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Friday 17 August 2018

Reserved goodbyes show how Wenger has split Arsenal fan-base

Wenger will leave Arsenal in the summer after almost 22 years at the helm.

Arsene Wenger faced Arsenal fans for the first time since announcing he will leave at the end of the season
Arsene Wenger faced Arsenal fans for the first time since announcing he will leave at the end of the season

By Mark Mann-Bryans, Press Association Sport

The start of Arsene Wenger’s farewell tour may not have been an emotional rollercoaster, but it carried all the hallmarks of the good and bad from his Arsenal tenure.

The Gunners boss has confirmed he will stand down at the end of the season following a spell of over 21 years at the helm.

Friday’s surprise announcement was met with a mixture of joy from those fans who have wanted him out for some time, gratitude for what he had delivered and praise from contemporaries for how he changed the English game.

In recent months the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has been one of apathy, rather than the toxicity that developed towards the end of last term, with fans staying away rather than protesting for Wenger’s removal.

There was none of that as West Ham came across London on Sunday afternoon, although plenty of empty seats were visible despite blazing sunshine in the capital.

There were no jeers, but there was also no fanfare, no Wenger masks and no outpouring of emotion. There were no stadium-wide chants of the Frenchman’s name until the hour mark and they only intensified after three late goals added gloss to the 4-1 victory.

There are only two home games left before the 68-year-old departs, the first being Thursday’s vital Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid.

The last is a mark of the fall from grace under Wenger – a visit from Burnley in a game that cannot be simply a tear-filled goodbye as the pair are still battling for sixth place in the Premier League.

Fans protested by marching the streets last season. Approaching the ground on Sunday there was no suggestion of anything other than a routine league fixture.

But, 4264 days after he led the first Arsenal side out onto the pristine pitch of the new Emirates Stadium – an arena built through his vision – Wenger’s goodbye began.

It proved to be an afternoon to sum up the latter years of Wenger’s reign – questionable defending, overplaying in attack and some players in the starting line-up who could not lay a finger on his title-winning teams of old.

There was the odd marker inside the stadium, old Arsenal jerseys with ‘Wenger’ printed in several different styles, two or three hastily made signs thanking him for his service.

The man himself was keen for things to continue as normal and would not be drawn on the decision process behind his exit in the build-up to the game.

Former foes such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and even harshest critic Piers Morgan have found nice things to say about Wenger in recent days. “I certainly got more praise than I deserved,” Wenger said in his post-match press conference.

He spoke as well as he always does, joking with the press that he no longer needs to die as the tributes pouring in “had the feeling a little bit to my funeral because people speak about you and how you were, so it was little bit interesting on that front. I don’t need to die any more because I know what it’s like…”

In a more serious mood, he also said Arsenal fans had not given the “image of unity” he wanted the club to project across the world – he spoke passionately about influencing children in Africa, China and the United States.

Clearly, success on the pitch has never been the be all and end all for Wenger, and that is why recent failures have seemingly irked supporters more than the man himself.

A place in the Europa League final could be secured before Burnley visit in what is likely to be a more emotional afternoon than this one.

The lack of gushing tributes and roaring songs point to the fact the parting of the ways appears to be coming at the right time for all involved.

Equally, there were no planes flown overhead calling for his exit, no vitriol on social media, and there was respect from his players and counterpart David Moyes.

There is a banner draped over the Clock End which reads ‘Football Should Be an Art’ – a philosophy of Wenger’s since his arrival as an unknown quantity to English football in 1996.

If football is an art form, then Wenger has surely earned distinction as one of the Old Masters. Whether he has earned a fond farewell will become clear in the coming weeks.

Press Association

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