The following interview initially appeared in The Athletic.
“Why now? She just kept saying, why now?”
Lee-Ah Wenger cuts a relaxed figure as he sits in the canteen at Nagoya Grampus’ training ground. It’s 72 hours since the press conference that shocked the football world.
It wasn’t the fact that Nagoya had appointed a man in his early-20s coach with no head coach experience to speak of that sent ripples across social media. It wasn’t even the fact the is, to all intents and purposes, a complete unknown. It was his surname that saw #sonofarsene trending on Twitter within six minutes of the press conference starting and the truth being revealed.
Wenger speaks of telling his mother what was about to happen just hours before he was to be unveiled to the international press.
“Of course, she was shocked on two levels – firstly, the fact that I was going to be announcing to the world that one of the greatest managers the world has ever seen has a son that he has never publically acknowledged. Secondly, I had accepted the offer to lead Nagoya into a new era – our home town club, the club we’d followed through thick and thin as a family since Arsene was coach here”.
Naturally, there is a lot to understand here and in a conversation that lasted over two hours, it was difficult to keep up with the speed Wenger Jr spoke at.
Wenger’s son? How could this be?
Lee-Ah was born on the 2nd August, 1996 – just 26 days before Arsene took charge of his final game for Nagoya. The obvious narrative at the time for Wenger Sr was that it was Arsenal coming in for him and his good friend David Dein was impossible to say no to a second time – Wenger Sr had previously turned Dein down before they appointed Bruce Rioch.
But Wenger Jr has, understandably, a different spin on events at the time.
“Arsene met my mother within minutes of arriving in Japan. She was part of the legal team that worked on his initial contract with the club. Arsene wasn’t married, I think he had a partner but she had not travelled to Japan with him, and there was a spark between him and my mother. They spent a lot of time together, never officially, and she fell pregnant by him. Arsene wanted it kept out of the public eye to protect his reputation, but there were rumours starting in Japan that were becoming harder to play down. I wouldn’t say he left Nagoya for Arsenal just because of me being born, but it definitely played a part. David Dein liked Arsene and was keen to give him an easy way to leave the country that would benefit both of them”.
Understandably, the world’s press has been chasing Arsene since the news broke and there has been no official comment at this stage – but Lee-Ah is not surprised by this.
“I can understand him not saying anything in public, I can completely understand it. One moment he is being linked to the Bayern job and then 24 hours later it is all over the TV that he has a son – who he knows about – and that son is also now a football manager. I can understand why he has not rushed into making a public comment”.
When I asked whether Wenger Jr was now only using his father’s name to enhance his own coaching career, Lee-Ah was surprisingly candid about it.
“Yes, 100%. And why not? After all, I am 22 years old. How on earth else would the board at Nagoya choose me over the other candidates? I am not foolish enough to think that it is not at least 75% a decision based on the name and the potential commercial side that could come off the back of it. It is a big story”.
Wenger Jr says he had always planned to take his father’s name at some point “in the future” but made it clear that he had got himself to the point where he could apply for such a job off his own back – he is Continental Pro qualified, achieved on a fast-track due to his perceived exceptional ability noticed in his first course at 16, but all his coaching certificates are in his mother’s name – Sakora.
He’d been coaching in Nagoya’s youth set-up since 15 and had progressed as far as managing the U18 squad to the Japanese title last season, again under his mother’s name.
It was only when he felt the urge to apply for the vacant Head Coach position that the idea of revealing his father’s name came to him.
“I needed an edge. Listen, I am completely confident in my ability to do this job – I am not here just because of my name. That 25% that isn’t because of my name is because of my ability and what I have already done for Nagoya in the seven years I have been coaching here.”
But surely he is at risk of ruining his career before it even gets started? As Lee-Ah Sakora, he was developing a fine reputation as one of the up-and-coming coaches in Japan on his own merit. Having spoken to players and coaches who have already worked with him, the overarching feeling is that Lee-Ah was well on the way to becoming a head coach at senior level within the next five years anyway – so why risk it all with a big reveal that ups the stakes in a way that can not be recovered if he does not succeed?
“Listen, in football there are no guarantees. Sire, I could have waited, kept it a secret and got a break in the national leagues and gone from there, maybe. But, there’s no guarantees of success at that level – so I could have killed my career that way as well. Let’s be brutally honest here – I have a better contract at Nagoya than I would get there, so if it does go wrong I could well be set up for life and be able to make better decisions in the future. But, my surname is going to open doors. I’ve already heard from at least two of Arsene’s former adversaries wanting to offer me advice. Four of his former players have already called to wish me luck. And you’d expect that Nagoya is suddenly going to be an interesting project for players to come and join us – all because of what is now happening”.
Wenger Jr clearly believes in the choice he has made, and it is difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. But is it all fluff, is there a coach with a philosophy in there?
It’s clear that Lee-Ah has followed his father’s coaching career, impressively so given that he would have been a child for most of it. And, it feels like there is an influence there.
“Of course I have researched him, as I have many of the top coaches in football. Do my teams play like Arsene Wenger teams? Well, how can we even say that? Arsene’s style changed over his career and, I think we can agree, not necessarily for the better. I preferred the football he played in his early Arsenal years. Two powerful central midfielders who could play. Two wide men who would contribute goals. An out and out striker alongside a clever striker. Pressing all over the pitch and so quick in transition – that’s what I want to see Nagoya playing like this season”.
Wenger Jr clearly feels that Wenger Sr lost his way after Cesc Fabregas emerged as a footballer. Gone was the power that was associated with his first double-winning side and the Invincibles. In was diminutive technique and free roles. But can Lee-Ah find power in Japan, a notoriously small and technical league?
“You could argue that with the rugby, but look at the size of the Japanese natives in the national rugby team now. Stereotypes are having to shift, beliefs are having to change. I am not expecting to get my perfect looking side within two training sessions here. It will take time. We will breed the players that I want to breed, we will have the best training set-up in the country. In the short-term, I will work with what I have but I will always have my eye on what I see as eventual, perpetual perfection.”
Lee-Ah Wenger is a name that will be remembered, that much is obvious. What he is remembered for – Arsene’s illegitimate son or a great football manager in his own right – is the future that will unfold. He is young, but he is weirdly charismatic. He is fuelled by a desire to prove himself as his own man, which is a curious juxtaposition considering it was his choice to out himself as a Wenger.
Whether it turns out to be a short-lived marketing ploy by Nagoya Grampus or a decision as inspired as David Dein’s back in 1996, the next season in J-League is going to be one to watch for sure.