Recalling Rémi: Garde joins Arsenal, 1996

Today Arsène Wenger and Rémi Garde will face each other as Premier League managerial opponents for the first time when Arsenal meet Rémi’s new club, Aston Villa. This marks a significant point in the story of the Wenger’s 19 year affair with the English game, because as we will discuss, Rémi represents Wenger’s earliest influence at Arsenal.

Rémi Garde’s entry for the 1999 Panini album (Credit: @OldSchool Panini)

Rémi famously arrived at Arsenal aged 30 from Strasbourg on the same day as Patrick Vieira, 14 August 1996. Although they are hailed as Arsène’s first signings, Wenger did not actually join the club from Nagoya Grampus Eight until over a month later, on 30 September 1996. In fact, both signings were made on his recommendation.

ArseWeb’s rumour entry for 15 August 1996 provides a fascinating insight into the sentiment prior to Wenger’s announcement: the signing of the two Frenchmen added weight to the rumours that were circulating about his impending appointment. In a strange twist of fate the rumour entry for that day then mentions that Arsenal were being linked with Tim Sherwood, the very man Rémi has replaced as manager of Aston Villa:

In addition Remi Garde said something rather revealing:
“I’m glad to be signing for a club like Arsenal and working with Arsene Wenger.”
We are also still being linked with Tim Sherwood. The Mirror claims that a £4million deal is being finalised.

Rémi recalls the initial absence of Wenger, but that they were already in regular contact:

“I spent more time on the phone than face to face because as you will remember he was still in Japan. I was at the Colney training centre. He called me every night to have news and find out about how it was going in the training sessions and everything.”

This adds weight to the idea that Garde (fluent in English and his native French) was brought in as an ‘inside man’ for Wenger, allowing him to gauge rapport within the dressing room, adding an experienced Francophone ally to a mostly traditional English Arsenal team, easing the transition and inclusion of other ‘Continental’ players he was adding to the squad.

Rémi’s arrival at Arsenal did make a big impression on the players at the time, as Martin Keown comments:

“I remember when Remi Garde first arrived…you could say it was the beginning of a French revolution at the club…We watched these arrivals with great interest…you could not fail to be impressed by him and the other French players Wenger brought in. I remember training with them at the gym and thinking: ‘These guys are serious professionals. They mean business.’”

ArseWeb documented Garde’s debut, in a match report by Derek Brownjohn for the three-nil win over Leeds United at Highbury in October 1996:

“Remi Garde made his long awaited debut with about 10 minutes left, coming on for the injured Wright (a slight groin strain apparently which should only keep him out of training for a couple of days), to complete a thoroughly satisfactory day for the Highbury faithful.”

Rémi replaced Ian Wright in the eightieth minute, and was rated half a point higher that Steve Morrow in the report for the day:

“Morrow 6.0 Probably not fair to judge him on only about 10 minutes.

Garde 6.5 Ditto, though he looked to have a good confident touch.”

Garde went on to win a league winner’s medal in 1997/98, after which he announced his retirement, only to renege. He continued for another season, until finally retiring in June 1999, having been out since that February with an injury.

In total, Rémi made 43 Arsenal appearances, including 16 as a substitute. He was always a ‘squad player’, but his arrival and departure marked important moments of transition: the start and end of Arsène’s Generation 1.0 team. It was Generation 2.0 who would go on to win the 2002 double and form the foundation for the ‘Invincibles’ team of 2004.

Garde became a pundit, and subsequently worked his way up from coach to become manager at Lyon in June 2011. He left at the end of the 2013/2014 season, and took a sabbatical before joining Aston Villa on 2 November 2015.

Wenger, and his old colleague Gérard Houllier (also once of Villa), played a part in advising Garde to take the role at Villa Park. On joining Rémi reminisced about Arsenal, and Wenger’s legacy:

“I remember the club at Arsenal 20 years ago without training facilities, without a modern stadium like they have today…All this has to be credited to Arsène…A football club is not only the results you get today but also how you will build for the future for yourself or for another manager for or another chairman or owner.”

Clearly, Garde still retains great respect for his former boss. By the close of today, we’ll find out whether mentor was able to outmatch the master.