“Why does Arsene Wenger get such a free pass?” asked petulant Arsenal fan Piers Morgan in April 2015, who had been ranting about the Arsenal boss for nearly 10 minutes on BT Sport’s Fletch & Sav.
Arsenal were playing Liverpool at home that day and BT Sport were in the television studios at the Emirates Stadium to cover the match. Alongside Morgan, was Arsenal legend Martin Keown.
“He’s created everything you see here and the stadium you sit in,” Keown replied as Morgan reminded everyone in the studio for the umpteenth that Wenger had won only one trophy in 10 years at that point.
As Arsene Wenger finally calls time on his 22 year career at Arsenal – apart from the huge levels of success he brought the club on the football pitch – the Emirates Stadium will perhaps the greatest physical legacy of his tenure.
Overseeing the transition from the iconic Highbury to Arsenal’s new home, Wenger insured that Arsenal stayed afloat competitively by keeping the club in the Champions League on a shoestring budget. By doing so, he helped insure that the club could afford the costs of their £500m stadium.
There would be a no more fitting way to thank Arsene Wenger for all of his dedication to Arsenal Football Club by renaming the stadium after him. After all, it would not have been possible without him.
Former Gunner Paul Merson was the first big name to publicly call for the dedication. “They should drop the Emirates bit – they don’t need the money – and name it the Arsene Wenger Stadium,” Merson told Sky Sports News.
“That’s his stadium. He built that. He made that stadium. Even if they called it the Emirates Arsene Wenger Stadium. He deserves to be on that.”
Alan Smith, another former Arsenal man, echoed the sentiment of Merson. “I go along with what Merse said. I think it’s a great shout – to name the stadium after him would be a fitting tribute. Obviously clubs these days are unwilling to forego all of the millions that come with naming rights, but I think that would be fantastic.”
In an attempt to bridge the wealth gap between them and Europe’s biggest clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal began financing their new stadium in 2004 which would see their Highbury attendance of 38,000 increase to 60,000 with this new build.
Arsenal had to do this without any state funding or the backing of a wealthy owner. Stan Kroenke, the current owner of Arsenal, follows the philosophy of self-financing and has never put his own money into the club.
The cost of the Emirates was forecast at £390m, but extra expenses saw this rise to around £500m. It would be financed through bank loans, long term bonds, and the naming rights and sponsorship deals with Emirates airlines.
In 2016, Arsene Wenger revealed that his commitment to the club ensured that Arsenal got some of these bank loans. Keen to ensure that Arsenal could afford to repay the loans, banks offered the club money on the basis that Arsene Wenger would continue to manage the club.
“When we built the stadium the banks demanded that I signed for five years,” the boss revealed. “Do you want me to say how many clubs I turned down during that period?”
“The banks wanted the technical consistency to guarantee that we have a chance to pay them back.”
Arsene Wenger guided Arsenal through what was essentially a decade of austerity. The club’s self-financed and self-sustaining model relied heavily on Arsenal qualifying for the Champions League.
“When we built the stadium, we had five to seven difficult financial years where we had to pay the money back,” Wenger explained in 2016. “We had to be three years in the Champions League out of five and have an average of 54,000 people [attend], and we didn’t know we would be capable of that.”
On top of this, the stadium also needed to be financed by player sales. Wenger was forced to find cheap bargains in the transfer windows to cover the sales of their biggest stars. This was a model which wasn’t new to Arsenal – the £22m transfer of Nicolas Anelka in 1999, for example, helped pay for Arsenal’s new training facilities at London Colney. But during the Emirates-era, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, and Emmanuel Adebayor were all sold in this period to help pay off debts.
Despite all of the constraints, Wenger made his target every year and kept Arsenal in Europe. “We had to sell our best players every year to survive, but we didn’t do three years out of five in the Champions League. We did five out of five.”
As Chelsea and Manchester City got the huge financial backing to propel them forward, Arsenal were tightening their belts but remaining relevant. While the Gunners may have fallen behind in terms of silverware in this time, Arsenal have completely transformed as a club thanks to Wenger.
While redefining their style and success, Arsene Wenger has overseen Arsenal’s move into a state-of-the-art stadium while many other big clubs are still playing catch-up.
“That was, for me, the biggest period of pressure between 2006 and 2014,” the boss admitted.
“If you told me today I’d do that again I would say ‘no thank you, I’ll leave that to someone else.'”
In 2012, Arsenal signed a £150m deal to extend the naming rights of the Emirates Stadium to 2028. Money and sponsors have and will play a huge role in the decision making of football clubs, but there is certainly a case to be made for a stadium rename. To dedicate a stand to Wenger might be more realistic – Manchester United renamed the North Stand as the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand in 2011.
Nonetheless, Arsene Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal runs much deeper than being just a successful manager of the team. He is at the heart of the modern Arsenal Football Club.