Wenger must heed Fergie warning

IN a troubled world, we hardly need reminders about the fragility of life: rolling news has rendered us all but immune to the fallout from daily disasters.

Yet this weekend a retiree in his 77th year suffered an apparent stroke and still managed to cause much of mankind to stop in its tracks. It tells us everything about Alex Ferguson's status as a seemingly indestructible colossus who transcended football.

He bestrode the game like one. And even in retirement he has been more active, more robust and more driven than many a young turk barely out of the starting blocks.

It is that inner strength, that love of life and that absolute refusal to give up when all seems lost, which gives us hope that he can pull off one more fight back against the odds. Yes, in Fergie time.

It was a weekend of rare poignancy. Also overshadowing some dramatic late twists on the field was the farewell of Arsene Wenger at the house he built. In the event, it was a classy and moving climax to another stellar career.

Typical of the self-effacing Frenchman - and to his immense credit - he did not wallow in the warm glow of a grateful stadium but remembered his erstwhile foe-turned-friend in his hour of greatest need.

You can bet Fergie's plight is occupying his thoughts just as much as his own future as, like many of the great sporting rivalries, their destinies seem inextricably linked.

Only last week, Wenger's first domestic away game after announcing his departure was at Old Trafford, of all places, and the then sprightly-looking Scot seized the opportunity to make a heartfelt pre-match tribute.

Ferguson and Wenger, Wenger and Ferguson. It doesn't matter which way round you say it. Although non-combatants, their names and their rivalry will surely echo down the ages like those other immortal duels in other arenas: Ali-Frazier, Prost-Senna, Coe-Ovett, Borg-McEnroe, Palmer-Nicklaus, Federer-Nadal.

And like the above, what added spice to a genuine toe-to-toe rivalry (for a few years anyway) was the contrast in their characters and styles. Polar opposites in many ways yet equals in manic determination to win. And now, sadly, this will take on added piquancy as Wenger contemplates his next move.

It is an oft-stated fact that the pair's initial enmity lessened only when Arsenal ceased to be a threat to Manchester United. But just as Fergie eventually prevailed in their hunt for trophies, the Scot was just as clear a winner even after he'd retired.

As decisive as Wenger has been dithering, Fergie quit while he was ahead. He'd just won his 13th Premier League title and launched himself into the last phase of his life as if it was a new career. In contrast, Wenger struggled on, fighting a losing battle as he desperately tried to right a slowly sinking ship.

And now, for all the kind words and gestures, he has been removed against his will with the fans almost unanimous in wishing it had come sooner. The only debate is over when – 2015? 2016? Or even 2010?

By his own admission, retirement scares the Frenchman. "I don't have horses," he memorably said, referring to one of Fergie's myriad interests. Fergie's bucket list included world travel and visits to sporting and cultural events such as the US Masters, the Melbourne Cup and Hollywood's Oscars night. He also still made a lucrative living by giving lectures on leadership to places such as Harvard, no less.

For all his devotion to United, Fergie still had a life outside the club and knows far more people and has far more interests than the man who was for so long his rival.

Wenger became obsessed by Arsenal to the point that his wife and daughter left him and went back to France. He called the club "the love of my life" which is why the breaking up has been so hard to do.

Now, he will not be short of offers – top European jobs and perhaps the French national team after the World Cup could be his for the taking. But he has to face one unpalatable fact: has he lost it as a top-flight manager?

The majority of Gooners believe he has – and has for some time – but his famously blinkered vision does not allow him to see evidence that is right in front of him. And now – at least for a while anyway – he won't have Fergie to tell him a few home truths.

Fergie has been as big a success in retirement as he was in work – and many an old fogey will confirm that it is not a straightforward task. He balanced having fun with a purpose – and enjoyed the best of both worlds.

In contrast, we just know that Wenger will be desperate to find success at another club so he can say to everyone that he can still do it. But if he fails, it is likely to be a sorry denou-ement.

He has hung on far too long at Arsenal and may feel he no longer has the option of quitting while he's ahead. But if that ship has sailed perhaps Fergie's plight will remind him that he, too, is a mere mortal.

And when he looks back to his unpromising arrival with those "Arsene Who?" headlines he can reflect on the Invincibles, two doubles and a magnificent addition to the London skyline that he built. Even Fergie doesn't have that.

Like the rest of us, he has to hope that Fergie recovers well enough to offer advice. If he wants to carry on in management the approach will surely have to be different – he cannot be the great panjandrum and needs a younger second in command who can sort out the defence.

He may be eight years younger than his old foe but the referee in the sky is already looking at his watch. Come on, Arsene – its Wenger time. Sadly, it just doesn't have the same ring.

*Bob's latest book, Living the Dream, is available at all major bookstores and Bob will be signing copies at the grand final of Be Bodog's Best Pundit contest on Sunday May 13 before the Premier League season final games kick off at Rock Bottom, 3 & 5, Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur.

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