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25th Apr 2018

Why Stan Kroenke could be the unlikely key to Arsenal hiring Wenger’s worthy successor

Silent Stan may just have the perfect plan

Simon Clancy

“Age doesn’t matter.”

When Arsene Wenger called time on his career at Arsenal last Friday, perhaps the most heartening – and realistic – tribute came from CEO Ivan Gazidis. “We’re not going to find a replacement [for Arsene] for a variety of reasons,” he said at an Emirates Stadium press conference. “He came into the game 22 years ago when it was a very different time.”

Although Gazidis may not have been entirely in the Frenchman’s corner, especially during the last few seasons, his words underline the difficulty that lies ahead: how do you replace what often seemed irreplaceable? For all the Fan TV outbursts and Piers Morgan’s social media histrionics, Wenger will be a very hard act to follow. In large part because his imprint across the club was so enormous that any new regime will need significant time to change.

Although plans have been in place for his end of days for a number of years, the club never went behind his back to talk to other managerial candidates and so the task of tracking down a suitable replacement will be more difficult than throwing together a list of names of the top coaches across European Football.

One thing in the Gunners’ favour is that they have history – perhaps not on their side, but certainly in their camp. And it comes in the form of majority owner Stan Kroenke. Silent Stan may not be particularly beloved at the Emirates, but when faced with a situation not altogether dissimilar twelve months ago with his NFL team, the Los Angeles Rams, Kroenke not only got the hire right, he knocked it out of the park.

Sean McVay is the youngest head coach in NFL history. He was 30 years old when, as the offensive co-ordinator for the Washington Redskins, he interviewed for the job in January 2017. If he got the gig he’d inherit a team that already had one player older than him in 32 year old center John Sullivan, and they’d add another – 35 year old offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth – before the season started.

When the previous incumbent Jeff Fisher was fired with three weeks of the 2016 season remaining, the Rams began a deep dive into a number of potential candidates, of which the inexperienced McVay was but one. They also undertook a period of self-assessment and polled people inside the organisation about what has been missing. The three words they kept hearing were ‘accountability, communication and energy’.

McVay had all of these in spades and it became clear after meeting him that his age was immaterial. Within 20 minutes of his first interview, General Manager Les Snead told Sports Illustrated that he made a note to himself: “Age doesn’t matter. It’ll be if we want to hire him or not. The most important people in the building are the players. Hey, most of them are in their early twenties.”

The Rams also made sure that they reached out to players that McVay had coached in Washington. But not just the offensive players. Snead and his team tasked with finding the next coach took it one step further and did something fairly unique: they gathered testimonials from defensive players who’d gone up against McVay in practice, day after day after day for two years.

“It was unanimous,” Snead told SI. ‘Home run’, ‘no brainer’, ‘hire him tomorrow’, ‘best motivator’, ‘best coach to put us in a position to succeed’, ‘a great teacher’. A potpourri of compliments from a lot of different personalities on that team.”

McVay was vaulting himself from outsider to favourite in the race to become the new coach of this moribund franchise. Their greatest achievement was to win Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999. But they’d not had a winning record since 2003 and had been absent from the playoffs since 2004. Could a 30-year-old man-child really turn things around? Why not?

On January 10, 2017, McVay had his second interview.

Kroenke and Snead, along with former Rams Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk then took him to dinner at Spago, the most iconic restaurant in Los Angeles, to seal the deal. Silent Stan listened as McVay talked football with Faulk, and watched as he interacted effortlessly with the men who were judging his every move, and with the eatery’s celebrity clientele including chef Wolfgang Puck, singer Fergie and her husband, Transformers actor Josh Duhamel.

Then, after he’d left, Kroenke turned to Snead and said, “I hope we have the courage of our convictions to do what’s right.”

Three days later, McVay was officially introduced as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Almost a year to the day, his team were NFC West division champions, with their best record in fourteen seasons, and awaiting a home playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Although they’d eventually lose that game, McVay would win the Pro Football Writers Coach of the Year Award after presiding over a truly remarkable turnaround. He is the ultimate ‘hipster’ coach – if the NFL does hipster – and the Rams will enter the 2018/19 season as favourites to win their second Super Bowl, in large part because of his talents.

So why is this relevant to Arsenal?

Well because although the Gunners have had more success than the Rams in terms of trophies – three FA Cups since the Rams last had a winning season prior to McVay – they’ve also vastly underachieved. Both teams have moved to new stadiums – the Rams are currently renting the Rose Bowl in Pasadena whilst their new complex is built in Englewood – and have seen dwindling support from their respective fan bases.

Perhaps the greatest similarity of all could come in the next choice of manager: whilst many believe Kroenke will opt for experience in one of two 58-year-olds in Carlo Ancelotti, or Joachim Low, or 47-year-old Luis Enrique, there are many who think that after Kroenke’s success with McVay, he’ll look to replicate that with Arsenal and target Hoffenheim’s 30-year-old wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann, Schalke’s 32-year-old Domenico Tedesco, or notably, 36-year-old former club captain Mikel Arteta, who has never coached at any level of football.

A highly innovative football mind, Arteta is known as meticulous, well-prepared and confident, and those who work around him at Manchester City, where he’s assistant coach to Pep Guardiola, describe him as ‘accountable, communicative and energetic’.

Ring any bells?

So whilst it may well end up being Enrique, who worked so closely with Arsenal’s new Head of Football Relations, Raul Sanllehi at Barcelona, don’t rule out Silent Stan looking for a quiet man who roars.