All things come to an end. All that is solid melts into air. We know this.
Yet, sometimes, the end is still shocking, sudden, and sad.
My father died suddenly when I was 22. Arséne Wenger, when he leaves the Arsenal at the end of this season, will have been manager of the club I love for 22 years. The symmetry of numbers is strangely apt for, in many ways, le Boss has been like a father to me.
A distant father, obviously. One that doesn’t know his sprog exists…but a dad nonetheless.
I was 11 when Arséne was brought in to replace Bruce Rioch, sacked immediately before the start of the 1996/97 season. At that time, I had only been a fan for a couple of years, had not seen us win a trophy and – not counting caretakers Stewart Houston and Pat Rice – was already seeing my third Gunners manager. So there was no sense that this new French fella would bring silverware or even stick around for too long.
He has now been in the job for two thirds of my entire life.
It is extraordinary, just how influential he has been. Not just on the world of football – you can find all the details of that elsewhere – but on me. On my life. On who I am as a person. His intellect, his honesty and candor, his wit, his sense of fair play and of right & wrong… He was just a tremendous person to look up too.
We live in a world where the term is bandied around far too often, but Wenger was a true role model.
The players he brought in…of such sheer, breathtaking quality that it was hard to believe that they had actually chosen to ply there trade here, at Highbury. Who comes to a pitch the size of a snooker table to play one-touch football in one of the most fiercely aggressive leagues in the world? Lots of people, in turns out. Lots of really, really great people.
People who came purely because of Arséne Wenger.
From Paddy Vieira to Pierre Emerick Aubemayang, footballers were attracted by Wenger’s reputation for getting the best out of his players. They could see how he prolonged and rejuvenated careers, how he developed young talent and extended the playing time of veterans. Most of all, players adored the footballing philosophy behind it all.
Highbury was known as THOF; ‘The Home of Football’…but, under Wenger, the ‘H’ might as well have stood for ‘Heaven’.
Wenger took a keen interest in the structure of a football club behind the scenes, something not very many coaches – even fewer today – ever do. He insisted on the construction of a state-of-the-art training facility in London Colney, and played a leading role in the relocation from the classy-but-cramped Highbury to the modern behemoth just down the road. At every stage, he spearheaded the development of the club, transforming them from a national institution into a global brand.
Arséne was – and is- no superman, of course. Nobody is. There is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’, no matter what the tabloids and biographies tell you. His successes relied on those around him, just as his failures were equally the responsibility of others; from the hard work of those who signed the players he targeted, to the under-performance of those footballers he entrusted to win games, he couldn’t do it all on his own. Win or lose, he had to delegate.
Those who he was right to rely on? Rice, Dein, Brady, Adams, Vieira, Cesc, Lehmann…
Those who he wrongly trusted? Gallas, Adebayor, Nasri, Squillaci, Arshavin…
He is only human, after all.
What a human, though. Arséne Wenger has brought us such joy, so many moments of wonder, that I could be here all day rattling off achievements and memories. If you’ll indulge me, there are just a few that stick out in my mind that would be nice to recount:
Ten straight league wins on the road to the Double of ’98… That season, my dad took me to my first Arsenal match, on my 13th birthday ; we watched from the North Stand as a pretty makeshift team, riven by injuries and suspensions, huffed & puffed to a (classic Arsenal) One-Nil win over Crystal Palace – the team that, unbeknownst to me then, trained across the road from the house I grew up in. Gilles Grimandi’s lovely – and, in retrospect, incredibly flukey – volley sending us back to Dublin happy.
Wins over United… Any of them. All of them. See, where I went to primary & secondary school, a solid proportion – maybe even a majority – of kids were Man U supporters. They were the champs. The favourites. The biggest club in the islands, the best team in the league. So when, en route to that first Double and beyond, we suddenly started competing with and even beating them…well, twas very nice. The 3-0 in the autumn of 1998 stands out, as does Henry’s parabolic perfection in October 2000, but the finest hour was indisputably the night we won the Title at Old Trafford. I’m wearing the WILTORD 11 shirt right now. Simply glorious.
Comebacks… 1-0 down, 2-1 up against Sp*rs in the FA Cup Semi of 2001. Two down with a quarter of an hour to go at Stamford Bridge, before the most incredible Kanu hat-trick. FOUR down away to Reading in the League Cup, culminating in an unbelievable 7-5 win on the night. Down to ten men and trailing two nil at half time in Bolton, only to seal three points with a multiple-deflection. Bottom of the CL group in 2003/04, with just a point from three games, before wins against Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Moscow sandwiched a blistering demolition of Inter Milan at the San Siro.
Cups. Lots of cups. A trophy per season between 2002 and 2005. Arséne taking a ‘Comical Wenger’ tee from the adoring crowd at the end of the 03/04 campaign – he had been ridiculed, during the 2002/03 season, for being “still hopeful that we can go through the season unbeaten“. What a joker! What a fool! The greatest FA Cup manager – period. Grinding our way to victory at Cardiff in 2005 – I thought that Wenger’s teams couldn’t graft? Upsetting Chelsea’s Double ambitions in 2017. Talking of comebacks; conceding twice in the first minutes of the 2014 final, rallying via a sensational Santi strike and eventually, in extra time, drawing last blood through Rambo. Just amazing.
My 21st Birthday. 21st of February 2006. A back four of Flamini, Senderos, Touré and Eboue. Nobody giving us a sniff. The most optimistic Gooners in the Café beforehand reckoning that we might snatch a 1-0…defeat. My dear brother Peter & myself amongst the Real Madrid supporters in the upper tier. Watching from afar as Henry danced his way through to score… One of the best, if not the best, experience watching the Gunners in the flesh.
I’ve rambled on for more than a thousand words so I’ll wrap it up.
This guy is like a father to me. I hope that, whatever he does for the rest of his life, he is happy and successful in everything he puts his mind to. Arséne Wenger is a living legend, as well as a fantastic human being. Bob Wilson’s testament to that effect is truly moving, I advise you to listen to it on YouTube. I hope that I never forget the lessons I learnt from Monsieur Wenger, and that I always cherish all the beautiful moments he brought to my life.
Au revoir, Arséne. Bon chance.
Solidarity, brothers & sisters… ⒶⒻⒸ