The hall was filled to the loft, and all eyes were fixed on the man seated below the chandelier, at the antique rosewood table. As guest of honor for the evening, he knew he’d be called upon to make a speech. But the true import of his achievement had hit him only now. Surrounded by his peers, and the big name stars of the sport, and the glitterati, he had just heard his name being called out as the greatest manager of the past decade.
“Ladies & Gentlemen, Arsene Wenger!” the emcee bellowed into the microphone again. The audience dissolved into raptures, and the reluctant Frenchman finally reacted. Players broke into song and even his most hardened critics gave him a standing ovation. Wenger rose from his seat, calmly and in as measured a manner he could muster. It wasn’t enough, as the Frenchman visibly trembled and fought hard to hold back the tears. This was no ordinary award ceremony; this was a coronation. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics had hailed Wenger, the architect of Wengerball, as the greatest football manager of the past decade.
As a hush descended on the crowd, Wenger found himself at the lectern staring straight at the crowd. He’d been so caught up in the moment he couldn’t even recall walking up to the stage. For someone who’d never been short of words, Wenger suddenly felt the pressure get to him. For the first time in a decade, he was being called upon to speak sense. To make matters worse, he’d have to do it in English.
“How quickly things change. Last night I was planting potatoes in the Emirates’ stadium, just so that I’d have something to lift at the end of the season”, Wenger joked. The audience burst into peals of laughter, except for Cesc Fabregas who muttered under his breath and immediately began texting Pep Guardiola. Emboldened by the general response, and making a mental note to make Cesc pay for his insolence, Wenger continued in his professorial style. “I wasn’t sure what style to adopt today in my acceptance speech. I was tempted to stoop to the level of my detractors and trash all of them, but then my better senses prevailed.” Big Sam rolled his eyes and pursed his lips.
Wenger continued in the same vein “No man has been more savagely crucified in recent times than I have”. Most in the audience nodded their agreement though Wenger thought he heard Big Sam exclaim “For Pete’s sake!”. Wenger’s thought processes kicked into overdrive immediately – he wondered who this Pete chap was, and guessed gleefully that it might be some young player in the Blackburn academy, ripe for the taking.
“There are those among you who have called me names, and yet are seated here today only because I decided against filing for defamation.” Jose Mourinho turned around and looked accusingly at everyone but himself.
“Someone here called me a voyeur, after I merely extended my wisdom to his club as well. To be accused of peeping into other people’s bedrooms was certainly the low point of my career. If I ever invaded some couple’s privacy, it was only to force them to sign their future kid over to Arsenal. In my haste, I may have occasionally planted the Arsenal flag on their marital beds and left a ‘Wenger was here’ note – but that was only to beat Barcelona in the race to sign the kid”. The audience nodded in agreement and Mourinho, realizing he was outnumbered, stood up, declared victory and left the room. Guardiola waved at his departing Madrid counterpart, but Mourinho mistook it for a taunt about the 5-0 thrashing his team had received at the hands of FC Barcelona. He returned Pep’s five-fingered wave, with a one-fingered salute of his own.
“This is not only a triumph for me, but a vindication of my reliance on youth alone”, Wenger continued despite catching William Gallas’ look of surprise. “I catch them young, because it is only at a young age that you can truly build men of character and instill integrity in them”. At this point, Thierry Henry whirled around in his seat and grinned at the fuming Irish media contingent. Wenger, drawing on his years of experience at ignoring things that do not fit his world-view of Arsenal being victims, calmly turned his head the other way in response to the ensuing fracas.
“But most importantly, I accept this award for the quiet dignity I brought to the profession. People are fed up with having to see managers jump up and down at the dugout. They want dignity, finesse and class” Wenger insisted as he glared at Harry Redknapp. Harry squirmed in his seat as he recalled his ‘nutter‘ comment against Wenger. His discomfort was cut short, as medics rushed into the room to stretcher out Thierry Henry who’d been hit in the head by a projectile aimed at him by the Irish. A dented Red Bull can was found at the scene of the crime.
No stranger to controversy, Wenger didn’t let the scene ruffle him and went on “This award takes into account something much more than mere silverware and trophies. It takes into account, your service to the game. Which is why, my fiscal prudence may have doomed the club from ever winning big, but it lets my board of directors sleep well at night. Because at the end of the day, I make them a profit”. As Roman Abramovich sat up and took notice and looked like he was having an epiphany, Carlo Ancelotti gulped at this latest threat to his job.
As Wenger prepared to end his speech, he suddenly saw the red light at the lectern come on, signaling his time was up. The microphone had gone off as well, and Wenger could only stare on in horror as the time-keeper Howard Webb quietly insisted his time was up. The audience, oblivious to this fact, waited earnestly for Wenger to continue. In his desperation to avoid a public embarrassment, Arsene turned to the one man who had the power to control time. It was a man that Arsene had tried to avoid bringing up in his speech, but a man who had nevertheless mastered the art of stretching time to his liking. Wenger turned and looked at Sir Alex Ferguson, with a pleading look in his eyes. The Scotsman’s face betrayed no sign of emotion, as he pondered his next move for a little while, and then nodded at Webb.
The time-keeper got to work at once, and the red light turned off. The microphones came alive once again, much to Wenger’s delight. He gestured his thanks to Fergie, who pretended like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Wenger delivered his closing statements including an acknowledgment of how success meant a lot to him, coming as he did from France – the only nation that lost all its wars in the 20th Century. Wenger then stood back to acknowledge the resounding applause directed at him. He stretched his arms wide open and acknowledged the acclamation, before lifting up his trophy and pointing at the Arsenal squad dressed in dapper suits. Some of the young stars in the Gunners squad cried as they’d never expected to come near silverware in their careers. It was a visibly poignant moment, and even Guardiola’s act of lighting a matchstick near the smoke detectors to set off the sprinklers didn’t ruin it.
As the cheers got louder Wenger couldn’t help but notice the faintest sound of a whistle blowing in the background. Not that it mattered, after all, this was his moment and he was going to cherish it, no matter what.
Back in the real world, the final whistle had just been blown and lowly Ipswich were celebrating their 1-0 triumph over Arsenal. True to his nickname, Wenger just stood there by the sidelines unmoved, as the rest of the Arsenal bench dissolved into moans and protests. The TV commentators pointed out that, despite this latest setback, Wenger had once again maintained the dignity of his sport, by taking the result in his stride despite his obvious shock. They wondered, however, what the Frenchman was really thinking about. They decided he was probably rethinking his strategy.
But they really couldn’t know for sure.