When you go to an event entitled “An Evening with Arsène Wenger and David Dein” you have to anticipate a glorified Arsenal love-in. And that was what transpired on Monday evening. As a Palace fan I felt a little awkward, having the distinct impression that I was undertaking an operation behind enemy lines. So when the first person I spotted on arrival at The Palladium was none other than Bob ‘The Cat’ Bevan, the renowned after-dinner speaker resplendent in his red and blue club tie and camel coat, I felt a lot more at ease. Once we had exchanged pleasantries we moved straight on to the key person in our lives at this time, Patrick Vieira, who just happened to be a few yards away from us.
Vieira was there as one of a galaxy of former Arsenal players and one of many guests of honour. But as the undisputed leader of The Invincibles, the captain of the only club in Premier League to remain undefeated throughout the season the Frenchman was head and shoulders above his former teammates both literally and metaphorically. It was abundantly clear when he took his seat amongst the audience that his popularity had not waned one jot, indeed he attracted the lustiest rendition of any chant during the evening as his personal signature tune rolled around the auditorium, putting the tepid atmosphere at The Emirates somewhat to shame.
Taking my seat next to another non-Arsenal fan was fortuitous and by coincidence I had a connection with my neighbour and his son as we had played football together many moons ago. I recognised him immediately, which was no great feat as it was none other than Burnley’s highest profile fan Alastair Campbell. The three of us settled down in the non-Arsenal enclave for the next three hours of Goonerphilia (sic).
There was one more Palace connection to come. Accompanying Alex Scott as the glittering warm-up act for the main event was none other than Ian Wright and we were regaled with a compilation of some of his 128 Arsenal goals (although oddly none of the 90 he scored for his first professional club). Both Wright and Scott have been heavily involved with the Twinning Project, which was the beneficiary of the evening with all the money raised going to the charity. It is a cause that deserves recognition as its laudable aim is twinning every prison in England and Wales with a local professional football club to reduce the high rates of recidivism. Described as a partnership between Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and professional football clubs. For more information here’s my piece for The Guardian from 2019 – http://bit.ly/2wOV9Zr
The founder and chief protagonist of the Twinning Project was next up on stage, David Dein, former vice-chairman and one of the leading figures behind the creation of the Premier League. Alongside Dein was the man he brought to Highbury back in 1996 as one of the first foreign managers in English football and who transformed the fortunes of the North London club. There were a whole host of stories and lively anecdotes littered across the course of the evening, starting with the chance meeting between Dein’s wife and Wenger over a crafty fag in 1989 all the way through to the Frenchman’s reluctant departure from the club in 2018.
One of the most charming tales involved the 2001 signing of Sol Campbell, which was negotiated over a series of clandestine meetings in Dein’s garden in Totteridge with Wenger, Campbell and his agent Sky Andrew. These usually took place in the wee small hours to ensure no prying eyes would get wind of what could be described as a sensitive transfer from bitter rivals Tottenham. “My son Gavin got home from being at a nightclub at 2am,” Dein revealed. “When he bumped into us he simply asked ‘does anyone fancy breakfast?’” Dein was right to make it hush-hush as the Spurs fans did not take kindly to the first man to cross over to Highbury since Pat Jennings in 1976. “We set up a curtain at the press conference announcing his arrival and when he was unveiled, Daily Mail journalist and Spurs fan Martin Lipton gasped: “**** me, it’s Sol Campbell.” By chance Lipton was sitting in the same row as us, laughing heartily at that recollection.
Campbell made a huge difference to an ageing back line as Tony Adams and Martin Keown reached the end of their respective careers but when asked who was his favourite signing of the 450 transfers he oversaw. “That is very difficult but it would have to be Patrick Vieira as he was also my first signing (along with Remi Garde).” Dein chipped in: “When Patrick arrived from Milan he couldn’t speak any English so we organised the usual things: a car, accommodation etc. and also a language tutor. I speak French so I talked to him in the early days in his native tongue. After a couple of weeks I asked him ‘Qu’est ce que sais dire en anglais?’ He replied ‘Tottenham are shit’. Then I asked who taught him that he replied ‘Ray Parlour’.”
If Vieira was the catalyst for La Revolution, leading from the front, Wenger was the instigator. In all the myriad of stories about The Invincibles, the rivalry with Alex Ferguson, the tricky transition to the Emirates even the gentle ribbing about his problems with his coat what marked out Wenger as an exceptional manager were his values, his unswerving loyalty and total commitment to the cause. “I never renegotiated any of my contracts, not even by a penny,” Wenger said. Those values that he held so dear remained at the core of his outstanding career at the top of English football for over two decades.
Wenger’s loyalty is undisputed, his reign of 21 1/2 years is nearly nine years longer then George Allison, Arsenal’s next longest serving manager. Le Professeur pointed out that in addition to his long service in North London he remains Monaco’s longest serving manager.
The final words belong to Dermot O’Leary, who compered the event with aplomb, and as an Arsenal fan, his deep love and understanding of what being a supporter is all about, shone through, particularly in his castigation of the dreaded Super League plans. After Wenger’s comments about the importance of the values you generate and how far they are adopted by the players, coaches and everyone in the club O’Leary said: “Do not underestimate how much came from you.” Even a Palace fan has to acknowledge that.