Tuesday 22 May 2018

Wenger bids adieu in familiar style on a day of fond farewells

Arsenal 5 Burnley 0

Arsene Wenger shakes hands with an Arsenal fan during his farewell at the Emirates Stadium. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger shakes hands with an Arsenal fan during his farewell at the Emirates Stadium. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

He couldn't leave without one last little bit of charm, as he smiled widely, and one grandiose statement of his vision of football. That's just him, Arsene Wenger, the man leaving Arsenal after 22 years.

The football legend was asked in his final press conference at the Emirates whether he would ever sit with the fans in the North Bank.

Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Burnley's James Tarkowski. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs
Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action with Burnley's James Tarkowski. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs

"I would be happy to sit in the North Bank again," Wenger responded. "You know what the positive of that is? I can shout at the next manager in the North Bank!"

It brought laughs, on what Wenger still described as "a very sad day". While he admitted he needed more distance to properly reflect his tenure, he couldn't help himself elaborating on his idea of the game.

"My ambition was always to win with style," Wenger said. "When you're a big club, I think you have that responsibility, and to give the fans a special experience."

This was it. This was why he is so celebrated, why he initially gave the fans so much to celebrate, and this was the idea he was still wedded right up to now… the end. Wenger still believed he would be vindicated, that he could succeed at the club in the old way again.

Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette scores their second goal past Burnley's Nick Pope. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette scores their second goal past Burnley's Nick Pope. Photo: Reuters

That is undoubtedly why there was something of a reluctance to Wenger on the day, why he couldn't completely indulge the farewells.

That came across when he was asked how he felt throughout the day.

"Fortunately, in my job, you learn to disconnect from yourself. And you don't analyse anymore how you feel. For 20 years: 'OK, forget about you and just care about the problems you have to sort out.'

"When someone asks me how do you feel: 'Why does he ask me that? I don't know how I feel.' I have to learn how to reconnect with myself now I have a bit more time."

Burnley's Jeff Hendrick in action with Arsenal's Hector Bellerin and Jack Wilshere. Photo: Reuters
Burnley's Jeff Hendrick in action with Arsenal's Hector Bellerin and Jack Wilshere. Photo: Reuters

Yesterday was the sort of performance and result that was a throwback to the glory years - except that, in those days, trophies came from these victories rather than simply ensuring that they couldn't be pipped by Burnley to sixth place.

There may have been all manner of discussion about how Wenger does not want to leave Arsenal, but there really couldn't have been a better day or way to commemorate his departure.

Even events on the pitch obliged, as Arsenal swept Burnley aside 5-0 with a fluid performance to recall those great times.

As gloriously appropriate as that was, it was still one of those days when the actual football felt secondary to the really important moments, as to how this crowd - in a stadium that stands as a testament to his legacy, and should surely be named after him - would recognise one of the most important figures in the club's history.

Touching

They were faultless, as all the gripes and complaints and debates of the last few years faded, to be sounded out by cheers and celebration on what must have been one of the most good-natured afternoons this ground has had. It was so often touching.

Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan has a shot at goal as Burnley's James Tarkowski attempts to block. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan has a shot at goal as Burnley's James Tarkowski attempts to block. Photo: Reuters

The official post-match was much the same, although there was a very audible round of boos when it was announced that chairman "Chips" Keswick would be making the presentations, and some more later for majority shareholder Stan Kroenke.

They couldn't match the cheers, though, as the club first recognised a few other great servants leaving: kit manager Vik Akers, Arsenal women's legend Alex Scott and of course Per Mertesacker.

It was then time for the man Bob Wilson introduced as "the greatest manager we have ever had, and time for him to say goodbye."

It was a sign of the man that the first thing he said was to wish his old friend Alex Ferguson well.

"Thank you for having me for such a long time," Wenger smiled. But above all, I am like you. I am an Arsenal fan. This is more than just watching football, it's a way of life. It's caring about the beautiful game, the values that we cherish, and as well that something that goes through all our bodies in every cell of our bodies; we care, we worry, we are desperate. But when we come here, we realise."

The joyous tone for the day was set straight away as both starting XIs formed a guard of honour before the game, the club legend walking out to the chant of 'There's only one Arsene Wenger'.

That was to be heard throughout the day, along with a number of other songs from the title-winning era - including, conspicuously, many for Patrick Vieira - and even the Burnley fans offered their own refrain of the tune that soundtracked the day as they paid respect to the great man too.

That was met with a round of applause, as was most else on the day.

Even any lingering worries that the game itself might slightly spoil the day were quickly swept away by Arsenal's football, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang turned the ball in after just 14 minutes. His provider Alexandre Lacazette offered his own strike just before half-time, with Sead Kolasinac then scoring the goal of the game shortly after the break.

Jack Wilshere - recalling his own best form - surged through the Burnley defence to feed the ball to the wing-back, who then crashed the ball into the bottom corner of the net with a spear of a shot. Alex Iwobi soon put the ball into the top corner, before Aubameyang completed the scoring - and the day.

None of those goals got the cheers that Wenger got, though, or someone else leaving. Mertesacker was brought on after 77 minutes for his own last home appearance, and raised the roof. His every touch raised further cheers.

It wasn't all celebration and rapturous responses for those leaving. There was one big question about someone now signed to stay for the long term, as Mesut Ozil missed the game due to a back problem. Those around the club say that the general questions around the playmaker are not all unfair perception, and there is a growing issue for the next manager to sort out.

He will have to do that from a sixth-placed finish which meant that they avoided Europa League qualifiers that would have scotched their pre-season tour.

It still didn't feel a day for those type of discussions, though. It was a day for one man.

That is something he will also have to adjust to. Even if he doesn't want to be leaving, though, he was grateful for the presentations and the very day as a whole.

"At least they think I gave my total commitment to do well," Wenger said of the support now so cheering him again. "That's how I see it and that's how I take it. They know that my commitment was genuine total with complete integrity. So I take it as a big compliment.

"Guys who manage 22 years in a club of this stature, there are not many. I can always say, 'My friend, you have been very lucky to have such comfort to work for such a long time for a club of that stature."

"I will cherish every minute that I was here. As well, it's a new start for me." Apart from that, it was as well a very sad day. I came here to make the first photos and then the lawyers came in with the deposit for the rubbish (facility). The stadium, I've seen it worked on every single part, from the press conference (room) to the technical areas. It's a part of myself."

Finally, one of Wenger's ideas was put to him again. He was asked about his line that he just wanted to make people happy… and whether he thereby made himself happy.

"Sometimes to make people happy is to go somewhere else."

This, of course, was said with a smile. But no little sadness. "It is a story that ends," he added.

"I would like to finish with one single word," Wenger concluded. "I will miss you."

So, whatever happens next, will football. (© Independent News Service)

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