It was the place where he would sometimes repair to reflect, over risotto primavera or linguine con tonno, on another Arsenal match chalked up. Only a victory. He’d never be there if they’d lost.
The new world Wenger occupies leaves him free to drop in there at lunchtime these days. ‘He was here with friends yesterday. We were glad to receive him,’ says a staff member.
Arsene Wenger is approaching 70 but is looking fitter and fresher than ever before
It’s low-key and discreet, as Wenger likes things. No images of him with the proprietor on the walls.
There are many reasons why he has continued to live in a detached house in nearby Totteridge. His daughter Lea, who graduated in veterinary sciences from Cambridge last year, is studying for her postgraduate in London.
And though he is divorced from long-time partner Annie Brosterhous, they remain close. They sometimes see Ms Brosterhous at the Lisa Kay Shoes boutique, a few doors down from Cocorico. Wenger still frequents Waitrose, across the road.
Some of the locals suggest that the old summer Wenger routine of cycling the lanes of south Hertfordshire is intact. There’s even been scope for him to turn back to the music collection, for which there never seemed time. The Beatles are his favourites.
‘It was my childhood,’ he said recently. And the songs of Bob Marley, too. ‘It’s the sound of freedom, not fabricated music.’
Leisure options are limited, though. Some retired managers play golf and George Graham, Wenger’s predecessor and near neighbour, lives in a house which backs on to a course. The prospect of a round between the two was put to Wenger and quickly dismissed. He doesn’t play.
Stepping away from Arsenal has left Wenger refreshed and yearning for a return to the dug-out
As Wenger turns 70 next week, it is hard to avoid the sense that he has mixed feelings about the new liberties which life beyond Arsenal have brought.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson, who could look to horseracing, piano playing and American history when he walked away from Old Trafford at 71, six years ago, found it a struggle. The noise of the fans from his seat in the directors’ box seemed odd to him. Wenger has not set foot in the Emirates these past 17 months.
There was a touching video message for Wenger from Sir Alex at a Legends of Football dinner in London last week. ‘We had some great times, so good luck,’ the Scot told his old adversary. ‘My blessing with you.’
When Ferguson turned 70, the game had clearly aged him. Wenger’s time away has left him looking fitter, healthier and not a pound heavier.
His memoir My Life in Red and White will be published next year. Yet his extraordinary performance at the London dinner — staged in his honour, with Ms Brosterhous by his side — revealed he is nowhere near ready to step away.
The protocol is for the celebrity to take the stage and answer questions put by the host, once a sizeable sum has been raised for charity. It was 11.15pm when Wenger stepped up, at the end of an event in its fifth hour.
He spoke for 20 minutes, without notes, without host, delivering a treatise on football success so meticulous that it had clearly been days in its planning.
It was the same when Wenger was invited to address a masterclass at the Paris Olympia this year. The venue had musical connections for him as The Beatles played there in 1963.
Wenger’s final piece of silverware with the Gunners came in the form of the FA Cup in 2017
When Eric Cantona appeared at the same event a few years ago he was in and out in 45 minutes. Wenger, in conversation with his friend, journalist Christian Jeanpierre, gave several hours of compelling talk.
One of the striking parts of Wenger’s delivery in London was his wish to assert that helping Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein build the club into one of the biggest in the world, with the creation of the Emirates, had come at a professional cost.
He described struggling to sleep between March and May each season, knowing that a top-four place was imperative as the club sought to repay the cost of a new stadium. ‘We had to be in the Champions League. We had to sell players,’ he said. ‘I get credit for the first 10 years but those were the hardest.’
Wenger’s friends relate how he feels Tottenham’s struggles this season underline what an achievement Arsenal’s 19 years of continuous Champions League football were. He was damaged by the time he stepped down and the managerial offers he anticipated have not come. He still sees a future in which one will.
Dein doesn’t rule out the idea. ‘He will be back in football,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘He has too much to convey to others to remain outside.’ Former Arsenal forward Alan Smith says Wenger has the physical condition to manage. ‘He is a very, very fit 70-year-old,’ he says.
‘The break has given him his energy back,’ says one close friend. ‘That’s reinforced his feeling he has another job in him.’
The offer to be FIFA’s technical head has been on the table for months, as the governing body look for a recognised figure after the departures of Marco van Basten and Zvonimir Boban.
He seems uncertain and there was a hint at the London dinner that this is not his ideal next step. ‘It could be at FIFA, yes,’ he said. ‘I would like to share what I have learned but in an efficient way. I hate administration. I have learned a lot about human beings.’
Yet those who know him well say he is likely to take the job because it will restore what he misses: a voice and capacity to be heard. ‘That’s the biggest loss for him,’ says one source.
Wenger points to Tottenham’s struggles to show how good Arsenal’s top four consistency was
‘Being the centre of attention, being listened to. He always thought he would find another manager’s job and be back in the spotlight, in the press conferences, in the conversation.’
There is no doubt FIFA would deliver that. Wenger would become their pre-eminent authority.
One of the auction items at the London event — in aid of Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity —was a dinner for seven people with Wenger at the offices of Coutts bankers on The Strand.
When two bidders vied for it, with offers of £40,000 each, he volunteered to do the dinner twice. It was an act of huge generosity but you imagine Wenger enjoying those events.
The spotlight he now commands is via the TV studio, as a Champions League analyst for global broadcaster beIN Sports in Doha. His salary is rumoured to be £250,000, though his role stems from his friendship with beIN chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s owner.
Colleagues at beIN speak of his humility, never expecting seclusion outside the studio as some celebrities do. There was not a flicker of concern when he was asked to appear alongside old adversary Jose Mourinho for the Champions League final. ‘He just started up a conversation with him off screen,’ says a colleague.
There has been talk of a role as sporting director at PSG, though that is unrealistic.
Sir Alex Ferguson recently passed on some kind words to his former foe during a dinner event
‘It would never work,’ says one source. ‘He would want to interfere too much in team formation, tactics, negotiating with agents to buy players. Agents? He’s hated them all his career.’ The FIFA role would suit Wenger better. His friends say he knows that. He anticipates working for FIFA before a return to management.
The chances of him joining an elite club seem remote, while taking on a Newcastle or Everton, with all those reputational risks, would be folly. The solution seems to be an international role, of the kind he rejected when the FA were replacing Sam Allardyce in 2016.
Football owes him an incalculable amount and it is hoped he will find what he most covets in his eighth decade, which he marks next Wednesday, because the sport is inestimably duller without him.
‘When I wake up,’ he said last week, ‘the first thing that comes into my head is, ‘Is there an interesting game tonight on TV?’ If that’s the case, my day is OK.’