The 1996 Arsenal AGM was held in the first week of September in one of Highbury’s distinguished but labyrinthine oak panelled rooms. Normally a placid affair interspersed with the rubber stamping of minor points of order, the meeting held that year was one of the fieriest and tempestuous anybody could remember.
Shareholders, the majority of them long standing supporters of the club were up in arms over the way the previous managerial incumbent Bruce Rioch, had been relieved of his duties. They were also concerned at the lack of visible movement from the club on appointing a new manager.
The Chairman, Old Etonian, Peter Hill-Wood, the latest in three generations of his family run to run the club, and a City man to the core was unused to such open hostility. He told the many disaffected stakeholders, in words that would come to be seen as prophetic and visionary yet seemed anything but, on that day: “We have acted in the best interests of the club. We have identified a replacement of considerable reputation who has agreed to join us. We cannot announce his appointment officially, as we have given an undertaking not to do so.”
In a touch of farce, which eventually brought comic relief to the fraught proceedings a voice from the floor asked innocently: “An undertaking to who, Mr Chairman?”
Without thinking, the dignified custodian of Arsenal, whose family connections to The Arsenal stretched back to the early years of the 20th century, and whose usual idea of a crisis was when the half time port ran dry, immediately replied: “ An undertaking to Mr Wenger of course.”
Cue much laughter which almost drowned out what he said next: “We expect him to be with us by the end of September,” adding, ominously for the club’s rivals but which was virtually ignored at the time:” “We have acquired two new players, Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde. Our ambitions are to get the right squad and win another trophy or two.”
Mr Hill-Woods words may have been offered as a placatory submission, but as the years went on they appeared more like a clarion call in the first steps of reviving a great club that had lost its way somewhat, turning it into a global super power.
Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal, the worst kept secret in football, was confirmed on Monday 17th September. The same evening the rudderless club were due to take on Sheffield Wednesday.
Strictly speaking Monsieur Wenger’s tenure was not to begin until the 30th September.
But the symbolic contrast between the opening 28 minutes of this game, and the remainder, imbued as it was by the spirit of Wenger’s first signing was hugely emblematic of the seas change that was to occur at this grand old London institution, for so long derided as an unadventurous, conformist and above all cautious establishment.
In the words of the Irish poet WB Yeats: “All changed, changed utterly.”
Layth's book "Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures" will be published on August 28 and is available to pre-order here. Layth is having a book launch at Piebury Corner Saturday August 16 from midday. Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29