GOOD NIGHT FROM ME AND GUD EBENING FROM HIM
(A personal recollection of Unai Emery’s arrival at Arsenal two years to the day his appointment)
by Nick Callow
I NEARLY fell for Unai Emery the first time we met. Call me ‘easy’ but I was still getting over my relationship with Arsene Wenger. Emery’s jet black hair, booming voice and gleaming smile behind a Spanish accent as strong as his handshake made an immediate impression on his first day at Arsenal.
Introducing himself to me, along with a handful of other reporters, in the Emirates boardroom, somehow felt intimate, personal, reassuring. Everything was going to be fine for reporters and supporters alike.
Now, like so many people associated with Arsenal, that emotion feels so foolish, tinged with regret and a sense of what might have been.
Emery is already being dismissed as a sop and a patsy; just a highly-paid failure to bridge the gap between Wenger and the second coming of Mikel Arteta (yes, I have fallen again!) That is a bit harsh as was making fun of his poor communication skills, but rewinding to May 2018 there was some cause for hope.
This is not a dispassionate analysis of an Arsenal manager. Taken to Highbury as a ‘babe in arms’ by my Granddad that somehow led to being ‘an established journalist’ the day Wenger was unveiled at the same stadium in 1996 before later ‘ghosting’ his column for the club’s monthly magazine.
I was still there for his last match in charge at Huddersfield some 22 years later. Maybe we were both in a rut? Perhaps that was the time to jump ship too, but Wenger helped keep me in a living of sorts for over two decades and as the Arsenal years were kinder to him physically and financially, I had no option but to give Emery a chance on the rebound.
The Head Coach charmed with his self confidence, braving his first words in charge with broken English but huge ambition.
“The target is to be a candidate and to challenge for the title,” he told us that first day. “It is very important for the club after two years outside the Champions League to work this way, to be the best club, the best team in the Premier League and also in the world!”
The job title was significant. Emery did not replace Wenger as manager, but the head of a coaching team and a new approach to trying to return glory to a club that last won the Premier League title in the Invincibles year of 2004.
At a time when clubs such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham were giving more power to their managers, it would be fascinating to see how Arsenal’s attempt to evolve in a different direction would work out.
Emery was used to working that way at previous clubs, including Seville and Paris Saint-Germain, so what could possibly go wrong? Just about everything was the answer.’
Flanking Emery with approving nods and self-satisfied smiles on 23 May 2018 was Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis, the man who masterminded the removal of Wenger and the appointment of his successor.
Gazidis, without openly criticising Wenger, indicated he expected Emery to get more out of the squad so long as he adhered to “running the club on a very clear and transparent model, which is self-sustaining.
“This kind of significant change in a club doesn’t deliver instant success, nobody is naive enough to think that. But I do think the new way of working, the new energy, it’s not a criticism of Arsene. I just think that change stimulates the environment and I think it’s going to be very positive.
“I could not possibly feel better about this appointment. And the feeling that we have between each other, and we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days together, is I feel better and better about it by the hour.”
Gazidis felt so good he was out barely a month into Emery’s first season, next addressing Italian media having been appointed chief executive of AC Milan. Rearrange the words, ‘sinking, rats, deserting and ship’ to imagine how Emery felt.
Emery portrayed himself as a strong character and leader of men, but he needed more support than his entourage of Spanish coaches and a translator in a strange land, at a club on the slide.
His fine talk about getting the best out of Mesut Ozil, ensuring the players would work as hard without the ball as with it proved no more than hot air.
We were briefed from the outset how Emery’s command of English meant his press conferences would not be as entertaining and productive as Wenger’s notoriously interesting exchanges with the media.
“So what?” asked a friend that night. “I don’t care if we get bad press if we get good results.”
For a while the impossible seemed possible as fans chanted ‘we’ve got our Arsenal back’ during the club’s best every start to a season – 22 unbeaten after opening defeats by Man City and Chelsea. A calamitous end to the season and a worse run of results in three decades followed quickly.
Strong leadership included letting Ozil call the shots amid extended mystery injuries and illnesses and asking the players to vote for their captain. That resulted in the appointment of Granit Xhaka, a man who turned against the supporters he was supposed to be representing when the going got tough.
He changed captains (he had NINE!) tactics and formations (if he ever had any) like the wind and ultimately nobody seemed to have a clue what he represented.
Following Wenger was never going to be easy. The Frenchman took charge of 1235 matches and won 17 trophies, including two Doubles.
Emery lasted 78 matches and failed to win even the pre-season Emirates Cup – a trophy created by Arsenal for Arsenal.
His departure came not a day to soon, but as he looks for a route back into the game, he will get a fair welcome from Arsenal supporters when returns in the away dug-out.