Early last season, as he celebrated his 10th anniversary as the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger received one of the most ringing endorsements anyone in his position could ever hope to hear.
David Dein, who at the time had no inclination to sever his 24- year association with the club, offered Wenger a job for life. "We want him for the rest of his career," said Dein, who had somehow managed to persuade the Arsenal board back in 1996 that the Frenchman, at the time working in Japan, was the right man to lead the Gunners into a bright new era despite being virtually unknown in England. "If he wanted to give up the tracksuit, he'd be invaluable in the boardroom," Dein added.
Wenger was touched by Dein's remarks and responded that he had no intention of moving elsewhere. Nothing, it seemed, could shake the foundations of arguably the Premiership's most rock-solid professional relationship, one based on trust and respect and a mutual understanding of how, season by season, to build most effectively on what both had achieved. Wenger identified the players he needed and Dein, with his canny powers of persuasion and worldwide contacts, invariably made sure his most invaluable asset got what he asked for.
Without Dein, Wenger would never have become the household name he is today - almost certainly not in English football, anyway. And without Wenger, Arsenal would not have won the Premiership three times in a decade, including two Doubles, and become one of the biggest brands in world football. As footballing strokes of genius go, the marriage was unrivalled. Wenger's policy of unearthing foreign talent went hand in hand with Dein's desire to broaden Arsenal's horizons and enhance the club's global image.
Then, in one fell swoop, it all came crashing down. Dein's departure last April over "irreconcilable differences" with the board left Wenger holding the fort without his strongest and most powerful ally. Suddenly, not only did he organise Arsenal on the pitch but was thrust into the unwanted position of having to negotiate player contracts and assist the director Ken Friar in dealing with the financial side of transfer business .
"The part I have least liked is all the paperwork," Wenger said last week when asked about his additional responsibilities. It may have been a comment made half in jest, but it served only to add to continuing speculation over the Frenchman's future now that he was having to operate without the man who brought him to the club and had backed him over every major decision.
Significantly, three months after Dein's departure, Wenger has steadfastly refused to make any firm decision about where he will be beyond this season. Neither has he appointed a director of football to take over the key roles Dein played. Could it be that both are deliberate stalling mechanisms to try to buy time in order for Wenger and Dein to work together again, either at Arsenal or elsewhere? Dein may have been keeping a low profile, but rumours continue to grow that he is on the verge of making a dramatic comeback as part of a takeover bid. And if he does, there is only one man he would want as manager.
Yesterday's back-page report in one of the Sunday newspapers that Dein and Wenger had been seen …