Inside the Q&A: Wenger To Fans – Be Postitive!

Arsène Wenger faced a group of about 75 Arsenal shareholders last night in a question & answer session moderated by former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson. This was the second such session, open only to Arsenal shareholders following the inaugural event at the end of last season.
Bob Wilson kicked off with a question of his own before throwing it open to the floor. He asked Wenger for his overall view on the season now coming to a close. Arsène said the start in the League had been difficult with five losses in the first fourteen games but then we’d managed to find some stability, going 21 games unbeaten. He also said we’d had a good season in the Champions League, although the semi-final against Manchester United had been a big disappointment. Overall the performance from such a young set of players was nothing of which to be ashamed.
He pointed out that Arsenal was one of only five clubs who had managed eleven consecutive seasons in the Champions League – us plus Manchester United, Real Madrid, PSV Eindhoven and Olympiakos.
He felt that the FA Cup semi-final loss to Chelsea had been a more even game than many people had said.
He said one of the things that struck him when he first came to Arsenal was the history and values of the club. He regretted the air of negativity in the media and amongst some supporters which had made it difficult to keep up the confidence of such a young team.
He also pointed out that Tomáš Rosický had missed the whole season and that there had been injuries at important times, mentioning William Gallas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fàbregas.
In response to a question about the lack of an obvious captain in the side in comparison to great Arsenal skippers of the past, Wenger said that the role of the captain was two-fold, to speak in public for the team and in the dressing room and on the pitch. He believed in shared leadership, not just one figurehead.
He was then asked about his comment on diving after the Chelsea game last Sunday. The shareholder asking the question said we too had divers in our ranks, mentioning specifically Emmanuel Adebayor and Emmanuel Eboué. Arsène effectively ducked this one,  preferring not to speak publicly in detrimental terms about his own players. “It’s not my job to single out players”, he said.
Then came the most fractious part of the meeting. A shareholder started his question by saying that Arsène should feel he was amongst friends but syncophancy wasn’t appropriate either. He then went in to a lengthy multi-part interrogation centred around the departures of Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto, the unavailibility through injury of Tomáš Rosický and Lassana Diarra being allowed to leave for Portsmouth in the January 2008 transfer window. He also questioned bringing in Mikaël Silvestre whilst permitting Philippe Senderos to leave for Milan on loan.
Wenger was visibly irritated at the premise of the question, saying “I cannot accept your comments.” He said Gilberto had only played 13 games the previous season, that the absence of Rosický for the entire season was not foreseeable and that it wasn’t fair to Senderos to keep him at his age when he needs to play. “You can kill a player like that” said the manager.
He was then asked why, whilst still at Highbury we attacked right from the start and tried to establish a lead early on. Why didn’t we do this at the Grove? Wenger responded by saying that the League table showed that Manchester United had scored 67 goals and we’d scored 64. Going forward we’d had a good season, the problem was we’d lost defensive “stability” at times.
He was then asked to name a couple of good decisions he’d made during the season and a couple of mistakes. He said he wasn’t arrogant enough to think he didn’t make mistakes. He made them all the time. The important thing was always to look forward and be positive however. The only point in looking backwards was to analyse mistakes.
He said he was proud of what had been achieved at the club. He invited shareholders to look at what had happened to the on-field performance of other clubs that had built new stadia. They had all fallen off. Arsenal had managed to stay competitive at a time when a lot of money was being spent on the new ground.
He was then asked about Andrey Arshavin not being selected for the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea as he would be ineligible to play against Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final. He said that was exactly the point. He knew the team would have to face United without him. He wanted to show them that they could be winners. He’d therefore selected Arshavin as a substitute in case he’d been needed. It hadn’t worked out.
A question then came about what’s more important, playing with a certain style or trophies? He responded by saying he felt a club should be about playing a certain way but that the point was to win.
Tim Payton, a board member of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, then asked a question about Wenger’s relationship with new chief executive officer Ivan Gazidis who had undertaken a similar question & answer session with AST members three evenings earlier. Bob Wilson pointed out that this was difficult for Wenger as Gazidis was present! Wenger, now more relaxed again, said that Gazidis would be a great help in achieving the club’s shared vision. “But if we fail, it will be his fault!” he joked. “We’re on the right track” he said, “we have to respect the financial balance. If we don’t get it right next season or after that, I will be responsible to you”.
He then made a plea for supporters to “be strong” and support the team. He referred to meeting an Arsenal supporter “in the loo” after the win at Stamford Bridge. The supporter had said, “We won’t win the League this season”. Wenger had responded by saying that “you’re not a supporter then.” He felt that supporters had a responsibility too.
Emma Shepherd, also a board member of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, then asked if the uncertainty over ownership and share trades had any effect on performance on the pitch. Wenger said, “no” to this. He also confirmed that the board, which had met that afternoon, had made money available to him for transfers and that he would definitely buy this summer. He said it was difficult to speak about exact sums as “you can pay double”.
The next question concerned the great defence that Wenger had inherited and why we no longer have that sort of defending. Would he be consider bringing in Tony Adams or Martin Keown to work on the defending? Wenger agreed that he had inherited a great back four and goalkeeper but that none of them had featured in The Invincibles.  “That was Lauren, Kolo, Campbell and Ashley Cole” he replied.
He also said that the standard had gone up in the League. “When we played Wigan Athletic, they had Zaki and Emile Heskey on the bench. At Newcastle United who fight not to go down you have Owen and Martins, often on the bench. Now all the clubs have international forwards. It wasn’t like that ten years ago.”
The same questioner asked about the defending for United’s goal at Old Trafford in the Champions League. Wenger said the players had lost concentration, not attempting to excuse the defending for that goal.
A shareholder then questioned why so many players were being played out of position, referring specifically to Abou Diaby, Andrey Arshavin, Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri. “Ask any ten players where they want to play and they’ll say in the middle”, he responded, “Robin van Persie plays on the wing for the Netherlands.”
Kevin Whitcher, editor of The Gooner, asked whether he’d be in favour of a rights issue to raise around £100 million for him to invest in players. “I don’t even know if that would be legal. You’d have to ask the chairman that question. I’m not involved with that” he said. He also said that he expected to have to work within a budget “If it’s £20 million or £100 million, I do what I can with what I have.”
He was then questioned about the players’ attitude to the fans by a shareholder who had been a regular away supporter for twenty years. Why do only a few come over the salute the fans, especially away in Europe? He responded by saying that often the players felt “ashamed” and “disappointed” if they’d lost. He agreed with the questioner however and  said he would do something about it.
He also gave plaudits to the away fans whilst implicitly criticising the home support at the Grove. As the hour drew to a close he emphasised how devastated the players had been by the United defeat. The players were so up for it, so were the supporters and in ten minutes it was all over, he said.
And so the hour drew to a close. Wenger moved on to another (unspecified) commitment. I’d love to think he dropped in at the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association/REDaction dinner to celebrate Anfield 1989, even if only for a quick round of grip and grin. This took place in an adjacent suite at the ground after the Q & A session.  I doubt it though. I’d love to be wrong on that. Arsène is famously not clubbable. He is said to loath these sorts of occasions, being a private man.
My overall impression is of a manager looking for tweaks and fine tuning of the current side and its tactics rather than a radical overhaul. He also has quite an old-fashioned attitude to fans. They should support the team, full stop, seems to be his view. Uncritical idolisation appears his vision of the role of supporters. I may be doing him a grave disservice but I don’t think so. His body language when listening t some of the questions seemed to indicate that he judged  them ill-considered and ill-informed. Some he seemed to regard as outright impertinent.
Personally, I find the rush to criticism of many supporters irritating too. Football is never so much fun as when a wall of sound cascades down the stands onto the field, urging the team on. With the prices we charge though, and the salaries the players receive, criticism is bound to come if players are perceived to not be giving their all. Honestly I wonder if many really do give a stuff, cocooned as they are in a world where they can satisfy their every material desire, sometimes to the point of outright gluttony. I’ve just had the price of my Gold membership renewal emailed to me. £2,091.18. Ouch! This of course includes four additional FA Cup and Champions League home games, and at least the prices have been frozen for next season. Nevertheless this represents around eight percent of my take-home pay.
The prices mean that many younger supporters simply can’t afford to go regularly. At 53 years old I sing a lot less than I did when I was a kid. I’d often lose my voice for several hours after a game in the 1970s and 1980s I’d sung and shouted so much. Like so many though I gave it my all, singing every song with gusto against United at home in the Champions League. The result was so disappointing to all of us. Recriminations were almost inevitable in the aftermath, especially after theChelsea fiasco that followed it and their elimination of us from the FA Cup too.
Although I’m not a happy bunny at the moment, Wenger has enough credit in the bank with me to back him for next season. I agree that we need to cast off the aura of negativity around the club. A word of warning though, with boardroom manoeuvrings seemingly all about personal enrichment and not bettering the club and the increasing tendency of clubs to treat supporters as “profit centres” and customers rather than fans – partners in a joint enterprise – Arsenal nor any other club can be surprised if fans start acting like customers.
Keep the faith!
Arsenal u akhbar!

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