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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

FA Cup: Trophy that eluded Clough has been Wenger's saving grace

Arsenal take on Championship side Nottinhgam Forest in the third round of a competition the Frenchman has won seven times

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was handed a three-game touchline ban by the English FA for recent criticisms of match officials. Tim Ireland / AP Photo
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was handed a three-game touchline ban by the English FA for recent criticisms of match officials. Tim Ireland / AP Photo

A game of no genuine managers on the touchline, as Arsene Wenger begins a three-match ban, is nevertheless the tale of two.

Nottingham Forest, under the temporary stewardship of Gary Brazil are searching for their 11th manager since 2011 and their 19th of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal. But these are two clubs who are indelibly associated with one figure in the dugout, two who were reinvented by a revolutionary force.

Brian Clough was only 14 years Wenger’s senior, but a man who has been dead for 13 years feels a figure from a very distant age, the most remarkable of a British generation of charismatic, outspoken man-managers. And if there was far more, incorporating some extraordinarily good signings and tactical prowess, to his success than that, he feels Wenger’s opposite in some respects, and not just because he came from an era when English managers dominated.

Wenger, the first foreigner to win Division 1 or the Premier League title, has secured a record seven FA Cups. Clough never won one. Yet a reason why many believe he ranks among the greatest ever managers is that he won the European Cup twice with a provincial club who were 13th in Division Two when he was appointed; Wenger lost the 2006 final to Barcelona but the Uefa Champions League has eluded him.

Brian Clough, right, won league titles and European Cups in charge at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, but never the FA Cup. Getty Images
Brian Clough, right, won league titles and European Cups in charge at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, but never the FA Cup. Getty Images

Wenger has won three of the last four FA Cups; indeed without the competition, he would have no major silverware since the Premier League triumph of the 2004 "Invincibles"; their 49-game unbeaten run beat the previous record achieved by Forest. "I admire myself for the 42 undefeated games much more than the European Cup," Clough said in 2004.

There has long been a theory, albeit one Wenger denied that he, when stalling on a contract, would have quit had Arsenal lost the 2014 final to Hull City, when they went 2-0 down before Aaron Ramsey ended their nine-year wait for silverware.

Yet it may be truer that Clough, instead of retiring amid the embarrassment of relegation in 1993, would have taken his leave in happier circumstances two years earlier had his side won at Wembley.

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“My opinion is that if we had won the 1991 FA Cup final, he would have retired,” the Forest goalkeeper that day, Mark Crossley, told this writer a few years ago. “He wanted the FA Cup; once he had that, he would have won everything.”

Instead, in a final remembered for Paul Gascoigne’s self-destructive tackling, Tottenham prevailed in extra time. Clough, the great communicator, strangely opted not to give a team talk after 90 minutes.

He ended up unfulfilled in a competition that meant much to him, just as Wenger surely will do in Europe.

Instead, he will have to settle for replacing the six-time FA Cup winner George Ramsay in the history books. Wenger’s quest for an eighth title is likely to begin with a second-string side. He has fielded reserve sides in the League Cup and Europa League and the players who drew 2-2 with Chelsea could be spared for a semi-final rematch with capital rivals on Wednesday.

Arsenal have only lost one of their last 22 FA Cup ties, the 2016 quarter-final to Watford, and have only exited once to lower-league opposition in his reign. Wenger has also only lost once to Forest and, to put that into perspective, Ian Wright, who was sent off that day in 1996, is now 54.

Forest, who sacked manager Mark Warburton, have only won once in eight games and have failed to score in three of their last four at home. With the Clough years feeling very distant, Arsenal ought to advance.