Raaid Casoojee describes how a seemingly insignificant act by UCL students fuelled one of English football’s greatest legacies.
With the departure from Arsenal of Arsène Wenger last May, arguably the greatest manager in the history of English football, Arsenal’s new manager, Unai Emery, has huge shoes to fill. What, unlike his predecessor, he does not have to worry about are sub-par facilities shared with university students. With the new Premier League season underway, and Arsenal players returning to their training grounds at London Colney, they can enjoy a 143-acre complex replete with the latest in fitness technology from hydrotherapy pools and gymnasiums to individual rooms for all members of staff and ten pitches designed for many different types of use. That Arsenal players can enjoy these facilities is down to the persistence and oversight of Arsène Wenger.
When Arsène Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996, newspapers across the country were plastered with the headline, “Arsène Who?”, as a reflection of how little-known the Frenchman was and how very big Arsenal Football Club had always been. When, upon his arrival, Wenger looked to organise an extra training session with his new players as he settled into his new role, he was unceremoniously told by students from University College London that he had to give way to their schedules instead of his. Arsenal, one of the most successful clubs in the English game, did not have their own training ground and resided in Shenley Sports grounds at the mercy of those with whom they had a groundshare agreement: University College London’s Students’ Union. For Wenger, such an arrangement was unbecoming of Arsenal Football Club and he took it upon himself to get Arsenal a sophisticated new training ground.
His 22 year tenure could have been cut short, as Wenger himself noted in an interview reported by the Independent in 1997, as he would have resigned in the event of Arsenal not investing in a new training ground. Thankfully, the Arsenal board acquiesced and rubberstamped the development of a £10 million state-of-the-art facility directly next door to where they had been training for many years previously. With the sale of the Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid in 1999 helping finance the move, arguably the most significant part of the Wenger Revolution had been made complete.
Players, like the long-serving Arsenal captain Tony Adams, spoke of how he altered diets and fitness regimens to prolong Arsenal players’ careers and eventually produce some of the greatest teams English football has ever seen. Such a revolution would have never taken place had Arsène Wenger not had his wish for a new training ground granted. He would have never felt the need to revolutionise Arsenal in such dramatic fashion on the training pitch had some University College London students, when asked, not responded with “Arsène Who?”