“It’s difficult because this is my life every year. There are 20,000 trees out there [in London Colney, Arsenal’s training center]. I saw every one like that [makes ‘small’ gesture], now they are massive. I will greet every one of them before I leave and say thank you. This is my life and I don’t know anything else.”— Arsene Wenger, final pre-match press conference
And he is done.
After 22 years and 1,235 games in charge, starting Monday, May 14, Arsene Wenger won’t be managing Arsenal anymore. From the English press asking ‘Arsene, who?’ to millions of fans and followers of the game around the world appreciating the services of the Frenchman, saying Merci Arsene - the circle is now complete. Whether he thanks the trees today or not, there are thousands of fans thanking him for providing memories that will last a lifetime.
With Wenger, of course, the farewell is one that is left the club and its fans in a weird situation. The festivities of the past week or so – filled with nostalgia for the 49-match undefeated run, for seven FA Cup titles, for three League titles, for winning the league at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, for the beautiful football he professed – shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that this is what a majority of the fan-base wanted.
The past season (much longer than that for some fans) had made it painfully obvious that the club is regressing under his leadership and that watching Arsenal play had stopped being the joyous experience it had been for large parts of Wenger’s time at the club.
The man knew it too. He said as much that seeing the club’s fans portray an image of discord around the globe was part of why he decided enough is enough.
And yet, despite the negativity surrounding the club, the moment Wenger announced this would be his last season at the club, one thing was clear: he deserved a sendoff that would tell him, for all the bickering among fans, that he was loved. Nostalgia is a powerful tool in sport and it helped Wenger get a farewell he deserved. A goodbye and not a good-riddance.
“Personally, from 2006-2015 was the period when I needed to be the strongest and did the best job. I accepted to commit to five years when we built the stadium and to work with restricted resources to keep the club in the position where we could pay our debts back. I personally feel I did my best job during that period. Not the most glamorous, but the most difficult.”
History will be a fairer judge of Wenger’s achievements than fans have been in the recent past. All said and done, when you look back at what he has done for the club from, say, 22 years into the future, you’d find that his legacy will be more than just the trophies he left in the Arsenal cabinet.
“I know that we disappointed this season, the away fans [just one away in 2018]. Many of them live the whole week, save money to travel up to games. It’s part of respect we have. They had disagreements with me, which I can accept. But we had one thing in common, we love Arsenal football club. I wanted to share that with them today.”— Wenger, on why went over to the away fans before and after the game
Like so many players have said over and over again, throughout his stay at the club, he cared about them. He was more than just a manager. He was a father figure. It’s not a coincidence that you rarely see players move out of Arsenal and then take potshots at him. Even after the most bitter departures, and there have been plenty over the second half of his tenure, the players don’t have a bone to pick by how they were treated by Wenger. It didn’t matter if you were the most insanely talented or the the most inanely frustrating player, you knew the manager cared about you enough.
And despite the roller-coaster ride, it was the same for the fans for a large part of his time at the club. Whether they were right or wrong, a majority of the Arsenal fans swore by his side even during the barren years after the move to the Emirates. The relationship deteriorated match after match in the recent past, something that Wenger acknowledges but it’s things like that little gesture at the end of his final match to go over to the away fans and thank them for spending their time and money following the club, that have made Wenger a class apart.
If you were a follower of Premier League football during that stage, it can be said with absolute certainty that you would have come across a debate involving an Arsenal fan, defending Wenger for his values, his philosophy of building a self-sustainable club, while playing good football, even if it meant no trophies. You might not have thought those Arsenal fans were sane, but you’d also have realised they believed in what Wenger believed.
So much so that they sat in a hostel of an engineering college in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, high-five-ing each other for a free-flowing, one-touch passing move that did NOT result in a goal. Because they enjoyed what ‘Wengerball’ meant to them.
“I gave the best years of my life to this club. I arrived at 46 years old and I worked seven days a week - not six or six and a half. Seven for 22 years! You cannot just walk away and say thank you very much and bye bye, it is absolutely normal. You cannot be on one side completely committed and after walk away like nothing happened - it’s impossible.”
And that’s why, even if the majority wanted #WengerOut, it would be impossible for an Arsenal fan to sit here on this Monday and not feel empty. For many, he was the only Arsenal manager they grew up watching. It’s a weird feeling to realise the man you wanted to leave, is gone and things won’t be the same anymore.
Fare thee well, Monsieur Arsene Wenger. You were a good manager, a great man. And to borrow from your farewell speech at The Emirates, we will miss you.
After all, there’s only #OneArseneWenger.