By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Former Manchester City chairman and lifelong fan of the club David Bernstein admits to some disquiet as the team prepare for Sunday's Premier League trip to Arsenal.
"It’s a bit difficult. I’ve got to support City, they’re my club. But I’ve got a lot of time for (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger. If he got a battering, I’d feel very, very sorry for him," the 73-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
"I think he's a fantastic manager, I admire him as a person," Bernstein, speaking at a Cogress Investor Club event this week, said of the under-fire Frenchman.
Former FA chairman Bernstein has never made any secret of his admiration for Wenger, even if he would not comment on how much he may have wanted him as England boss during his tenure.
The match at the Emirates is the first of two clashes between underperforming teams that hoped to challenge for the Premier League title but are now scrapping for a top-four finish and Champions League berth behind runaway leaders Chelsea.
The second clash is an FA Cup semi-final on April 23 at Wembley Stadium, and if City were to win both games the pressure on Wenger would be even greater after six losses in nine games.
"When I was at City, I asked (former vice-chairman of Arsenal and the FA) David Dein if I could meet him (Wenger), when we were in the second division. And I had two hours with him at the Arsenal training ground on my own," said Bernstein.
"He was fantastic... I went back and a lot of what happened at City was because of him. He was tremendous. So I have got a lot of sympathy for him. I’m really sad to see this sort of decline."
Wenger's contract runs out at the end of the season and the Frenchman has said he will soon announce whether he will sign a new deal but many of the club's supporters want him to leave.
"I’m not going to speculate on what he should do, he’s his own man," said Bernstein. "All I do know is that when he’s gone, they’re going to miss him badly. That’s for sure."
When Bernstein became City chairman in 1998, the Sky Blues were on their way down to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history -- playing against the likes of Gillingham Town and Colchester United.
Wenger, meanwhile, in his first full season at the club was leading Arsenal to the league and FA Cup double in 1997-98.
Bernstein, who quit City in March 2003, said: "For a period of time, a number of years, I was the man. I was the boss. I could do it my way. It wasn’t my club, I didn’t own it, but I had that authority.
"My first two years with (manager) Joe Royle were my best two years in football. Being in the trenches, playing York City and Lincoln City and Wycombe Wanderers in the league. And losing. It’s inconceivable.
"Our total income as a club when I became chairman was 13 million pounds ($16.20 million). Now I think it’s 400 million."
The money poured in by the current Abu Dhabi owners since 2008 has made City one of the wealthiest clubs in the world and able to secure the services of former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola.
With City knocked out of the Champions League in the last 16 and standing third in the Premier League, 12 points behind Chelsea, Bernstein feels the Spaniard has plenty of work to do.
"On their day, they (City) are fantastic, a wonderful attacking side and so on, but they’ve disappointed," he said.
"The owners are looking for a lot more. With that money and that investment, this is a club that should really be strongly challenging for the (English) championship and for Europe. So, so far not proven."
($1 = 0.8022 pounds)
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by...)