the new owner may decide at some point in the near future that they want someone else to take my place," he says. "It's his right to make a change and there is nothing to stop the guy who replaces me being more successful than I have been.

"Whether I stay after my contract finishes in three years is something we will have to discuss nearer to that date, but I feel active and focused on trying to help this team make the improvements we need at this moment.

"When I was 33 and starting out in management, the idea that I would still be in this job beyond the age of 60 was an impossible target. This game is so much linked with luck and handling pressure and you never think you will last too long anywhere. As it happens, I have lasted a long time here so I must have done something right."

Frustration is a word Wenger used time and again to describe his mood heading into the his latest tussle with Sir Alex Ferguson and that emotion is shared by many of his media combatants, who struggle to fathom why this intelligent man puts himself through the same agonies every year with a squad of players who continue to let him down.

The photographs depicting Wenger and his former players holding trophies aloft adorn the walls of the Arsenal training-ground press room and serve to confirm that this is a manager who will go down in English football history as an all-time great, yet his legacy is taking one hell of a battering right now.

Wenger set the bar so high with his brilliant Double-winning side of 1998, his majestic 'Invincibles' who finished the 2003-04 season unbeaten and the thrilling team that came within 13 minutes of Champions League glory two years later, yet those triumphs have made the last six years of heartache all the more difficult to accept.

It may be that evolution and not revolution are what is required at Arsenal now and, while those of us who continue to respect Wenger for what he has achieved are rapidly running out of excuses for his long-running stretch of failure, his status as one of the game's few untouchables remains intact.

Those calling for his head should be careful what they wish for as a new Gunners manager would doubtless hail a third-place finish in the Premier League as a success if he was in this position a year from now. Wenger has spoilt the Arsenal fans for so long and, for that reason, their continued support should now be granted.

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