It is the nature of the beast that Arsène Wenger would sooner have a football match on any day other than his birthday.
“What a nightmare,” he said, smiling wryly, when reminded of the occasion coinciding with Arsenal’s game against Middlesbrough. “I forgot about that.”
Although the passing years do not impact on how he feels about his job – far from it – he is aware that his status as the Premier League’s oldest manager, turning 67 on Saturday, can have a detrimental effect on how others regard his capacity.
“Your age quickly becomes a psychological excuse to get rid of you,” he said. “It’s like being a player. Once you get to a certain age you have a bad game and they think: ‘You have to go.’ That’s why the demands are even higher than before. I live in a competitive world and it’s down to what I produce that has to be judged. My age should not interfere with that. But if you don’t do well the age quickly becomes the problem.”
Arsène Wenger warns Arsenal to avoid complacency in Premier League ‘jungle’
Wenger admits he is worried at the thought he might one day have to stop all this. “Nobody lives a whole life by being motivated by the next game, stops suddenly and goes to church every day,” he said. “If God exists and one day I go up there and he will ask: ‘Do you want to come in? What have you done in your life?’ And the only answer I will have is: ‘I tried to win football games.’ He will say: ‘Is that all you have done?’ And the only answer I will have is: ‘It’s not as easy as it looks.’”
Looking at Wenger in his tracksuit, ready to hit the fresh air at London Colney as he prepares his team to try to extend their seven-game winning streak, he does not currently look an obvious target for ageism. For a start, not many men of his vintage are as physically fit – the consequence of a lifestyle where he still trains daily and eats healthily.
“If all professional footballers lived like I do they would be fit for all 10 months of the season,” he quipped. Secondly, he is at the moment visibly inspired by the response his team has given to losing their opening game of the campaign against Liverpool, which has taken Arsenal level on points with the favourites Manchester City at the top of the table.
“I would prefer to be the youngest manager in the league,” he said, “but it’s part of life. I believe that you forget your age if you are in good health and all the rest inside you is a love for competition and a love to improve every day. I never liked the retirement word. We are there to be active and to fight. Life is no other issue than to fight until the last day of your life as much as you can.”
Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the age of 71 and Wenger does not rule out trying to emulate or even go beyond that. “I don’t know, at the moment I feel good,” he said. He still feels physically fresh and mentally motivated, despite seldom taking a break. Even a week off in the summer is a rarity. He makes no apology for the fact the result against Middlesbrough will account “99%” for whether or not he celebrates with anything other than watching a televised match at home in the evening.
“I started to manage when was I was 33. I’m one of the few managers in the world who has not stopped at all. There’s been no break years, I’ve worked every day my whole life. Because I love it. What has changed is I started alone, today I have a team around the team. I did the warmup, goalkeeper training, everything. I would certainly not be able to do that today.”