It is former Vice Chairman David Dein who actually recalls the first moment of the Arsenal love affair. Arsène Wenger visited Highbury New Year’s Day in 1990 to watch Arsenal against Crystal Palace the scene in which they first met.
“He was a very thin guy, wearing a raincoat. His English wasn’t that good then, but I spoke French adequately well. We chatted and I told him we were going to the house of some showbusiness friends of ours, and he was welcome to come. Amazingly, he said yes.
“Someone decided we should play charades. Arsène had something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He said, ‘I’ll try’. He did brilliantly. The more time I spent with him, the more I became impressed. And anyway, with a name like Arsène for Arsenal, it was written in the stars.”
They kept in touch, Dein becoming all the more impressed with Wenger’s progress at Monaco.
“I thought, ‘This man’s a class act’,” said Dein. “Every time we were in the South of France, we’d socialise. Then in 1995, when George Graham had his little mishap [he was banned for a year for taking illegal payments], I said to the board we should seriously consider Arsène. By coincidence he was staying at my house when the George story broke.I said to him, ‘Do you want me to promote you, because, with all due respect, you are an unknown quantity in this coun-try?’ In the end we concluded it was too much of a gamble. We thought Bruce Rioch would be a safe pair of hands. He was the sergeant- major type, straight as a die, but it was the wrong decision.
“In the meantime, Arsène had gone to Japan. I used to send him all our videos, and, being the man he is, he actually watched them. After a year, we reconsidered the Rioch appointment. We asked ourselves, ‘Is this really the man to take us to the heights?’ George Graham had given us a taste of success and we wanted it to continue. I was much more pushy the next time on Arsène’s behalf. The board, to their credit, said, ‘Okay, fine, let’s go for it’.”
First Arsenal had to negotiate Wenger out of his contract with Grampus Eight. When he arrived they were in 12th place out of 12 in the J-League. By the end of the season, they were second and won the Emperor’s Cup. Dein went to Japan with club chairman Peter Hill-Wood and director Danny Fiszman.
“It had to be an undercover mission,” said Dein. “The press was speculating, rumours were abounding. Arsène said the earliest he could leave was October, after the start of the English season [in fact he started at Arsenal in September]. We said, ‘We’ll wait’, and came to an agreement.
“Now we’re heading back to the airport in Tokyo and we bump into three British air stewardesses. We were on a secret mission and were going to get busted by the aircraft staff from home. Luckily, they didn’t recognise us. We were paranoid our cover would be broken.”
You can read this interview and more by buying the Arsenal Opus at £3,000 (only 1,500 copies produced signed by Arsene Wenger) or read the extract from Times Online.