- Associated Press - Friday, April 20, 2018

MONACO (AP) - When Arsene Wenger left Monaco in 1994, his parting gift was bringing in a young and exceptionally talented forward.

Thierry Henry, it was.

Henry had scored more than 40 goals for the under-17 team in one year, and Wenger had seen enough to draft him in for a league game in late August of that year. Within three weeks, with Monaco fighting relegation, Wenger was fired.

It was a painful end for the Frenchman, especially since he had turned down the chance to coach Bayern Munich. But it was also the beginning of a magical partnership with Henry which carried Arsenal to the summit of perfection a decade later when, led by the Frenchman’s goals, the “Invincibles” went an entire season unbeaten.

It started with the surprising decision to hire Wenger in September 1996. He was coaching in Japan at the time, which amused the English tabloids. “Arsene Who?” read one newspaper headline.

He led the London club to a Premier League-FA Cup double in 1998 at the end of his first full season in charge.

Back in France, Wenger had experienced the same level of skepticism when Monaco hired him in 1987 - after he had been relegated with Nancy. And he hardly inspired supporters with his early signings.

Glenn Hoddle? Mark Hateley? Why was a French coach buying English players who - the exquisitely gifted Hoddle aside - were hardly renowned for their technique. And what was the point of signing Patrick Battiston, an out-of-contract center half apparently past his best?

Hoddle pulled the midfield strings with his vision, Hateley scored regularly and the elegant Battiston controlled the back four. Wenger guided Monaco to the league title in his first season.

The next season saw another astute signing: George Weah.

He didn’t get the Liberian striker from Juventus or Real Madrid, either, but from Tonnerre de Yaounde, a team in Cameroon. Weah won the African Player of the Year after his first season with Monaco. He kept improving and won the Golden Ball in 1995 with AC Milan.

Weah has spoken emotionally of Wenger as a father figure, one who wrapped a protective and considerate arm around him when he arrived as a 21-year-old forward. Their bond runs deep. In January, Weah invited Wenger to his inauguration as Liberia’s president.

When Weah was elected president in Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power in more than 70 years, Wenger said he was “absolutely unbelievably convinced that he has a mission.”

But Wenger should also take credit for nurturing his self-belief. Weah won the first of many European trophies under Wenger, the 1991 French Cup against the mighty Marseille side of the early 1990s.

Monaco also reached the 1992 European Cup Winners’ Cup final and the semifinals of the European Cup two years later.

Wenger’s reputation for discovering players, or converting them into a different position, was blossoming by the time he came to Arsenal.

There, he built a successful side with players he knew from his time coaching in France. Henry was signed from Juventus, midfielder Emmanuel Petit from Monaco and Patrick Vieira from AC Milan.

Henry was converted from a left winger into arguably the finest all-around striker in Premier League history, and Arsenal’s record scorer with 228 goals. At the time, only Manchester United’s Roy Keane was a more commanding central midfielder than Vieira.

Wenger first spotted Vieira as a 17-year-old kid playing for Cannes against Monaco. Another great hunch.

While English fans wondered about Wenger’s seemingly uncanny ability to sign unknown players - or unknown to English fans, at least - he had done much the same at Monaco, and at Nancy before that.

While with Nancy, he turned Eric di Meco, a pacey but erratic left winger, into an aggressive left back who would become an integral part of the Marseille team which dominated French soccer and won the 1993 European Cup.

At Monaco, he fine-tuned Petit from a left back into a ball-playing center half, catching the eye of then-France coach Michel Platini.

By the time Petit joined Wenger at Arsenal in 1997, he was a rampaging, all-action midfielder. Alongside Vieira he formed one of the best central midfield pairings the Premier League has seen, a mixture of relentless tackling, strong running and precision passing.

At the end of the 1998 double-winning season, the French midfield pair made it a treble by winning the World Cup with France.

Fittingly, Petit scored the third goal in a 3-0 win over Brazil in the final.

Even France’s World Cup triumph had a touch of Wenger about it.


Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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