What do Ray Stephen, Mark Hateley and Glenn Hoddle have in common? They were the first British players signed by Arsene Wenger. According to Stephen, we could now be entering the last days of the Frenchman’s two decades-long reign at Arsenal.
The former Dundee striker, pictured below, who enjoys the distinction of being Wenger’s first British signing, at AS Nancy, once spent enough time with the Arsenal manager to notice he develops a face twitch when he gets angry.
“His life is total football,” he says. “When I first went there, he was not married at the time and would go across the border to Germany and watch games. He asked me: ‘what are you doing?’ I was sitting doing nothing. Do you want to come with me? I ended up in Kaiserslautern watching them play Stuttgart.”
“He was OK discipline-wise,” he adds. “At that time you didn’t think about drinking – what you did at home, you could do what you wanted. It was a bit more relaxed.
“I never really saw him lose his temper but you knew when he was annoyed because he has a wee twitch in his cheek. When he was speaking to the French players you knew if he was angry with them because he got a twitch!”
If it’s not too hard to credit for someone who hasn’t bought a Scotsman since, Wenger travelled to Dundee – to the old Swallow Hotel, to be accurate – to negotiate Stephen’s capture in a £175,000 deal from Dundee just over 30 years ago.
Nancy was Wenger’s first port of call of only four to date as manager, with Monaco, Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan and Arsenal the other stop-offs.
What happens next for Wenger is the burning question in English football right now. He has himself promised to let everyone know after the season ends. He could leave as an FA Cup winner, this Saturday’s Wembley date with Chelsea offering the potential for a glorious exit of sorts.
He could, of course, stay on as an FA Cup loser. Whoever it is in charge at the club next season will likely need to accept Europa League football rather than the knocked-out-in-the-last-16 Champions League campaign we’ve come to expect from Arsenal, who have qualified for Europe’s premier club knockout tournament every year since 1997-98, Wenger’s second season in charge.
Arsenal entertain Everton today needing a win to reach the top four while also relying on results going their way elsewhere.
“The players have let him down big time,” says Stephen. “If he wins the cup, I think he might just say ‘I am going up the stairs’ or he might just go completely. PSG has been mentioned or maybe its time for him to take over the French national side, a job that isn’t hands-on every day.”
Now 67, Wenger still doesn’t sound like someone seeking an easier life. He put the work in scouting Stephen, whom he saw play for Dundee during two summer tours to what was then West Germany.
Bernd Killat, Stephen’s agent at the time and nemesis of Alex Ferguson given his part in the departures of both Eric Black and Mark McGhee from Aberdeen, was the facilitator in this deal too.
But Nancy did their homework. Aldo Platini, Michel’s father, was sports director at Nancy and travelled to watch Stephen play – and score – in a 3-0 win for Dundee over Hibs at Easter Road in October 1986.
Wenger followed up the glowing report delivered by Mr Platini, travelling to Scotland to try to convince Stephen about the move in a hotel near a roundabout on the outskirts of Dundee. Shortly afterwards, the day after a 3-0 derby win over Dundee United, Stephen was called in off the golf course at Carnoustie to Dens, where he signed the contract that altered the course of his life.
“He [Wenger] was down to earth and looked so young,” recalls Stephen. “I said I’d come, my contract was up anyway. But it was pre-Bosman times, so that didn’t mean much. I think he was 36, I was only 24.
“He had the greatest influence on my career, definitely,” he says. “I have respect for the likes of Tommy Gemmell, who signed me for Dundee, and Donald Mackay who gave me my chance in the first team, then Jocky [Scott] and Archie [Knox] were brilliant too. But Arsene gave me the freedom to play how I wanted to play.
“He let me express myself. I did not have to play in a specific role. He let me have a free hand to do what I want – within reason. More like a No.10 than a No.9.”
Of the Arsenal players now, Stephen’s role most accurately resembled the one occupied by Alexis Sanchez, one of Arsenal’s bright spots this season. “I loved playing with my back to goal and turning people,” he says. “I scored two on my debut v Toulouse.
“For the first month I was in France he [Wenger] used to pick me up to go to training and we’d have breakfast, and speak about the games. He was good to me. He changed my life really.”
Stephen remains a legend at Nancy, where he scored 58 goals in 161 appearances. He still goes back most years for club events. While he has still to bump into Wenger at such functions, he wonders if the Frenchman might soon have time to attend as well.