I just did about three minutes of internet research, and it suggests that the longest-serving head coach or manager of any top-flight professional sports team in the entire world is Arsene Wenger of Arsenal Football Club in London; perhaps a more assiduous Googler can find that that isn’t quite true, but at the very least the nearly 21 years he has served is more than anyone in US pro sports, even Bill Belichick.
(Editor’s note: I mean, barely.)
For those who don’t know the Wenger/Arsenal story, here’s a quick rundown. He came out of basically nowhere and won the Premier League and FA Cup (a combination known as “The Double”) in his first full season in north London, finished a painful second to Manchester United the next three years in a row, then won another Double.
In 2004, Arsenal became the first top-flight English football club to go an entire league season undefeated since the late 19th century (sure, they had 12 draws, because soccer, but still), winning the league with a now-legendary team dubbed “The Invincibles.”
By then, Wenger had transformed Arsenal’s identity from that of a reasonably successful, defense-first gallery of lantern-jawed, iron-hoofed pub lads, to a highly technical, irresistibly attacking, occasionally breathtaking and regularly dominant cadre of footballing ninjas.
Since that 2004 league win though (and for various big-picture reasons with which you will not be burdened at this time), Arsenal hasn’t won the league once. This season, for the first time in 20 years, Arsenal isn’t even participating in the Champions League. The Islington natives grow increasingly restless.
Like most Arsenal supporters of the American Poser variety, I have never known Arsenal without Wenger at the helm, but it’s clearer every year that we will all get our chance before too long. Someday soon a reckoning may come, wherein I have to ask myself a potentially unpleasant question: am I a fan of Arsenal… or am I a fan of Wenger’s Arsenal?
No one ever chooses a team based on the personality of their coach, of course. I didn’t watch my first random Premiership match and just decide to support whichever opposing manager seemed more continentally urbane. The day I became an Arsenal fan I didn’t even know who Wenger was, and I certainly couldn’t countenance any notion that eighteen years later he would still be in my life (so to speak). Yet here we are.
Since that fateful afternoon when Kanu scored his hat-trick, incurably afflicting me with Arsenal pathogens, I have gone through four cars, six bicycles, seven serious romantic relationships, eight permanent addresses, and six grotesquely increasing inches of waistline; but only one Arsenal manager. No one else in my life has been a regular, weekly presence for 18 years running (the family situation is complicated over here); only this giant genius myopic Alsatian.
Someday soon he will be gone, perhaps at a time of his choosing; he will likely replaced by some younger continental with a predilection for attacking football, and we will be told that this will still philosophically be The Arsenal That Wenger Built. But I know it won’t be.
Will I still care? Or is this continuity part of what has kept me coming back? Supporting Arsenal has long been a double-edged sword.
One one hand, there is the sincere desire to see Wenger win the league again after all these years, and finally stick it to his increasingly vocal critics as our occasionally flagging belief in him is rewarded.
On the other, there is the Sisyphus-shaped elephant in the room, the certainty that there will be no happy ending; the boulder will keep rolling down the hill, and one of these days it will flatten the old master on its way down. Maybe, just maybe, it’s that specific and personal tension that keeps me coming back.
I do hope I still care when this new manager takes over, even though he may well be depressingly younger than I am. But if I’m being honest, I’m unlikely to care quite as much.
(Editor’s Note: I questioned the mixed metaphor involving Sisyphus and Elephants but then I started imagining a big fat elephant instead of the boulder and it made sense. Also I’m day medicating so it might just be me.)