It’s strange how the careers of Jeremy Corbyn and Arsène Wenger appear to be mirroring each other. The Labour leader is an Arsenal fan and long-time admirer of the ascetic Wenger, being a member of the fan group In Arsène We Trust. Both men are 67 and famously stubborn, putting principles above pragmatism. Both are having problems with making a hard exit from Europe and have recently suffered catastrophic defeats.
Arsenal have just lost 5-1 at home to Bayern Munich in the European Champions League. To compound the humiliation they had already lost the away leg 5-1, making it a 10-2 aggregate defeat, the second biggest defeat in Champions league history. If you want to annoy a Gunners fan just suggest that you, “meet at ten-two”. Similarly, Corbyn’s Labour managed to win the equivalent of a fairly easy home cup game at Stoke, but lost the safe seat of Copeland to the Conservatives. Labour had held the seat since 1935 and it was the first time a party in opposition had lost a seat to the government since 1982.
Wenger and Corbyn have both achieved a kind of success. Corbyn has presided over a massive increase in membership and been re-elected leader with a large majority after a failed challenge from Owen Smith, while Wenger can point out that his team have qualified for the Champion League for two decades and won the FA Cup in 2014 and 2015.
But that won’t stop the fans revolting. Arsenal never challenge for the title or the Champions League while Labour are way behind Theresa May’s government in the polls. Two hundred Arsenal fans marched to the Emirates before the Bayern Munich game demanding that Wenger be sacked, holding up banners saying “Stubborn, stale, clueless” and “Enough is enough – time to go”. While Labour’s contortions over Brexit have resulted in several thousand members cancelling their direct debits.
Both gaffers have had problems with stroppy star players. Alexis Sanchez theatrically threw his gloves down after a 3-3 draw at Bournemouth, looked furious when subbed against Swansea, was rumoured to have walked out of training and was then photographed apparently sniggering behind his hands after being subbed against Bayern Munich. Corbyn has had similar problems with MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt resigning their seats at a time of maximum inconvenience, after seeking transfers to the premier league riches of Sellafield and the V&A. He seems to have lost the dressing room too, with right-wing MPs adopting a policy of silence, seeking to see their ageing leader fail while they snigger behind their hands.
Yet there’s also a sense that both are decent principled men, who have been subjected to more insults that they deserve. The Observer’s Nick Cohen, who appears incapable of appreciating any leader without a PPE from Oxford, described Corbyn as a, “wombat-thick ignoramus”. Piers Morgan tweeted “you arrogant deluded man” when Wenger suggested that he had built the club.
Both men are perceived as having taken their teams as far as they can go, but they also might leave better foundations than is currently perceived. Wenger leaves a set of promising young players who might win trophies with a few more leaders on the pitch and a more ruthless manager. Corbyn has seen off the idea of soft-austerity managerialism, and many of his polices are actually quite popular with the public if presented by someone with more strategic nous. He also leaves a massively increased membership, who are mainly decent young people wanting an end to renting and rubbish jobs rather than Tom Watson’s feared Trotskyists.
Any new appointments will feel things must improve, since Wenger and Corbyn’s leadership has for so long been the issue. Although it could also be a case of “be careful what you wish for” as neither man has an obvious successor. Fourth place every season will not seem so bad if Arsenal miss out entirely on Champions League football, while a new Labour leader is still likely to lose the next election.
Although perhaps there is another solution. A friend suggested a job swap, admittedly over a drink. With his urbane manner and love of Europe, plus a degree in Economics, Wenger seems ideally suited to leading the Labour Party. While Corbyn could re-energise the Arsenal membership, hold rallies at the Emirates and fight the soft coup being waged by Tottenham Hotspur to take their place in the Champions League.