Pete Sixsmith offers a sincere if qualified and somewhat whimsical joyeux anniversaire to Arsène Wenger – to whom Monsieur Salut does warm, much more wholeheartedly – without forgetting that another, younger manager recently celebrated his own birthday …
Happy Birthday Sam and Arsène.
As Wear-Tyne derby fever grows all over the known world – there are reports of red and white bunting in Alma Ata, window displays in Valparaiso and striped Cossack hats in Murmansk – it is time to wish a happy birthday to two men who like each other as much as Ted Heath liked Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin likes Elton John.
Our own Sam Allardyce crested 61 on Monday and, although a mere whippersnapper compared to this scribe and Monsieur Salut, is edging closer to that lucrative bus pass. I am sure he already has his Senior Rail Card and is taking advantage of the very good deals on Northern Rail (£13 return, Sunderland to Whitehaven) and on Grand Central’s runs to London so he can pop in and see the West Ham fans who adored him so much during his stint in the pornographers’ den.
No doubt he got lots of presents from his family and friends but the greatest one of all would be a win over Our Friends from the North on Sunday. What a way that would be to cement your relationship with the Sunderland fans.
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Meanwhile in North London, that mythical place of hipster beards, craft beer and £64 seats at football matches, his great nemesis Arsène Wenger also celebrates a birthday. He’s older than Sam (and me, but not M Salut), reaching an age that is the price of a ticket for a home game with Bayern Munich + 2 (that’s 66 for those who stared out of the window in Mr Cawthorne’s maths class for five years).
He looks well for a man of his age. Lean, fit and intellectually sharp, he is a great advert for life in the second half of the 20th Century. When you look at a previous generation of managers, they seemed ancient at 50, after a life raddled by brown ale, Woodbines and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. I can’t imagine Genial Joe Mercer or Stan Cullis eating anything other than good old English stodge any more than I can imagine Arsène tucking into a steak pie or toad in the hole.
He has a hinterland which his predecessors did not have. He collects paintings whereas Billy Wright may well have collected cigarette cards and George Graham collected small brown envelopes. He likes classical music; Terry Neill always struck me an Irish showband type of bloke and he has a cosmopolitan view of the world and the way that it works, which is hardly something you could accuse George Swindin of.
He is the most successful manager currently operating in the Premier League, having won three league titles and six FA Cups, although there have been no titles for 11 years, something which Arsenal fans find difficult to stomach. Try not having won one for 78 is what I say (add another nine on to that for Newcastle).
He has brought some fine players into English football – Vieira, Sanchez, Henry and van Persie among others – and has also signed some fine British talent in Walcott, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain. He won the respect of hard bitten pros like Tony Adams and Steve Bould, fell out with Alex Ferguson and was described by the greatest manager in the history of the world (aka Brian Clough) as “a top, top manager”, an observation with which it is impossible to disagree with.
So why is it that I can never quite warm to him? Is it because he clearly looks down that Gallic nose at clubs like us and Bolton and West Ham who have to run to stand still in the Premier League? Is it his rather condescending attitude to the North of England where this inveterate metropolitan man always seems to feel uncomfortable, which is somewhat surprising for someone who was born amid the slag heaps of Alsace?
Or is it envy, emanating from the fact that he has kept Arsenal in the Champions League and at the forefront of English football since he arrived, while we have scuffled around the bottom of the league and have been relegated three times during his tenure at Highbury/Ashburton Grove?
I have had my rants about him in the past. When things go wrong for him, he always reminds me of the words Phil Cool used to describe that well known racist and supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph, as “looking like a man who has put his finger through the toilet paper” and he can speak in the same belittling way that the recently deceased art critic and friend of master spy Sir Anthony Blunt, Brain Sewell almost had a patent on. He can be patronising and pompous – a trait shared by many who see themselves as teachers.
But I do wish him a happy birthday. His contribution to English football cannot be overlooked. He pioneered good diets, introduced psychometric testing and thinks carefully before he splashes money around. Like all managers, he has made mistakes – Arshavin anyone – but nobody quite in the Danny Graham/Liam Bridcutt category.
How long he has to go as Arsenal manager is anyone’s guess. He has his critics among the Arsenal support but I would have loved to have had him take on the Sunderland project in 1996. We would have had our ups and downs but we would never have had to put up with the likes of Flo, Prica and Altidore on his watch.
Happy birthday Arsène.