Arsène Wenger goes into possibly his final season as Arsenal manager admitting he is “scared” by the prospect of retirement and uncertain he will be able to cope as well as Sir Alex Ferguson without the daily fix of football management.
Wenger, approaching 20 years in charge of the London club, talks about how difficult it will be to break “the addiction” in a far-reaching interview in which the 66-year-old also explains why he is so cautious to show more muscle in the transfer market and bemoans the lack of hunger among some of his younger players.
Wenger reveals he has instructed the club’s scouts to pay more attention to the lower leagues and criticises the culture that makes millionaires of some players before they have made their debuts. The Frenchman insists he is right “to spend the club’s money as if it were your own” but, however unappealing he might find the finances of the modern sport, it is clear he is troubled by the thought of retiring.
“It’s been my life and, honestly, I’m quite scared of the day,” Wenger says. “The longer I wait, the more difficult it will be and the more difficult it will be to lose the addiction.
“After Alex retired and we played them over there [at Manchester United] he sent a message to me to come up and have a drink with him. I asked: ‘Do you miss it?’ He said: ‘Not at all.’ I didn’t understand that. It’s an emptiness in your life, especially when you’ve lived your whole life waiting for the next game and trying to win it.”
Wenger’s comments appear to indicate he might want to work beyond his present contract, which expires at the end of the season, but for now he faces the considerable challenge of trying to win Arsenal’s first league title since 2004 without a massive outlay in the transfer market.
Arsenal’s reticence to part with vast sums, he explains, goes back to leaving Highbury – “the love of my life” – to move into the £390m Emirates Stadium in 2006. “We had to pay back the debt. We knew we had limited money and we had to be in the Champions League to have a chance to pay off the debt. That was the most difficult period for me. For a while it was very bad, but today the club are financially safe.”
He adds: “I personally believe the only way to be a manager is to spend the club’s money as if it were your own because if you don’t do that you’re susceptible to too many mistakes. You make big decisions and I believe you have to act like it’s your own money, like you’re the owner of the club and you can identify completely with the club. Because if you don’t do that I think you cannot go far.”
Wenger is interviewed in a book, Game Changers, that will be released on Thursday and features the former Charlton Athletic manager Alan Curbishley talking to various people within the sport, including Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, Ryan Giggs and Harry Kane.
One of the questions for Wenger is about how the game has moved on since his appointment in September 1996 and the Frenchman, citing “the power of the agent”, refers to a change in attitude among young players at Premier League clubs. “I’ve fought all my life for footballers to make money but when you pay them before they produce it can kill the hunger. I’m scared we now have players under 17, under 18, who make £1m a year. When Ian Wright was earning that, he’d scored goals, he’d put his body on the line. Now, before they start, they are millionaires – a young player who has not even played.”
This, Wenger explains, is why it makes sense to pay extra attention to up-and-coming players in the Football League. Arsenal have signed Rob Holding, a 20-year-old defender from Bolton Wanderers, and it sounds as if this could become a pattern.
“What I think will happen is that you will have more and more players coming out of the lower leagues who have had to fight their way through,” Wenger says. “Compare that with a player who has been educated here, who has had Champions League for 17 years, who has not known anything else. It’s not a dream [for that player], it’s normal for him. But if you play for a team in the lower leagues and watch Real Madrid or Barcelona on Wednesday nights you think: ‘I’d love to play in games like that.’
“I’ve said to our scouts to do the lower leagues because the good players are there now. Don’t forget we have many foreign players in the Premier League, but good English players have to go down to develop.”
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