Au revoir Arsène
Donald McRae meets the fans lamenting end of Wenger era
Arsène Wenger’s head fell off and rolled across the glass table before plunging on to my living room floor. Last week, an hour after Arsenal had lost to Atlético Madrid, to ruin the fleeting dream of Wenger’s final match as manager being in the Europa League final, I had lifted up the old bobble-head and prepared to move it back to the window sill.
As a family joke, and a worrying sign of my lifelong support of Arsenal, I had been given this wonderfully naff homage to the club’s greatest-ever manager years ago. The Wenger bobble-head had stayed in my office until March 2013 when, after a 3-1 home defeat against Bayern Munich, we needed a miracle in the second leg.
Wenger was placed on the glass table in front of the television and Arsenal were rejuvenated. We beat Bayern 2-0 in Munich, only to suffer a familiar Champions League exit on away goals. But the mysterious force of the bobble-head had to be relied upon from that night as one Arsenal pattern – defeat in the last 16 – was replaced by another, in the habitual struggle to make the top four. With mini-Arsène in place, Arsenal went on an unbeaten 10-game run to steal fourth from Spurs by a point.
Over the last two seasons of Wenger’s 22 years as manager, as the top-four tradition slid away, the world divided Arsenal’s fans into Wenger Out or Wenger In camps. It was hardly more subtle in our house. Should mini-Arsène watch the next game or did he deserve to be consigned to the window sill?
Since Wenger announced his decision on 20 April to leave the club today, he has been on the glass table for every game. Yet the bobbled Arsène could not spook Diego Costa or Diego Simeone as Arsenal lost their last meaningful match under Wenger. The roll of his head, as I picked him up, felt symbolic.
Andrew Allen, another Arsenal fan, endured a more testing ordeal that night. As deputy news editor at Arseblog, the celebrated Arsenal fan website which its founder and chief writer, Andrew Mangan, began in 2002, Allen was bereft of words as he tried to start his post-match analysis. “It’s very rare I get the responsibility to write the main blog,” Allen says, “and I knew if we won it’s easier to write. But, after we lost, I sat in front of the laptop for an hour trying to find an introductory paragraph. I couldn’t do it. Eventually I began jotting down moments from all these years under Arsène. It spiralled out of control and at three in the morning I was still there, down a YouTube rabbit hole, with the occasional tear and glass of wine. It poured out.”
The next morning I still felt sad that Wenger’s last game in charge will be today, away to Huddersfield, rather than at home in France, in Lyon, against an old enemy, Marseille, in a European final he longed to win. But, turning to my usual read of Arseblog, there was no match report. Instead, the headline read: “No European Trophy. No Happy Ending. But…”
Allen then listed 197 moments and memories, mishaps and milestones, stretching from “Three League titles. Thierry Henry. Giroud’s scorpion kick. Chu-Young Park. Paris in the pouring rain. Santi’s dancing feet. It’s Thierry Henry, he’s scored, he’s scored for Arsenal in the Bernabéu! Wright breaking Bastin’s record. Cesc’s mullet. Sol on a free. Abou’s ankles. Broccoli” to “Blackcurrant shirts. Giroud’s abs. It’s only Ray Parlour. Henry looping it over Barthez. Pizzagate. Pires … it was in from the moment he hit it! Santi’s cup final free-kick. Together. The Invincibles. 22 years. Thanks for the memories, boss. Thank you so much.”
“I’ve written 3,500 articles for Arseblog News,” Allen explains, “but it’s rare I get to show emotion and the feedback was amazing. Even last Sunday [before Wenger’s final home game] strangers in the pub came up and said: ‘Oh, what about this or that one?’”
He has equally evocative memories of that sun-kissed afternoon at the Emirates as, after a 5-0 demolition of Burnley, Wenger felt the Arsenal love again. “It was very emotional,” Allen says. “I sit next to my mum and dad and all three of us didn’t look at each other when Wenger spoke. I didn’t want my mum to see me tearing up and I don’t think she wanted me to see her tearing up. His name was sung with passion and it was a kind of joy. It took me over the edge.”
Mangan, who lives in Dublin, flew in for the game. As the voice of Arseblog, he has probably written more words about Wenger than anyone else since 2002. “I won’t ever write as many words about another individual,” he says. “Arsène has been a constant in my life for 16 years – and the six years before I started the website.
“For a long time Arsenal fans have been divided into unnecessary camps of Wenger In or Out. But the vast majority have a far more nuanced view of the last 22 years. So being there, listening to the fans sing with one voice about Arsène, felt cathartic. It felt healing.
“It reminded me of the end of the Champions League final in 2006 when we lost [having been 1-0 up against Barcelona with 14 minutes left]. It was heartbreaking, but I’ll never forget the Arsenal fans singing. It was awful to lose but there was something really special after the game. That was true of Sunday. There was a sea of red but the mood wasn’t mawkish. It was joyous and celebratory.”
It seems true to real life that Wenger’s grand yet flawed 22-year reign should end in a meaningless game at Huddersfield. The home side avoided relegation on Wednesday and so, as the game will not be televised, Allen will “use some dodgy stream” to write a match report. “Our away form is ridiculous [Arsenal have not won a single away point in 2018] but there’s something weirdly fitting about ending up at Huddersfield where Herbert Chapman [another great Arsenal manager who enjoyed
Amid the poignance of Wenger’s leaving, a new manager means thrilling uncertainty
such success in the 1920s and 30s] made his name.
“Of course it’s not the same as a European final in Lyon – and that’s why I was devastated last week. We all thought: ‘Please, please, let him win a European trophy.’ Of course I’m going to Lyon anyway. I have tickets, the hotel is booked. It was a choice between Arsène Wenger and Diego Costa. Diego won.”
Allen sighs when asked who he might support in the final. “I don’t know. Me and my friends just might take a big Arsène banner.”
Wenger has described his career at Arsenal as “a love affair”. Mangan hesitates when considering the phrase as a fan and writer who has examined Wenger’s attributes and failings so closely. “A love affair is too passionate for me. That stems from the frustration of the last years. It’s a relationship built on love and respect for a guy who came in when nobody knew him. He proved himself as a great manager and a great man. He was successful and he changed English football. He was so brilliant there was always a yearning for him to replicate that in later years and it didn’t quite happen. I wanted Arsenal to win under Arsène – because of this respect, admiration and pride when you heard him talk about Arsenal, football and society.
“Of course he’s an obsessive. On his birthday they asked him what was he going to do and he said: ‘I’ll watch a second division German game.’ The journalist urged him to celebrate his birthday. Wenger said: ‘I’ll put some candles on the top of my TV if that makes you happy.’ Arsène’s real passion was always football. That’s probably not too healthy but it’s a fundamental part of why he was in this job so long.”
The Arseblog writers offer an often painful insight into Wenger’s failings. “In some ways his biggest fallibility was his willingness to be a force field who ensured all criticism centred upon him,” Allen suggests. “His refusal to throw players under the bus was beautiful but sometimes the players needed to be called out. Some of the signings were very odd – remember André Santos – but you never knew whether Wenger had more money to spend.”
Allen was 13 when Wenger took over Arsenal in September 1996 and the Frenchman has given him some of the sweetest moments of his life. “Winning the title at Old Trafford in that double-winning season [in May 2002] was unbelievable. I was at university and had an exam at 9am the next morning. At 3am I was dancing outside Highbury, jumping around with strangers, after beating United on their own turf at the height of that rivalry. The Invincibles get the plaudits – but that 2002 team? Man, they were something else. The connections between Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Henry and Pires were beautiful.”
How did Allen do in his exam? “I was studying Russian history at UCL, which is slightly niche. But I scraped through. Then, at the start of 2004-05 season, after we’d won the league and gone unbeaten, the first seven games were fantastic. You know it can’t go on like this for much longer – but you never want to look that far down the line.”
Amid the poignance of Wenger’s leaving there is the thrilling uncertainty of a new manager. “I definitely have feelings of excitement,” Mangan stresses. “What’s going to happen now? Who is it going to be? What kind of football does he like? What kind of a man is he? Who will he sign? How many of Arsenal’s values will be upheld? It would be awful to get a manager like Mourinho with no interest in young players. Maybe that’s just us being romantic. Maybe we need to be more pragmatic.”
Mangan and Allen would choose Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus manager, to replace Wenger. “I like the idea of Allegri,” Mangan says. “He’s more defensively minded than Wenger. With our attack a manager who focuses on the defensive side, with the right organisation and personnel, could make everything gel. It’s hard to imagine, when you’ve got Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, Aubameyang, Özil and Ramsey, a new manager will do what Jack Charlton did to John Aldridge – and make them defend from the front and inhibit their attacking quality.
“After 22 years there is excitement about something fresh and new. Even the uncertainty is interesting. We don’t know what the new guy is going to do or how he’s going to do it. It’s a brave new world.”
An Allegri-shaped world? “It’s just a gut feeling but they might go with somebody younger,” Mangan says. “The power dynamic has been so weighted in favour of the manager they might go another way. If it’s Allegri or Luis Enrique they will have to defer to them. My gut says they might go for Mikel Arteta or Patrick Vieira.”
Our Wenger bobble-head will be moved back to its final resting place, in my office. I like the idea of a mini-Max Allegri on the glass table but Allen also suspects it could be a different name. “I’m open to something left-field,” he says. “But every two or three years we’ll probably be changing our manager and that will be really hard to get used to. After Arsène, we’re in the madhouse with everyone else now.”
More than 600 images from 22 years at Arsenal make up a portrait of Arsène Wenger by the Observer’s David McCoy