(Reuters) - When Arsenal appointed Arsene Wenger as their manager in 1996 there were no shortage of sceptics, wondering what exactly in the Frenchman’s past made him suitable for such a prestigious role.
His playing career was barely noticed and as a manager it had been eight years since he had won his only French league title with Monaco. He had spent the previous 18 months coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan’s J League, far from the centre of football power.
The Arsenal squad Wenger inherited had been assembled by George Graham, a charismatic and tough Scotsman who made the quietly spoken and studious new arrival appear an incongruous figure.
“At first, I thought, what does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?” former captain Tony Adams, whose career enjoyed an Indian summer under Wenger, recalled.
But the Arsenal players and fans did not have to wait long to feel the Frenchman’s impact.
Even before he officially took over, he was shaping the revolution he was to lead, instructing vice-chairman David Dein, who was the key figure behind bringing Wenger to the club, to buy French midfielders Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.
Wenger then set about altering the culture of a team that was among the most traditionally English, changing diets, training methods and playing style.
Arsenal had won two league titles under Graham with a highly-effective formula for England’s top flight at the time. They boasted a superb, almost militarily-drilled, back four, combative hard-working midfielders, pace on the wings and target men up top.
Wenger wanted to see something different and, encouraged by Dein, understood that there was plenty that English football could learn from France, who two years later would become world champions.
Yet Wenger was smart enough to realise that he had inherited the best defence in the league and there was little point in discarding it.
Fullbacks Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn and central defenders Adams and Steve Bould provided the necessary foundation for a side which boasted the brilliant Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp and the goal-hungry Ian Wright.
Vieira was a revelation, powering from box-to-box in midfield, and the introduction of French forward Nicolas Anelka and Dutch winger Marc Overmars helped the Gunners win the 1998 Premier League and FA Cup double — their first since 1971.
Brilliant as they were, Arsenal did not have it all their own way as Manchester United rose to the challenge winning three consecutive titles from 1999, with Wenger’s side second on each occasion.
The competition fuelled an intense rivalry between Wenger and United boss Alex Ferguson.
“If we shared one characteristic, it was an absolute hatred of losing,” Ferguson said of Wenger in his autobiography.
Perhaps Wenger’s most inspired signing came in 1999 when he bought Thierry Henry, a known talent who had been struggling as a winger in Serie A with Juventus.
Wenger turned Henry into a striker and was rewarded handsomely as the Frenchman went on to become the club’s record scorer with 228 goals in all competitions, 32 in 2001-02 as Arsenal claimed a second double.
Another FA Cup triumph followed a year later, but it is the 2003-04 campaign that will go down as Wenger’s finest hour as his ‘Invincibles’ captured the league title without losing a game.
That was, however, to be his last Premier League title. With the club having to operate on a tighter budget to finance their move to the Emirates Stadium, Wenger struggled to compete with big-spending Chelsea and Ferguson’s United.
Surprisingly for a manager who was able to fuse continental style with British energy and aggression, Wenger never managed to win a European trophy.
The closest he came to success was the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris, when keeper Jens Lehmann was sent off in the 18th minute.
Arsenal grabbed the lead through Sol Campbell in the first half and were 14 minutes away from an amazing 10-man triumph that would have been the crowning moment of Wenger’s career.
Two late Barca goals, however, sank their hopes.
The Frenchman increasingly put his faith in young players, but they were never able to match the brilliance of Henry and Bergkamp, and his foreign signings were not of their previous vintage.
Over the years Wenger remained a respected figure in English football, but was often mocked for his ‘I did not see that’ responses to disputed decisions that helped his team and his habit of constantly crediting wins to “mental strength”.
The latter years of the Wenger reign were largely frustrating for Arsenal fans, with consistent top-four finishes and a series of FA Cup wins (seven in his career) providing little compensation for their failure to challenge for the title.
Wenger appeared stubborn, bristling at criticism, too often blaming referees and seemingly incapable of understanding the supporters’ desire for something more than a solid balance sheet and European qualification.
Some began to call for his removal, even some of his most loyal former players such as Wright, while others felt he had earned the chance to go out on his own terms.
In the end, that is exactly what he did and no matter how disappointing the finale, the exhilarating football of his early years will long be remembered.
Additional reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis