Mood music upbeat as Wenger bids Arsenal final farewell
Fans for once united in an atmosphere of gratitude as veteran manager bows out
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger waves farewell to the Arsenal fans at the end of the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
If God exists and one day I go up there and he will ask: ‘Do you want to come in? What have you done in your life?’ The only answer I will have is: ‘I tried to win football games’. He will say: ‘Is that all you have done?’ And the only answer I will have is: ‘It’s not as easy as it looks.’”
And so said Arsène Wenger. For 22 years, from his red and white corner of north London, he has tried to win football matches in the name of Arsenal. On Sunday, for the last time, he walked into the stadium he helped to create, through a guard of honour with an amiable wave, and was able to soak up an atmosphere of gratitude and happiness.
Unusually, perhaps, on this day of all days, maybe it was as easy as it looks but few would begrudge him that.
“There’s only one Arsène Wenger” chimed around in the blazing sunshine and, with the pressure off, Arsenal kicked back to relish a rare afternoon of sweetness and light.
The game itself was a sideshow, as the fan base – unified at last – came together to honour the only manager they have known since the faraway past of 1996. The post-match ceremony will have meant a great deal to him personally. Two of the men he began to work with on day one, Pat Rice as his assistant and Bob Wilson as the goalkeeping coach, gave him the tribute and the greatest prize of all.
“The visionary Arsène Wenger, an inspiration,” Wilson announced.
“There is only one gift that is truly appropriate of what Arsène has given to Arsenal. Yes, it is the special gold trophy presented to our club following the historic 2003-2004 season. This is the one and only Invincibles trophy which Arsène Wenger will have to keep.”
Rice handed it over and the embraces dripped with shared history.
In all honesty all the attention is not Wenger’s cup of tea. He just about tolerates it. He composed himself to address the crowd and speak from the heart.
“I would like to wish my fellow manager Ferguson well,” he began, to great applause. “Thank you for having me for such a long time. I know that’s not easy. But above all I am like you. I am an Arsenal fan. That means more than just watching football. It is a way of life. It is caring about the beautiful game, the values we cherish and something that goes through every cell of our body.”
One could hear a pin drop. After the prolonged, neurotic, conflicted noise around the subject of the future of Arsenal under Wenger, the sound of peace breaking out was a balm. A mood of contented nostalgia washed around the Emirates Stadium. It was packed, some fans flew in from far and wide, the queues for the commemorative programmes wound through the concourses, the Merci Arsène T-shirts on every seat turned the stadium a deeper shade of red.
The fans rummaged through the silver-lining playbook – singing for Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp – the players that symbolise the greatest Wenger teams, the most polished successes – then boomed out their special chant for the retiring Per Mertesacker as the German ambled on for a last hurrah.
This is the second weighty goodbye of the Wenger years. The scenario 12 years ago also came with mixed emotions. Departing Highbury was a huge turning point for the club and one that was linked with the big ideas for modernising that seemed to go hand in hand with the success of early-era Wenger.
That farewell was marked by Thierry Henry kneeling down to kiss the turf he called his garden on scoring a hat-trick that sealed Champions League football for the umpteenth consecutive season. Arsenal said their goodbyes and headed to their one and only Champions League final.
There was a worry this goodbye might be flattened slightly by the dashed dream of a Europa League final. But Arsenal put on the kind of show that epitomised Wenger’s unwavering belief in what he always called “the game we love to play”. The front players, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, dazzled.
It was poignant, though, that in the game’s dying embers, with his name ringing round again just before the final whistle, Wenger tried to concentrate on the game with that familiar furrowed brow and biting of nails.
Wenger always said he wanted to leave Arsenal in better shape than when he discovered it in the autumn of 1996. The scenarios are similar (finishing fifth in 1996, sixth today). But his legacy leaves Arsenal as a different club.
The owner, Stan Kroenke, was in attendance – booed when his face came up on the big screen, as was the chairman Sir Chips Keswick – and they will have their work cut out to guide the club through an inevitably challenging period of transition.
When Wenger thought back to the man who walked through the marble halls 22 years ago he described that version of himself as “full of hope”.
The years of experience are under his skin – from “Arsène Knows” to Arsène goes. At the end of it all he walked to the centre circle, waved to everyone, shook every player by the hand, regaled by the crowd – in that moment universally, unequivocally loved. He could not find words for the emotion of it all. It was too close. Maybe that can come when he has had some time away from the stadium he described as “part of myself”.
The French often sign off by saying not au revoir but à la prochaine. Until the next time. The sun could not have set here any more beautifully.