By Tony Attwood
Perhaps the defining moment of Mr Wenger’s reign at Arsenal came right at the start – a moment which by his actions he not only stopped the press publishing an appalling set of allegations against him, but also set for all time the anti-Wenger, anti-Arsenal agenda of the press.
Curiously it is something that the press and media have never since mentioned, but it was a moment which started on day one of the manager’s time at Arsenal and which revealed not only who the new man was, but also that he could outwit the media.
And the media never take to someone who can outsmart them. Which is why they have never written up in any detail what happened over this early part of Mr Wenger’s time with the club.
If you have ever done a media interview or if you have witnessed one, and then seen what happens thereafter, you will know what “spin” really means. Through asking key questions journalists attempt to catch out the interviewee. Get him/her to say enough and then one line selected from everything else which is said, will give the journalist all he/she needs to twist the entire interview.
All those headlines that we then see, emerge from questions, questions, questions, until one sentence uttered can be converted into a mind-boggling but utterly misleading headline.
Each case is of course slightly different. Soon after details of his appointment were made public, scurrilous rumours had started to circulate about Mr Wenger. The media were abuzz with them before he even stepped off the plane – rumours that said that there was a secret reason for him leaving Japan, where he previously worked, that had nothing to do with football and nothing to do with the offer of a job from Arsenal.
Rumours of behaviour of the most awful type with the most appalling crimes being committed.
Thus these rumours started to circulate among the journalists even before Mr Wenger officially took up his position (you will recall his appointment at Arsenal was known about from the moment he signed Vieira – while still in Japan). And it really began to boil up after he took up his post on 1 October 1966.
Sensing a story happening just a few miles from their offices, and having no worry about destroying the career of a man on the back of an outrageous rumour whose origin no one quite knew, journalists began to show an interest while letting encouraging others suggest there was something dark in Mr Wenger’s background.
Eventually being fully aware of what was being said and what was going on, Mr Wenger announced that he was going outside to confront a gaggle of journalists who had gathered at the steps of the main entrance to Highbury. Urgent pleas were made inside the ground to the effect that he should not do any such thing. Insiders report that phrases like “You don’t understand the English journalists; it is not the same as in other countries,” were made.
But Mr Wenger would have none of it and ignoring advice from inside the club, after days and weeks of this bubbling along, Mr Wenger walked out onto the steps of Highbury and looked down on the mob.
“What have you got to say about the rumours, Mr Wenger?” screamed members of the hoard.
Mr Wenger, although seething, smiled benignly and looked down. He opened his mouth to speak and 100 microphones were pointed at him.
“What rumours?” he asked.
“You know, the rumours,” screamed to mob.
“What rumours?” Mr Wenger asked again.
It carried on like this for a few moments, until Mr Wenger changed his approach.
“What do you know?” he said.
“You must have heard the rumours,” shouted the journos.
“‘If you print anything, I will attack,” said Mr Wenger (meaning, “I will sue”.)
And gradually the mob fell quiet. They had expected the man, just a couple of weeks into his post, to be ignorant of the ways of the English press, and be unable to outsmart them. After all they had been outsmarting footballers, club directors and staff at the club for years. But if any of them had printed a word about the nature of the rumours, they would be opening themselves to a libel case which they could never hope to win. What they needed was for Mr Wenger to mention the rumours himself, and then they were safe to print his “denial” complete with innuendo and “no smoke without fire” commentaries.
But with Mr Wenger not saying a word they were forced to return to their offices and face very angry editors who had seen a story slip away from them through the use of a very simple ploy.
The rumours were never published in the newspapers. Mr Wenger was free to get on with his job.
Of course it was not all over. From that point on, the order from editors to their hacks was, “Get Wenger” and they have been trying ever since. The fans of Manchester United, who quickly became the key rivals to the new Arsenal that Mr Wenger built, took up the cause on behalf of the journalists with awful, vile chants which then turned up on a CD of chants which was sold via Manchester United’s shop. It took that club no less than 14 years to print an article in the programme saying that they wanted those chants to stop.
And so, on 1 October 1996, on day one of his utter and complete re-development of Arsenal FC, the battle began. The first forays ran for over a month, peaked in early November, and ended with an apology from one of the news agencies at the heart of the story in mid-November, and throughout this time Mr Wenger showed who was boss and the journalists war against him was started. It is a battle that continued for years to come.
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