Jeremy Corbyn was filmed at Arsenal versus Spurs last weekend, clad in a red and white scarf and going on a pre-match demo demanding that all Premier League clubs pay employees the living wage. He even won the unlikely admiration of a Spurs fan, who told him, “you’ve got to be our Prime Minister”. Jeremy grinned and said, “I’ll do my best for you.”
Corbyn then watched an Arsenal team managed by an ascetic, uncompromising idealist. We can confidently assume that Corbyn won’t be modelling his leadership skills on Blair, Brown or Miliband. But might his fellow Islingtonite, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, be a more appealing template for the unlikely leader?
Tony Blair famously sought advice from Sir Alex Ferguson on how to handle a troublesome Chancellor. Corbyn, as a member of the fan group In Arsène We Trust, is already an admirer of Wenger and is more likely to base his style on the Arsenal guru. While Corbyn’s critics might also argue that he displays some of the same flaws as Wenger, such as stubbornness and refusing to compromise on idealism for trophies.
Physically both these 66-year-old men share similar characteristics, such as grey hair, a slim build and a scholarly air. Corbyn has been compared to a geography teacher with his disapproving side-glances at Prime Minister’s Questions, while Arsenal skipper Tony Adams thought on meeting Wenger, “he wears glasses and looks like a schoolteacher.”
One aspect of Wenger’s career that will appeal to Corbyn is that the Arsenal boss spent his playing career on the equivalent of the backbenches, starting off in the French third division with Mutzig and only playing three matches in Strasbourg’s title-winning season before retiring.
When Martin Amis ridiculed Corbyn’s A levels it was very similar to the “show us your medals” jibes aimed at Wenger when he arrived at Arsenal from the Japanese league in 1996. “Arsène who?” was the headline in the Evening Standard. Tony Adams wondered: “What does this Frenchman know about football? Does he even speak English properly?” Midfielder Ray Parlour did impressions of Inspector Clouseau.
Early on in their careers, both annoyed the establishment. Wenger initially refused to have a post-match glass of wine with fellow bosses like Sir Alex Ferguson, while Corbyn wouldn’t sing along to God Save the Queen
And we mustn’t forget the fact both men admire vegetables. Corbyn grows them on his allotment and has posed with a supersized marrow. Wenger revealed upon his arrival: “I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.” Wenger then preached the merits of steamed broccoli rather than visiting the Gunner’s chip shop and getting bladdered every night to old-style Arsenal players. Similarly Corbyn is trying to introduce unfashionable concepts to sceptical Blairites, such as believing in something and offering more than vapid managerial soundbites.
Both men take a long-term attitude and are phlegmatic when faced with media panics. Wenger says every game in England brings a crisis, while Corbyn has a conversational style in interviews and says that for all the lurid headlines, on the streets people keep telling him to be himself. Wenger has repeatedly refused to make big-name panic buys, preferring to develop younger, sometimes neglected talents. Similarly Corbyn has energised young Labour Party members and promoted from within the group in the cases of John McDonnell, Seamus Milne and Andrew Fisher — though some Labour MPs clearly feel these signings are more akin to Arsenal’s misfiring former striker Nicklas Bendtner.
Wenger and Corbyn are keen to bring unfashionable concepts into popular debate, such as, in the case of Arsène, the need for a good diet and pre-match stretching, UEFA fair play regulations and a top four place being as good as a trophy. Before Corbyn’s leadership there would have been little discussion of Trident and Saudi jails or questions from the public at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The potential weaknesses of Corbyn and Wenger are surprisingly similar too. Both men can be unexpectedly prickly. For all his intellectual image, Wenger has had memorable pushing matches with Martin Jol and Alan Pardew; while Corbyn looked like he wanted to push Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy for his “tabloid journalism” when challenged on addressing a meeting, including Hamas, as “friends.”
The pair are stubborn on recruitment and unlikely to admit errors; still insisting that Per Mertesacker or Andrew Fisher is the answer. Wenger famously “didn’t see” any incidents where his players were sent off and Corbyn might have a similar blind spot for his staff’s faults.
Both men have been accused of putting principles before trophies. Arsenal recently lost 5-1 at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, mainly due to Wenger not having invested in alternatives to his injured defenders. Might Corbyn too rue a lack of back-up when his defence policy is questioned?
Arsenal won three Premier League titles in Wenger’s early years. But for the past decade Wenger has ignored pleas to spend big on a dominating centre back, a midfield enforcer and world class striker, apparently preferring flowing football to more pragmatic wins – though Arsenal have won two FA Cups and qualified for the Champions League every season. Is Corbyn in danger of producing policies that are pleasing on the socialist eye, but not capable of lasting a whole campaign and nailing the really big prizes?
Chelsea’s José Mourinho taunted that Arsène Wenger was, “a specialist in failure”. Peter Mandelson probably feels the same about Jeremy Corbyn. Though it’s interesting to note that Mourinho is now in a personal meltdown and Wenger, a more likeable figure, might yet capitalise.
These are crucial seasons for Corbyn and Wenger and both will resolutely stick to their approaches. Wenger shifted the debate in British football and Corbyn has in many senses done likewise in politics. The Labour leader has the party fans behind him but will face many calls to compromise or quit from his senior pros and the press – in such moments it’s likely he’ll trust in Arsène.
Pete May is author of The Joy of Essex (The Robson Press).