In 1066, England was being attacked from all sides. The Norwegians came from the east, while the Normans came from the south. Harald Hardrada arrived first, only to be repelled by England’s own King Harold at Stamford Bridge (not that one). A few weeks later, William of Normandy had pitched up in Sussex by the Sea and was rather eschewing their hospitality. The Battle of Hastings is one of the pivotal events of English history and has ensured that their shared story with the French is as interwoven as the Bayeux Tapestry that it depicts.
A cow becomes beef
In short, a French invader came to England unexpectedly, was installed in a position of considerable power and, when he left some years later, nothing was ever the same again.
The effects of the Norman invasion are still felt to this day, particularly in the way the English who remained assumed a Frenchness that was not their own. Don’t believe me? Think of meat. In animal form, it is the Anglo-Saxon form that has survived, but when it is prepared (bettered, if you will) it becomes French. Thus a cow becomes beef, and a deer venison. There are other examples. One can say ‘smell’ or ‘odour’ interchangeably, but one is viewed as posher – the French odour.
There are examples of this in reverse, and I converse at length about ‘napkin’ and ‘serviette’, but the facts are broadly true.
The English historically see something of the ‘other’ in the French. They are viewed as a peculiar bunch, their men seen as effeminate and their women aloof. They think too much, (on which, ‘pensive’ and ‘thoughtful’ are another example as odour) and are lazy. They obsess over food, drink wine and cheese and cycle everywhere. They are different and we are glad there is a channel between us.
Stereotypes these may be, but English people can be difficult to dissuade from their generalisations. One only has to revisit HE Bates’ Darling Buds of May (and this Summer’s lease is only just opened should the opportunity be upon you) and their Breath of French Air to see the differences between the two nations portrayed humorously, but lovingly.
Arsene Wenger was certainly no Pa Larkin
So what does any of this have to do with football? Well, it was to the most English of English landscapes that a bookish Frenchman was cast some twenty two years ago. Arsene Wenger was certainly no Pa Larkin; if anyone in that family, he would be Charlie, though his head is more likely to be turned by French midfielder with all the right passes than Mariette, portrayed in the TV series by a then-unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Highbury’s Marble Halls were venerated and respected, a part of England that belonged to the time of the Larkins, maybe, of Denis Compton and Bertie Mee. It was not a place for a Frenchman. Yet there he was. In the Arsenal that were viewed as boring, that enjoyed a (perhaps unrivalled) drink culture and, perhaps just as importantly, had some strong old heads in the dressing room that would be difficult to turn.
It was an Arsenal that was reeling from the loss of George Graham, the failed tenure of Bruce Rioch and still coming to terms with its own problems. Tony Adams had confessed his alcoholism, Paul Merson was looking to overcome his many addictions and while some building blocks were in place of a fine team – that defence, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp – the arrival of two French players, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira, pointed the way the club were going. Sure enough, Wenger arrived.
Vieira himself is important, as it began a theme of French players in important roles at Arsenal. There is a run that covers the likes of Vieira and Petit and goes through the likes of Flamini and to Koscielny, trusted lieutenants such as William brought across William de Warenne who became Earl of Surrey and Robert de Beaumont, later Earl of Leicester. Of course the most important of these is the shining light, the William Rufus of Wenger’s reign, Thierry Henry. Many would like to see him step into the dugout just as Rufus stepped to the throne.
Wenger turned up fresh from Japan, his head full of his ideas and determined to action them on his subjects (so far, so William). The Wenger revolution was about doing things differently, or differently to the way English football – always so confident in its beliefs – had always done things.
In truth, he arrived at the perfect time to get the best of Adams, a man looking for more after turning his back on drink. He arrived at the perfect time for the likes of Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn to understand the benefits of his immediately implemented dietary regime on their career longevity.
Moulded in the Frenchman’s image
Despite a first season that would now be described as transitional, it took less than two years for Wenger to claim his league title, and depose the old king, Sir Alex Ferguson. Suddenly, like the French invaders of the past, his methods and his ideas became de rigueur.
And so we began to see English football mould itself, to a certain extent, in the Frenchman’s image. Drinking was frowned upon, diets were in, and being foreign was no longer an issue. There was just two French players in the Premier League before 1996/7. Cantona was one, of course (I’ll leave the other at the end – enjoy puzzling). That year, seven were added to squads – some worked, like Franck Leboeuf, others didn’t, like Patrick Blondeau. The following year, it was ten. The French were here, and succeeding.
One of my own favourite parts of this influx of French players, and later players from all over the world was the Doncaster Rovers commentary (another quiz coming) in the cup games that Rovers famously played Arsenal. The Doncaster commentator has a fabulously strong Yorkshire accent, so hearing him intermingling his normal speech, and normal players with those of Wenger, was a treat; the likes of Neil Roberts, James Coppinger and Ricky Ravenhill against Emmanuel Eboue and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie. If you’ve ever sat on a train and heard a conversation in a language you don’t understand there be occasional words you do – think the “heth eth eth eth eth Chris Waddle” from the Fast Show if you don’t know what I mean.
Further to that, Wenger has seen his Arsenal side play all the league’s current Yorkshire sides at least once (he’ll finish with a third game against Huddersfield). The bookies have paid out on the Gunners against all but one of them. Which one?
He changed the language of the game, too, and not just by coining the word ‘footballistically’. Perhaps it was his Frenchness and the treacherous path between the one language and the other but, as with Cantona, Wenger has graced us with some phrases that are now Premier League standards – in that sense, and in his own words, everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home, and for a time Arsenal have had.
In a way, it is difficult to tell if his longevity is cause or effect, but English football is certainly changed for the presence at the top table of Wenger. It is more intelligent (not uniformly but increasingly), more open to new ideas, and more worldly. Ferguson’s Manchester Utd might have taken the Premier League to the world, but Wenger’s Arsenal brought the world to the Premier League.
So, then. He came from France, won an important battle against an old king, implemented his ideas on the English people, added to their language directly and saw the upper end of English society lapse into the idea that the only way they could improve themselves was by aping him.
Arsene the Conqueror it is, then. Oh, and William Prunier and Rotherham Utd. Arsenal beat them 9-8 on penalties in the League Cup.