It is hard to know where to start with any decent appraisal of Arsène Wenger and his time at Arsenal, the club, and apparent love, of his life on Earth. The evidence it is necessary to survey is almost too sprawling, the data range so impossibly vast – draw the rod back, fling it into the deep memory and there goes Wenger, pre-dating Facebook, 9/11 and Flat Eric, shaking the hand of Dodi Al-Fayed, discussing MySpace with Kerrea Gilbert. Wenger dancing to the Spice Girls, summarily seeing off the Millennium Bug, the last man to be able to listen to Oasis while they were good and coach Arsenal Football Club simultaneously, a dial-up manager who has somehow managed to push on deep into these fibre-optic times.
For 22 years Wenger has navigated the ship through the early, monopoly-breaking broccoli grapples with Alex Ferguson’s Man United, the Invincibles supremacy, the bittersweet futility of “Project Youth”, the futility of the Banter Era, the FA Cup-guzzling “Wenger Out” years and finally into what we have now, a season in the departure lounge, numbed to the stress of delays by the gentle hum of nearby mystery electronics, the soft, disembodied announcements falling from the PA like light rain, the lack of any direct sunlight.
In all of sporting history, being a fan can never have been as strange as it is for Arsenal fans right now: 22 years in thrall to a figure so dominant, at a club so ubiquitous, in a sport so all-pervasive. It is strange that all of this history, power and emotion is able to combine and somehow generate apathy, the unemotion that has most gripped Wenger’s own Emirates Stadium and the Arsenal support this season. Until now. Until, suddenly, the decision was made that all of this should stop.
I always thought that the day Arsène Wenger announced he was leaving Arsenal would be like when Kim Jong-il died. Not in a bad way – if Wenger has been the dictator-figure some suggest, he has been a charming, benevolent one, and in any case, for all the tantrums thrown by the pricks over at Arsenal Fan TV, Arsenal is not as important as a country. What I imagined was the hysteria – the tears and grief, the overwhelming sense of loss you feel when someone who has always been so obviously there disappears.
It is hard to overstate just how much Arsène Wenger has lived in my consciousness for the last 22 years – I was at primary school when he was appointed, so for the entirety of my adult life, I have been thinking about Arsène Wenger, talking about Arsène Wenger, second-guessing Arsène Wenger and having fever dreams about Arsène Wenger. Over the course of his tenure, there is no cultural figure who has demanded from me the same amount of brain-space and given football’s ubiquity, the same must be true of so many of my generation, Arsenal fans or not. It is strange and great that a man so derided for his basic foreignness at the time of his arrival would go on to become the most visibly enduring presence in British life.
Why might Arsenal fans call for change? Well, there are lots of reasons – not least the reality that football isn’t just a game now but a relentless industry, that it crams the senses unlike anything else on the planet, and in this climate the stasis and calm that Wenger came to represent is always going to jar, to provoke a certain level of anxiety that needs to find its own way out. But there is only one reason why “Wenger Out” became such an object of fascination to the media, fans of other clubs and countless outside observers, from protesters at an engineers rally in Lebanon, to Saudi Arabian basketball fans, from anti-Zuma campaigners in South Africa to whoever the fuck goes to Wrestlemania. And that reason is that, until today, Wenger simply refused to wilt. In the face of it all he stood there and he took it all, refusing to cave to The New Football’s thirst for constant change, its tanning off of fusty traits like loyalty and tenacity. Wondering if Wenger was offended by Arsenal Fan TV is like wondering if the mountainside is offended by snowfall.
Nevertheless, in this rabid environment, the “Wenger Out” sentiment from inside the fanbase was always likely to be overstated. In truth, the situation has always been more nuanced than that. Yes: most, if not all, Arsenal fans now believe it is the right time for Wenger to step aside, but the root emotion driving that isn’t hatred or spite – most simply want him to leave out of love, a love of him and their own memories, the gilded, everywhere ones that have been waiting patiently for this day to come, preparing to swamp your screens and feeds, to wrap it all up, job done, so that the last 22 years can finally be catalogued in history, tucked up in bed, talking-head consensus reached, Adams ’98, Wiltord ’02, Bergkamp anticlockwise, Henry at the Lane. Life, though, is never as simple or as easy as all that – the living of it can be profoundly weird, as it is today for me and anyone else who simply doesn’t know life without Wenger.
How best to sum up this emotion – a compound of sadness, trepidation, hope, confusion, excitement and guilt – I’m not sure. Perhaps there’s a French or German word for it, one that only Arsène Wenger knows, and that is cycling through his head right now as he tries to get it round the peculiar events of the last 22 years. If there is, I’d like to think that at last I’ll be able to stop second-guessing him, that finally I might for today at least feel as he does – a colossus hauled down to my level, a statue-in-waiting, the victim of a kind of mass mercy proxy patricide. In the reactions of Arsenal’s massed ranks of fans – the Twitter obsessives, the TalkSport night owls, the ground-goers and the chat room dilettantes – you can detect a sense of something fluid and sore starting to heal, at least until the game comes again to consume all of the senses, overwhelming you with its ruthless passage, shutting time out.
Thank you, Arsène.