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Respect for Arsene Wenger: A true European

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger salutes the fans after his final home game as manager (pic Nick Potts/PA) - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The assessment of the Liverpool manager has come through. ALASTAIR CAMPBELL says people do respect longevity

I’ve been trying to think of other people who, when taken ill, would have been met with such an avalanche of concern and global goodwill, as Alex Ferguson. In our national life, the Queen, without a doubt. In football, perhaps Pele, but not many more, and certainly not many retired managers closer to 80 than 70.

The response was especially touching because for so much of his career, he was a divisive figure, and you could come across plenty of detractors along with the many, me included, who would see nothing but good in him, because of his evident talent and huge personal qualities, not to mention his strongly pro-Labour views.

There was also the fact that once he had retired, people were able to make a broader assessment of his life and times; and, as with the Queen, whatever your views, ‘respect’. We have seen something similar with Arsene Wenger, whose 22-year tenure at Arsenal is coming to an end. Though he achieved much less in later years than in his first transformative decade, the broader assessment has come through. Respect.

His final home game was set up as a battle for sixth place between Arsenal and my team, Burnley, but we had a rare off day, losing 5-0, our biggest defeat for years. Such a one-sided contest might normally be the cue for the early departure of some away fans, but everyone stayed, not just to show solidarity with Burnley players who have been magnificent this season, but also to pay tribute to Wenger. Indeed, Arsenal fans applauded warmly as, with the score 4-0, our fans launched a rousing chant of ‘there’s only one Arsene Wenger’. The entente did not last long, with the Burnley end then morphing into ‘you two-faced bastards… you got him the sack’. I hope Wenger smiled a little at that one, for many of the same people who have made his life a misery in recent times were wearing the free ‘Merci Arsene’ T-shirts, and denying any role in the long-running ‘Wenger Out’ campaign.

But people do respect longevity. Her Maj wins the prize for that one, nationally, internationally, historically, in pretty much any field you care to imagine. Sixty-five years. Incredible. But in today’s football, so is the ability to survive more than two seasons, let alone two decades and more. Indeed, when Wenger goes, the longest-serving manager in the Premier League will be Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, beating, by a few days, the man who replaced him at Burnley in 2012, Sean Dyche.

Howe and Dyche – who, incidentally, should be manager of the year (would Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola have got Burnley into Europe, I wonder?) – are nowhere near the Ferguson-Wenger fame stakes yet. But since the television football explosion, the big-name managers and players are among the most high profile people in the country and, for a handful, in the world.

Even people with little interest in football – I have lived with one such for almost 40 years – know who Ronaldo and Messi are, Pele and Maradona, Fergie and Wenger. Our celebrity culture has led to a major devaluation in the word ‘legend’, whilst in football ‘world-class’ gets bandied around far too often. Very few reach greatness, and it is the recognition of Ferguson’s real, rare greatness that explains the response to news of his illness, with many millions now wishing him all the best for a full recovery.

And might Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp be the next to reach the top of the football fame tree? Big personality, big glasses, big smiley teeth, big heart on sleeve. First he was Mainz’s longest-serving manager – seven years – then Borussia Dortmund’s – seven years, with two Bundesliga titles, the German FA Cup, and a Champions League Final.

He has now steered Liverpool to a Champions League final, and if they win on May 26 against Real Madrid, his fame will catapult. It will also provide more evidence that good things come to those who stick their heads above the parapet and, as Klopp did recently, speak out against the madness of Brexit, and the damage it will do to his adopted country.

Go on, admit it, I almost had you there… you were starting to wonder ‘is he going to go a whole piece without mentioning Brexit?’ No chance. Not when an anti-Brexit Frenchman has added so much to our national life, and is now to be followed by an anti-Brexit German in winning the affections of a nation. Viel Glück Jürgen.

I was at another football stadium last week, Norwich City’s Carrow Road, to speak at a mental health event. I nipped out to see the The The New European team, based nearby at the Archant media group, and I discovered some new contenders for Journalist of the Year. Agreed, the Observer’s Carole Cadwalldr has a big claim, as her Cambridge Analytica exposes get closer and closer to possible criminality at the heart of Brexit, and Amelia Gentleman of the Guardian has done a superb job on the Windrush scandal.

In the week my daughter Grace is making her television debut with a brilliant (#proudDad) feminist prank show, Riot Girls, (Channel 4, 10pm, Thursday May 10 – sod the news!) I would be as happy as anyone if a woman were to be so honoured. But I am also throwing into the mix the tiny team at the The New European – which is run on a shoestring – who do an amazing job putting together so much content of such high quality, week in, week out.

New young people’s campaign groups, like FFS (For Our Future’s Sake) and OFOC (Our Future Our Choice), have added huge energy and passion to the campaign for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. OFOC’s Femi Oluwole has shown he fears nobody in debate, having bested Nigel Farage when he called into the radio show of the ex-leader of the ex-UKIP. However much politics may have changed, Femi reminds us that a combination of factual knowledge, eloquence and courage can take you a long way in argument.

It must be John Redwood’s lack of factual knowledge, eloquence and courage that led to the Brextremist refusing to debate Femi when invited to do so live by LBC’s Andrew Castle.

Femi having pointed out (and cleverly filmed himself doing so in his nice new OFOC T-shirt) that it was now ‘official Tory policy to harm the country’, with Theresa May admitting every scenario would make us worse off, Redwood’s response was simply to say that he had not been told he was going to be in a discussion, and so he would not debate. He must have missed the point of LBC – ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’ – as a ‘conversation’ usually involves more than one person.

The overall effect was to show a reality which is becoming ever clearer. When they are allowed to spout their vague slogans and vapid generalisations, Brextremists will jump in the back of any cab to get to any studio in town. When they are confronted by real argument, and facts intrude on their fantasies, they run a mile. Not so much Project Fear, as Project Frit. Femi 10 Vulcan 0. The fight goes on, and is better for having these young bucks at the frontline.

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