Today’s FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Chelsea shares a billing with the whole of the season: can “yesterday’s manager” beat out his younger rival? And that, what with the amount of money that’s in the top part of the game these days, is felt to be symptomatic of where things are going.
Each Christmas, I write a short story for friends and family. Christmas 2006 saw the turn of “A Football Carol,” in which Wenger’s small-hours vigil in front of multiple flatscreens in his vast underground Totteridge bunker is interrupted by the arrival of Marley’s ghost, whom Wenger does not recognise. Marley warns Wenger of further visits – from the Ghosts of Football Past, Football Present and Football Future. Wenger listens only long enough to ask Marley not to stand in the way of the television, but, as predicted, the following night, the Ghost of Football Past, in the form of Herbert Chapman, duly arrives, and scoops up Wenger to take him on a voyage through time.
First call is Highbury, which the two men sweep through in contrasting moods, one resentful, the other stubborn. Then Chapman takes Wenger to the old Wembley, on the way there lecturing the Frenchman on the virtues of street football and the effect of its loss on the English game. Unfortunately for Chapman, and to Wenger’s ill-suppressed satisfaction, they arrive at the Twin Towers just in time to witness the Magical Magyars’ destruction of England’s old-style street-football trained eleven roaring lions.
Chapman hadn’t meant to turn up at Wembley as late as 1953, so back through time they press, aiming for Arsenal’s pre-War glory years. Sadly for Chapman, to get there entails going back through the War itself, and Herbert is shot down by German fighters over Kent in 1941. We leave this episode with Wenger falling parachute-less towards the Garden of England from 20,000 feet.
The next evening, Wenger, back from 1941, is interrupted in his subterranean HQ by the Ghost of Football Present, Jose Mourinho. Wenger isn’t pleased to see him, and hopes Mourinho will make a better job of it than his predecessor from the previous night. Mourinho comments that being shot down by Germans in 1941 is actually pretty good going for a man who died in 1934, and that one could well believe he’d won 3 consecutive championships with two different clubs.
Mourinho begins by taking Wenger to the new Emirates stadium, but “accidentally” flies too low overhead and Wenger barks his shins painfully on the roof. They accelerate away, Mourinho apologising in satirical tone, and as they do, he hails Brian Clough, who is flying past in the opposite direction, dragging a miserable-looking Bobby Robson behind him.
They fly on awhile without arriving anywhere. Wenger becomes concerned, and notices that Mourinho too has lost his initial cocky satisfaction at having his rival in tow. Eventually, Mourinho admits to being lost, and the two men come in to land. The street they come down in is smoky, cobbled, crowded and dark. A newspaper blows past and Wenger seizes it: if it is correct, they have landed in London in the autumn of 1888.
Some streets away, the artist Walter Sickert is just cutting into his latest victim when he is disturbed by Constable Wooding (my ancestor, btw, who was with the Met in Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper murders). Sickert cleans his knives, and hands them to Wooding, commenting that in his opinion two kills were quite sufficient to earn double-O status and that five was quite unnecessary. Wooding shows no interest in corpse or knives, but is eager to win Sickert’s attention to what appears to be a kidnapping case, Sickert’s amateur detective skills having been so useful to the force in the past.
Sickert argues that he is busy, but that he knows two men who would be able to assist in the case. Wooding is to go to a certain pub, where he’ll find the two sitting close to a window.
By this stage, Wenger and Mourinho have found their way into a nearby tavern and ordered a couple of pints for which they have no means of paying, and are sitting staring at a curtained window in silence.
Mourinho breaks the silence, asking Wenger how he’d made it back from 1941. Wenger tells him. Mourinho laughs quietly into his beer, admiring Wenger’s dealing with the unusual situation. Wenger tells Mourinho that, actually, he admires the way he’d galvanised Ranieri’s team to such a spectacular degree in his first season. Mourinho apologises to Wenger for stranding them both in Victorian London: the atmosphere between the two men begins to warm.
Corporal Wooding bursts in, and beelines for the two top continental managers from the distant future. The captain of Dial Square has been kidnapped! he declares; the police are stumped. Can you help?
Wenger does the maths: if the captain isn’t found, it’ll be the end of Dial Square as a club, and so of Arsenal one day. Wenger will have to spend the rest of his professional life in Japan. For a moment, this seems no bad idea. But only for a moment. Wenger and Mourinho leap into action.
(Insert much racing about in hansom cabs, sending of telegrams, hiding out in opium dens disguised as Chinese, placing of ads in evening newspapers, recruitment of street urchins, vigils on West Country moorland etc).
The final shoot-out, at the Woolwich Arsenal, between Wenger, Mourinho and the Captain of Dial Square on one side, and a team of disappointingly unidentified desperadoes on the other, is violent and merciless. The Colonel is dead, and the sawdust floor red with the blood of the square that broke. Our men are pinned down, with nothing to do but wait for death, knowing that no one is aware of their presence or their plight.
At this crucial juncture, Iain Dowie wanders into view in the background, mobile phone clutched to his ear. Wenger comments that it’s remarkable who you run into sometimes; Mourinho just says he’s glad someone can get reception out here. They hail him, and Dowie calls for reinforcements. The day is saved, and so are Dial Square. Wenger and Mourinho return to the 21st Century. Dowie, who has fallen in love with the sister of the Captain of Dial Square, remains behind.
By the time they tumble, laughing, back into Wenger’s underground bunker, both men have quite forgotten the issue of the Ghost of Football Future. But the Ghost of Football Future hasn’t forgotten, and he’s here on cue: he’s in Wenger’s own reclining armchair, and turns to meet them now, the familiar red Scottish face smiling at Mourinho and declaring that he’ll say this for Arsene Wenger, he keeps a sensational cellar…
Digression. Anyway, ten years ago, in season 1997-8, three of the top four clubs had non-English managers. There were 13 English managers who worked for some time over that period all told, although only for 11 clubs, taking sackings into account. There were four Scots. This year, there were four foreign managers altogether (in 97-98, there were also four, five if you count Brolin at Crystal Palace alongside Lombardo) and eleven Englishmen (2 Scots, 2 Welshmen and one Irishman).
Here are the full lists:
MUFC Ferguson Scottish
Chelsea Mourinho Portuguese
Liverpool Benitez Spanish
Arsenal Wenger French
Spurs Jol Dutch
Everton Moyes Scottish
Bolton Allardyce English
Reading Coppell English
Portsmouth Redknapp English
Blackburn Hughes Welsh
Villa O’Neill Irish
Boro Southgate English
Newcastle Roeder English
Man City Pearce English
West Ham Curbishley English
Fulham Coleman Welsh
Wigan Jewell English
Sheff Utd Warnock English
Charlton Pardew English
Watford Boothroyd English
Arsenal Wenger French
MUFC Ferguson Scottish
Liverpool Roy Evans English
Chelsea Gullit Dutch
Leeds George Graham Scottish
Blackburn Rovers Hodgson English
Villa Little/Gregory English
West Ham Redknapp English
Derby Smith English
Leicester O’Neill Irish
Coventry Strachan Scottish
Southampton Jones English
Newcastle Dalglish Scottish
Spurs Francis/English, Gross/Swiss
Wimbledon Kinnear Irish
Wednesday Pleat/Atkinson English
Everton Kendall English
Bolton Todd English
Barnsley Wilson English
Palace Coppell/English Lombardo/Italian
There’s something of a generational change there visible amongst the English managers, but otherwise, what else about Premiership life has remained so stable as the proportionate nationality of managers? Enjoy the Final. Like Norm, I get to miss it because of work commitments.