When Arsene Wenger was officially unveiled as Arsenals first foreign manager, it was not much of a shock. The secret had rather got out. Wenger was managing Grampus Eight and although his club had agreed to release him, it would be at their season break, and they didn't want it announced until then. Unfortunately the press found out and it was all over the papers long before Peter Hill-Wood gave the game away. At the shareholders annual tea, biscuits and platitudes meeting, Hill-Wood was asked why he couldn't confirm the new managers' name. Hill-Wood replied that it was because he was under contract to another club, and that guarantees had been given. When asked to whom these guarantees had been given Hill-Wood rather innocently replied 'Grampus Eight'. Oops.
The general feeling amongst fans was echoed by a press headline 'Arsene Who?' Johan Cruyff and Bobby Robson had been touted as potential managers with Cruyff the fans choice by a long way. It was hardly surprising, as at the time Wenger was generally unknown in the UK. All most fans knew of him was a report a few weeks earlier where Hoddle wanted him in the England set up (which he refused) and a vague memory of George Weah dedicating his World Player of the Year award to a quiet, studious looking Frenchman. But Wenger managed to impress the fans even before he officially arrived, thanks to a gangly young French midfielder.
On the 16th of September 1996 we played Sheffield Wednesday at home in the league. Patrick Vieira came on as sub to give most Arsenal fans their first chance to see this 20-year-old Milan reserve we'd paid óG3.5m for. And he didn't disappoint. By the end of the game Vieira had shown that we'd finally got the midfield presence that we'd been missing. After the game the general feeling amongst fans seemed to be that if he could solve the midfield problems before even arriving, then maybe the guy deserved a chance.
Part of the deal for Anelka involved Croatian striker Davor Suker come the other way. The move didn't prove as successful as hoped, but his professionalism and sheer enthusiasm made him popular. We also signed a young French winger called Thierry Henry from Juventus. Henry had played under Wenger at Monaco as a striker, and this was the role Wenger had in mind for him.
Henry initially found it hard to settle into his new role, indeed a fair few supporters saw him as a complete waste of money, and not a real striker/goal scorer. In what was a difficult season for Arsenal he ended up as top scorer on 26 goals and has obviously gone from strength to strength since, now acknowledged as one of the best in the world.
The Anelka transfer on the eve of the season had obviously disrupted the squad and Wenger's plans, and there were more problems for Wenger to deal with. The Vieira / Petit axis in midfield wasn't working as well as it had, due mainly to injuries and suspension. Petit, in particular, wasn't the dynamic player he had been and was obviously worried by a persistent knee injury. On the wing Overmars was bottling more and more challenges, prompting one senior player to tell him he was playing with a pole vault stick up his behind! Although the team finished a comfortable second, this was a massive 18 points behind first place. A UEFA cup final appearance against Galatasaray produced an insipid performance, but with the streets of Copenhagen awash with violence this was maybe understandable. Two Leeds United fans had been murdered by Gala fans in Turkey before a semi final match, and many of their fans had come to Copenhagen for revenge (alongside fans of a few other English clubs).