It's like a breath of fresh air since Arsene Wenger left Arsenal - it became impossible not to criticise him, says Alan Smith

james olley
New broom: Unai Emery has changed the atmosphere at Arsenal: Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsene Wenger will forever be revered at Arsenal, but almost everyone has welcomed the breath of fresh air that has blown through the club this summer.

Players have talked about a clean slate and their opportunity to work with Unai Emery’s new ideas, with Wenger, once the club’s revolutionary, now consigned to a deserved place in the club’s history.

Alan Smith believes that reinvigoration extends to the club’s former employees, too, many of whom had grown weary of reframing the same problems under Wenger year upon year.

“Anybody in the media connected to Arsenal had grown fed up of trying to find different ways to say the same thing,” said the former Gunners striker-turned-pundit. “Organisation, work off the ball, leaders, more steel in the side, all of this stuff had been a broken record for five years or so. Now we can give thanks to Arsene and move on to see how Emery will change things and have an impact. It’s a blank canvas.”

Smith, himself, has come full circle. He made his first tentative foray into media work 23 years ago when then-Standard Sport football correspondent Michael Hart encouraged him to chronicle the end of his playing days at Highbury following a serious knee injury. Tomorrow, he returns to our pages as a weekly columnist on the Premier League.

Smith spent five seasons at Leicester in the 1980s before scoring 115 goals in 347 games for the Gunners between 1987 and 1995, the most famous of which were the opener in Arsenal’s iconic 2-0 win at Liverpool to secure the 1989 League title and the solitary strike in their Cup Winners’ Cup success over Parma five years later.

Hart asked him to sum up the conclusion of a career which included two League titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and two Golden Boots, in addition to 13 England caps and, thus, a media career which has since taken in Sky and the FIFA video game series was born.

The latter journey has not been one without obstacles in the road, though.

Smith never played under Wenger, but he was one of several prominent Arsenal players caught between softening the blow for one-time colleagues at the club dearest to his heart and identifying the flaws which became painfully obvious towards the end of the Frenchman’s reign.

"Arsenal had the hump with me but it gave me some kudos that I had criticised my old club and team-mates"

- Alan Smith

Thierry Henry was, perhaps, the most high-profile casualty, for a while attempting to straddle working as a youth team coach at the club in the week before condemning the first team in his role as a Sky pundit each weekend.

“No matter how big a legend you are — and Thierry is one of the biggest — you can’t have a foot in both camps — and Thierry learned that,” said Smith.

“As time went on towards the end of Arsene’s tenure, it became impossible not to criticise him and the performances.

“If you resisted it, you would lose all respect. I remember Arsene saying he wanted Thierry to stop working for Sky and commit to the youth team position. I could well see his point. As reasonable and logical as Arsene is, it is still going to grate when your all-time leading scorer is having a go. It wouldn’t have been easy for all sides, but Thierry ended up staying at Sky before going off to work with Belgium.”

Smith’s personal exile came much earlier.

Arsenal and Manchester United clashed in ugly scenes at the end of a match in September 2003 at Old Trafford, with Martin Keown at the epicentre, goading and confronting Ruud van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman missed a stoppage-time penalty the visiting players felt had been deceitfully earned.

Ugly scenes: Van Nistelrooy and Keown clash in 2003 (Getty Images)

Smith used his television and newspaper appearances that day to condemn Arsenal’s role in the affair as the principal aggressors — a view ultimately supported by the FA, who fined five Gunners players and two from United — but his former team-mate did not see it that way. Writing in his new autobiography Heads Up, Smith says: “One night at Southampton, I had a row with Martin Keown when he chose to bring up my Old Trafford comments. Stood in the St Mary’s tunnel a couple of hours before kick-off, he just couldn’t understand why I had said what I did.

“As a former Arsenal player, he thought I should have been more supportive. An old team-mate with whom I got on quite well thought me bang out of order on this particular subject. It got fairly heated — that can happen with Martin — as I defended my corner and he argued his.”

At that time, Smith was a frequent visitor to Arsenal’s London Colney training ground, writing pieces for the club’s magazine, but following the Keown clash he was subsequently informed that the players opposed his ongoing presence, combative midfielder Patrick Vieira among those most offended.

“Although at the time the fact Arsenal had the hump upset me, as did some fans, by the same token it did draw a line in the sand and gave me a bit of kudos in the media in that I had taken a step back and I was willing to criticise my old club and some of my old team-mates,” he explained.

“Until you retire and step back, you can’t really understand it. And if you are going to do the job, you can’t please both sides. You have to be as honest and fair as you possibly can and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”