DAVID DEIN: Arsene Wenger’s skill at charades won me over – his intellect was clear at a dinner party and showed he could be Arsenal manager… seven years before we appointed him after an accidental meeting
- I was won over by Arsene Wenger’s skill and intellect during a game of charades
- From my first meeting with Wenger in 1989 I felt he would be Arsenal manager
- I saw qualities in Wenger that I had not previously seen in any British manager
It turned out to be a fateful day when I met Arsene at half-time during a north London derby at Highbury in 1989. It was a sliding-doors moment — the stars aligned.
Arsene was passing through London. He was manager of Monaco at the time and had been scouting a player and was on his way back to the Principality.
With a day to spend in transit, the only thing he wished to do was watch a football game. He got in touch with Glenn Hoddle’s agent, Dennis Roach, and asked if he could find him a ticket to a match in London.
I was won over by Arsene Wenger’s skill at charades – his intellect was clear
That ticket happened to be at Arsenal. There was a room next to the boardroom at Highbury called the cocktail lounge which hosted female guests (in those days women were not allowed in the boardroom) as well as any officials from other clubs, scouts or VIPs.
At half-time all guests watching from the directors’ box were invited to make their way either to the boardroom or the cocktail lounge for some refreshments. Arsene was a smoker. He was standing in the corner of the cocktail lounge wearing a beige trenchcoat and rimless glasses, looking tall and elegant. My wife Barbara and her friend Penny Grade, who was also a smoker, went over for a light.
This turned out to be perhaps the most serendipitous smoke he ever had. Barbara was impressed by this suave, continental man of football and sent a message to me in the boardroom; there was someone here she thought I would want to meet — the manager of Monaco. I made my way to the lounge to meet him. He didn’t look at all like a football manager. He didn’t speak like a football manager. He didn’t seem to think like a football manager. He was urbane and interesting.
I had a feeling from my first meeting with Wenger that he would become Arsenal manager
I hijacked him. I asked him how long he was in town for and he said: ‘Tonight.’ Had he plans? He didn’t. Would he like to join us that evening, as we were going to dinner at a friend’s house and he was welcome. The answer was about to change all of our lives: ‘Sure.’ Barbara offered Arsene a lift back. She had a small car at the time and stuffed him into the back seat with his long legs folded up to his chest. They proceeded to head back to Totteridge. He had no idea that it was nowhere near the centre of town, where he was staying!
We went to eat at the home of our friends, Alan and Louise Whitehead, in Elstree. Alan was the drummer in the pop group Marmalade. Louise was an actress and very effervescent.
After a lovely dinner, Alan and Louise, being natural entertainers, suggested a game of charades. When Arsene joined in, it just underlined what an interesting guy he was. At a spontaneous evening with people he had never met, not speaking his mother tongue, playing an unfamiliar party game, he demonstrated the combination of intellect and personality necessary to take part in miming the titles of books and films. Within a few minutes he was acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Arsene for Arsenal. It flashed into my head like a premonition. I am not spiritual but it did feel like destiny. An accidental meeting, an instant impression.
I had a feeling there and then that one day he would be our manager. First impressions mean a lot to me and on that first day there was chemistry. It is a similar feeling to that of a relationship in which, from the first date, you can sense something there, an instant bond. There is an old saying — you only get one chance to make a good first impression. The moment I met Arsene he did exactly that.
Over the years Arsene and I kept in touch. The more I got to know him, it was more apparent he was a cut above the average than I have seen in a football manager.
I saw qualities in Arsene that I had not previously seen in any British manager
Quite apart from his intelligence and his command of languages — English isn’t even his second language — is his demeanour. His global knowledge of the game was striking. In those days, when information on foreign players in overseas leagues tended to come through notes or from a VHS video, recommendations coming in via a phone call or a fax message, he built up an encyclopaedic knowledge in his memory bank. He didn’t need others to tell him about a footballer because he generally already knew and he had this knack of assessing qualities very quickly.
I saw qualities in Arsene that I had not seen in any British manager. I felt certain he would bring elements to the job and the club that could be transformative. He wasn’t your average ex-player — he had been to university and had a degree in economics, which gave him an appreciation of the business side of football, and he had studied medicine, so he had an understanding of the physiology of a human being in the case of injuries. He was worldly and interesting.
By the time we realised that Bruce Rioch wasn’t working out, Arsene was under contract and on the other side of the world. I decided to bat for him and called Glenn Hoddle to get the players’ view and asked his opinion. His words to me were simple: ‘Just take him.’
Adapted from Calling the Shots: How to Win in Football and Life by David Dein, to be published by Constable on September 15 at £22. © David Dein 2022. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 24/09/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937
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