Au revoir Arsène

Don­ald McRae meets the fans lament­ing end of Wenger era

The Observer - Sport - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

GNM IMAG­ING

More than 600 images from 22 years at Arsenal make up a por­trait of Arsène Wenger by the Ob­server’s David McCoy

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