Arsene Wenger gets send-off he deserves, as Arsenal fans remember the best days
LONDON -- The queue snaked up and down, three or four fans deep outside the Armoury. Demand had never been this high at Arsenal's club shop, even at the best of times, but now stewards warned newcomers to the line that the shuffle to the front would take 45 minutes. Nobody minded much; the sun was shining, there were still two and a half hours until kick-off and, besides, this day would not come around again. It was a chance to compose thoughts and formulate the right words to write in one of the two "tribute books" dedicated to Arsene Wenger's career. One supporter, named Ian, knew exactly what he wanted to say. "Arsene," he wrote. "Thanks for the best 22 years of my life."
It gets harder and harder to mark time by football managers' tenures like that. Wenger's farewell to the Emirates Stadium, signed off in appropriate fashion with a testimonial-style 5-0 win over Burnley, was special for that reason but there were plenty more grounds to give thanks. Some of the most significant were on show after full-time as a packed stadium -- hardly anybody departed at the game's conclusion -- rose in acclaim. Here, on one side of the guard of honour that welcomed Wenger back onto the pitch, were Kanu, Robert Pires, Jens Lehmann and other members of the 2003-04 "Invincibles" side; there, at the end, were Bob Wilson and Wenger's former assistant Pat Rice, on hand to present him with the golden trophy the club received for completing that remarkable unbeaten campaign.
It was the most fitting way to mark Wenger's departure. The latter stages of his time in North London have been marred by inconsistency, disappointment, anti-climax, discontent among supporters and fundamental uncertainty over the club's future direction. Now 59,000 fans -- the vast majority clad in the "Merci Arsene" shirts that had been placed on every seat -- could bask squarely in the good times, united in the memory of achievements that, at the time, no other manager could have wrought.
Afterwards, Wenger spoke of how he would have "to learn to reconnect with myself now". They were inescapably sad words; words of a man who, for all the faults anyone might find in the fruits of his labour, has given every ounce of his being to Arsenal. A man whose biggest defect has been an uncompromisingly quixotic nature. He explained he rarely has an answer to the question "How do you feel?" but when he looks back on this send-off he might take pleasure at a more straightforward reconnection.
His name was roared from the stands by a faithful who have, put kindly, wavered at times: the visiting supporters made due note of that ("Arsene Wenger ... you wanted him sacked") but that was to miss the point. It is increasingly hard, in such a demanding modern-day environment, to hold dear the joys of the past; the concerns of the present tend to engulf the conversation but this time everyone was on the same page. For one day only, the past was all that really mattered.
That is an attitude Wenger has never understood. He hates dwelling on what has gone and he was at pains, in his post-match news conference, to look at what his successor will take hold of in pre-season. "He inherits a team much better than people think it is," Wenger said, and it was one of the better occasions to make that point given the ease with which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette had punished an uncharacteristically sloppy Burnley. If somebody can keep that attacking pair, and their accomplice Henrikh Mkhitaryan, fit then he has a point. You suspect he will agonise over the fortunes of the players he has bequeathed; the sense of responsibility that has consumed him for more than two decades will not disappear overnight.
"Above all, like all of you, I am an Arsenal fan," Wenger told the crowd after receiving his award from Rice. "That is more than just watching football, it is a way of life. It is about caring for the beautiful game, about the values we cherish." It was not an easy speech to give; Wenger had not wanted much fuss around his departure and various plans mooted within the club for a more elaborate celebration had been rejected in the previous fortnight. But it was a speech that said everything about Wenger. Had he never managed Arsenal, and had a new manager uttered words like that upon his unveiling, it would have been the kind of mission statement that set hearts pounding. Instead it was a valediction, a statement of unswerving belief in the club he has developed and in the people around it. And it was a sharp, heartfelt reminder of the feeling he created, virtually from scratch; a feeling that remains in the club's global profile and, rightly or wrongly, the expectation that is now attached to it.
Wenger must now detach himself from that. It will not be an easy process although he acknowledged the necessity of a new start and laughingly responded to the suggestion he might take a seat in the North Bank next season by saying it would depend on his commitments elsewhere. The sights, sounds and emotions of Sunday will need processing first. "I'd just like to finish with one simple word," Wenger said. "I will miss you." And, in their different degrees, everybody present at the Emirates will feel his absence profoundly too.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.