In the inner corridors at the end of a game in the 90s Wenger chanced upon Brian Clough. He still remembers how striking it was to meet someone who cast such a potent spell of success and charisma over the management game.
Part of the charm for Wenger was that he grew up in an era where learning the finer details about the methods and philosophies of others in football was more difficult. “From when I was a young boy I looked at the big managers who were successful. Today all information is available. At the time you had to look,” he says. “I spent time you would not believe to see how managers work – to travel in my car at night and watch training in the morning, come back home again. It’s different now.
“You go on the internet and you have every exercise of every single club. At the time you had to fight for your information. Today you have too much information. But at the time it was a rarity to see, for me, Brian Clough was like a guy on another planet.”
Clough retired three years before Wenger moved to England so their meeting happened when the Forest icon was in his dotage. “He was already fatigued and he was lean, very lean. You could see he was not at full power any more. But of course I had huge respect and greeted him,” recalls Wenger. “He’s a special person in English football. It is beyond his achievement, it’s his personality that has left a huge print in the history of the game, so he will be remembered as one of the greatest ever in English football and I find that fantastic.
“But as well it raises other questions. Because it shows how football has changed. Can Nottingham Forest win the European Cup today? Could Aston Villa? That has gone. All the best players in the world are grouped in a small number of clubs. This kind of achievement today would not be possible any more.
“Success has become much more predictable today than it was during that period. It was only two foreign players, you had income shared equally because there was no television money and only the gates made the difference. When you played away you shared the gates so it was much more even on the chances to be successful and that’s why at that time the quality of these managers had more influence than it does today. Their work really made the difference.”
Wenger is looking forward to a return to the City Ground on Sunday, even though he will not be on the touchline having been handed a three-match ban on Friday for abusing Mike Dean. He will take a rotated Cup team but with the level of rotation defined by his respect for the third round of the FA Cup. Last season at Preston North End Arsenal had a scare and Wenger still remembers a close call at Port Vale in his first full season, a tie that needed a replay, extra time and penalties to secure progress. “Of course I remember Port Vale,” he exclaims. “It was a long time ago but a good discovery about England and the FA Cup.”
With that feeling for history and tradition in mind, despite the busy schedule Wenger remains adamant FA Cup replays should remain in the calendar. “Overall if you gave me the choice of whether to go out or to replay I’d still want to replay,” he says. “Many people want to cut it. I am not in favour of that. Maybe it helped us sometimes to win the trophy.”
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