'He put up signs reminding Arsenal players to chew' - How Wenger revolutionised English football's health habits

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It was an appointment that would change the face of Arsenal forever.

When Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996, the Gunners were a club in the state of flux.

The George Graham era had come to an end, and Bruce Rioch had been given just one season in charge before the decision was taken to make another change.

Few had even heard of Wenger when David Dein, who was then vice-chairman, convinced the board to take a chance on the Frenchman.

But it did not take long for everyone at Highbury to realise that they had brought someone in who was going to leave an indelible mark on the club.

The changes were immediate, some big and some subtle, but they all made a huge impact – both on and off the pitch.

Wenger inherited a squad of players that had mostly been schooled and moulded under Graham, although the arrival a year earlier of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt from Italy had added a touch of European influence to the changing room.

With the likes of David Seaman, Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour and Ian Wright at his disposal, Arsenal’s new manager knew he had the spine of a team that could be successful, but that he had to change their way of thinking to get the very best out of them.

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“He had players who were committed, who knew the game, but physically they probably didn’t live their lives the way they should,” recalls Gary Lewin, who was Arsenal’s physio at the time.

“Culturally, it was a drinking profession where you played hard, on and off the pitch. But he changed their attitudes and said, 'No, your preparation, your training and how you prepare is as important as the games.'

“It’s like anyone in any form of life. If you clean up your day-to-day living, you eat the right foods, you get plenty of sleep and you are not doing the wrong things, you will feel better in yourself.

“And if you feel better in yourself, you will perform better.”

And they did just that.

Arsenal ended the 1996-97 season third in the Premier League and showed signs that they were turning into a force to be reckoned with once again.

The following year, they won the double for the second time in the club’s history by beating Manchester United to the title and seeing off Newcastle at Wembley to lift the FA Cup.

Players whose careers had looked to be tailing off had been reborn, with the changes Wenger had introduced behind the scenes credited with giving them a second lease of life.

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“I think we really took on board what Arsene was trying to do,” Winterburn, who made 49 appearances in all competitions during the '98 double-winning season, tells GOAL.

“For me, the biggest thing I took from Arsene wasn’t what he implemented in terms of food and dietary requirements, it was more about the training. I absolutely loved it, it was just so different to anything we’d done or seen before.

“It was short, it was sharp, it was intense. It was on a clock and when that clock hit the time he set out, that was it, he didn’t care less what was happening.

“It was stop, drink, then walk on to the next session.”

Winterburn adds: “It’s probably the hardest I’ve ever trained. I pushed myself as hard as I could in those last few seasons.

“As I got older, rather than taking it easier, I was pushing myself more to make sure I was ready for match days.

“I felt as if it was the hardest I could push myself to train. It was almost like a game situation and that was the big difference for me.”

The changes Wenger introduced to Arsenal’s training sessions were vast, different to anything English football had seen before, and the benefit was immediate.

“The biggest thing that Arsene brought on board was the importance of training,” Lewin tells GOAL.

“One of the first things he changed was the length and intensity of the sessions. The length went down, the intensity went up. They would last 45 minutes, but they would be quite match intensive.

“Today, this is the standard thing, but at the time it wasn’t really like that in the football world.”

It wasn’t just the training that changed, however.

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Wenger introduced a new way of thinking behind the scenes. Alcohol was banned immediately, as was salt and sugar.

Egg and chips were taken off the menu, as was red meat. It was replaced by boiled chicken, pasta, raw vegetables and fish.

Yann Rougier, a specialist in dietary supplements, was brought in, and players were urged to chew their food 100 times before swallowing.

“Arsene always spoke about nutrition and eating the right foods,” says Lewin. “Just taking sugar out of the diet was a big thing. We had used to have chocolate in the dressing room before a game, we had jelly babies, things like that. He got rid of all of it.

“He had this thing about chewing and drinking lots of water. You had to really chew your food properly so it would digest properly. 

“Yann would talk to the players, saying he expected them to take 100 chews before they swallowed it, because the more you break food down, the easier it gets digested.

“They used to put signs up: 'Chew, chew, chew, sip, sip, sip.' He used to say, ‘The quicker you drink, the quicker you pee, pee.'"

For a squad which was packed full of old-school players, some of the changes Wenger introduced were easier to take than others.

While the new training sessions were given the seal of approval by everyone, the rules surrounding what was eaten on site were not quite so popular early on.

Chants of 'We want our chocolate back' once bellowed out on the team coach on the way home from an away game, while some players used to rush into the lunch hall at London Colney to try to eat before Wenger had showered and changed after training.

“I used to be one of the first up all the time and I used to ask the chef to make me a sandwich,” admits Winterburn.

“He used to say, 'If Arsene walks up, make sure that sandwich disappears pretty quickly.'"

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“The players did question it,” adds Lewin. “The first four to six weeks when he took all the sugar away, they had sugar cravings. Some of them used to smuggle chocolate in their bags!

“I remember in that 97-98 season, we played Blackburn at Highbury the week before Christmas and we got beaten 3-1. We were booed off the pitch and everyone was questioning things.

“But I remember Arsene saying, 'This is a marathon, not a sprint. Stick with it, we will get better.' We then went on a 28-game unbeaten run to win the double.”

Preparation was key for Wenger.

From the food his players ate, to the amount of sleep they would get before the game – everything was changed to his way of thinking following his arrival.

He would take the squad to a hotel the night before a game – even if it was at home – so he could carefully measure what they were doing to ensure they were in the best shape possible for kick-off.

“He was big into his stretching,” says Winterburn. “He used to hire a room in the hotel, you’d come down in the morning and Arsene would be lying there on the floor.

“Soon, you’d end up going through loads of stretches and you’d have your legs up the wall.

“It was a little bit strange, but it was what the manager wanted, so it was what we did.”

“These were things that hadn’t been done before,” Lewin continues. “But don’t forget, it coincided with a time when we started to get foreign players in.

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“English players are very old school, but we had Dennis Bergkamp. David Platt was here and had been used to it in Italy.

“Arsene then brought Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira in and we signed players like [Nicolas] Anelka, [Gilles] Grimandi, [Marc] Overmars, [Emmanuel] Petit. They were European players who were used to this type of preparation.”

Wenger’s arrival in north London brought a period of success to Arsenal that the club had not seen since Herbert Chapman laid the foundations for a decade of dominance in the 1930s.

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Word soon spread around football about how things were being done at the champions, and rival clubs rushed to try and recreate his methods as they watched Wenger’s side go from strength to strength.

The changes he pushed through during his early days with the Gunners are now commonplace. There can be no better testimony to Wenger’s visionary thinking.

His arrival in 1996 did not just change the face of Arsenal forever, it changed the face of English football.