Khel Now’s Debajit Sarma delivers an emotive reflection on life as an Arsenal fan under the departing Frenchman.
Don’t know how to begin. For over a couple of seasons, like many other fans I have called you senile, deluded, selfish and even a dictator. I believed the only solution to the insurmountable problems at my beloved club was your sacking. The only counter I could afford to the ridicule of rival club fans was that Arsenal would be great again once would be out.
But I didn’t know I would be so unprepared for the announcement that was made on 20th of April. Despite wanting your sack for some time now, I was surprised that the news filled me with sadness. It pained me to think that the familiar sight of an old man with his silver-grey hair on the sidelines, nervously shuffling around in his seat, struggling with the zipper in his coat and jumping off with both fists pumped in elation every time the team scored won’t be around come the first match of the new season.
Like every other kid in India, I too grew up loving cricket and even harbouring dreams of making a career out of it. The love for cricket was so strong that I used to watch a 5-day test match, ball after ball. Football was only during those quadrennial World Cups and Euros when knockout games were telecast on National television and I would get bored if games didn’t turn out to be goalfests.
All that changed a bit when strict parents relented to have a cable television and on evenings in the weekend, I gradually began to look forward to the live telecast of the then Barclays Premier League. I began to take particular interest in a team that wore red and white and went by the name of Arsenal, probably the coolest name for a sports team. Because of my limited knowledge of football then, only the strikers appealed to me, obviously because they scored the goals and did the fancy celebration. The No.10 for Arsenal, a Dutchman Robin Van Persie caught my eye as he banged in the goals week-in-week-out.
Something that made you a great manager was your incredible eye for talent and the work on their development that made many a wonderful football career. Likewise, it was you who brought the then 21-year old talented but temperamental Van Persie from Feyenoord to Arsenal and made a poacher out of him.
Robin Van Persie became a crowd favourite before he left for Manchester United
Robin Van Persie left for Manchester United following his best ever season at Arsenal. That day I felt the most miserable in my short life till then. Over the course of that season, I graduated from enjoying the Dutchman’s goals to getting hooked to the style of play that led to those goals. The fluid, expressive style of football that you got your team to play on the pitch bowled me over. I was convinced of which team I would like to see play football for the rest of my life. In that one season, a cricket fan became a football fanatic and now have no doubts why it is called the beautiful game. It was one man who made me love football and Arsenal and I will always be indebted to you, Arsene.
I regret that I fell in love with Arsenal fairly late in your reign. Though it is very well documented but I wish I could have been a witness to the spectacular period of success under your watch that made the Arsenal of today. Arriving as a virtual unknown to questions of Arsene who? you brought along with strict diet and training regimens, stretching routines, that are commonplace today but back then it was ground-breaking. You brought an end to the drinking culture at Arsenal that had become a nuisance by then and helped prolong the careers of legends like Tony Adams and David Seaman.
The style of football, the slick one-touch passing game you brought, aptly called ‘Wengerball’ was one never seen before and it changed the face of the game in England. You changed the ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’ of old to ‘Scoring, Scoring Arsenal’ as we thrashed our opponents right, left and centre. You put an end to the monopoly of the great Manchester United team and their manager, the greatest ever Sir Alex Ferguson. You changed the way people looked at Arsenal. Every time I used to and I still do, listen to former players, coaches and pundits talk about Arsene’s ‘Invincibles’ and marvel at their magnificence, I derive a feeling of pride that nothing else comes close to it.
The Invincibles won the PL title without a single defeat in 2003-04
You were a visionary of modern football, much ahead of your times. You were the one who knew the importance of a training complex at the club and got it funded. Other clubs soon followed suit. You understood the necessity of a bigger home ground than the 35,000 capacity Highbury. The years that followed the stadium move were difficult for fans but even more for you.
The financial difficulties that followed with the change of base meant we could no longer afford to keep the big names. Despite offers from Real Madrid and Barcelona, your loyalty, principles and vision for Arsenal kept you at the club and you proceeded to sail those rough seas. You still kept the team ticking with your belief in the youngsters and constantly secured European qualification. I believe no one could have done a better job than you in those circumstances.
You were of the view that football is more than the result but the football that his team plays should touch the lives of their followers. Considering how successful the team was with these principles in the first decade of your reign no one could have disagreed.
And as the purse strings loosened a bit, it looked like as that the club would find its long-lost glory days under you again. But it was frustrating to see you stay stubborn in face of the changing scene in football. As the others became stronger, we floundered. In 2015, we signed no outfield player and only got Petr Cech to join us. That season we finished a distant second to Leicester City when we could have won and given a new lease of life to the club. My faith in you shook, I no longer was happy with Wengerball.
The Story of Arsène Wenger – 22 Years Arsenal History
The next two seasons were painful, 10-2 to Bayern Munich, the poisonous atmosphere at the Emirates, continual failure against top opposition, zero away points in 2018, even the style of play was glaringly regressing. Two 3-0 defeats in the space of a week against a Manchester City side whose coach Pep Guardiola has been rightfully lauded for bringing in a revolutionary style of play in the country, similarly the same way you were hailed 20 years ago meant your Arsenal career had now come full circle. It hurt to see you getting beaten in your own game. Considering all that you have suffered over the years, I wanted to see you hold aloft the Premier League trophy one last time, more than it would have made me happy. But by then I knew it won’t happen.
All that has been wrong is attributed as your failures but on many occasions the players have let us down and we all know how incompetent the Arsenal Boardroom is. And for the blame games, you have confronted the bullets of others when you didn’t need to. But the cover is now blown, the players and Ivan Gazidis and co have to be now responsible for themselves.
On the day of your announcement, as the tributes poured in from around the world, it made me emotional. I was so happy to see all the respect showered upon you when “football fans’ have been real quick to pass judgements. When today’s managers wouldn’t think twice before offloading a player with a poor injury record, you helped a young Aaron Ramsey overcome the trauma of suffering a horrific broken leg. Persisted with Robin Van Persie when he missed major chunks of every season and with Abou Diaby, a career that was tragically destroyed by injuries. The France midfielder said in his tribute, “The moral support & confidence you gave me, alongside your guidance & support helped me become the man I am today. A shining light on my darkest days.” A teardrop welled up in the corner of my eye.
A man like you did not deserve the disgraceful personal abuse by people who pretend to be football fans including myself. You’ve made wrong decisions but I have no doubt that every decision that you took was based on the well being of the club. You have represented the club with great dignity, integrity and handled the pressures of the job for 22 years with class. The love you had for the club was exemplary, new managers will come and go but I doubt that any one of them would have that fatherly love for my club. Those ‘fans’ have said over the years that no one is bigger than the club but I can say that Arsenal are bigger because of Arsene.
Everything that I have loved about Arsenal is because of you, old man. How do I warm up to a different face in the dugout now? I wanted exactly what the #wengerout brigade has been baying for but since 20th April I am not sure if we were prepared for this.
Arsene, you are an exemplary man of the truest sense and you will inspire and touch lives wherever you will go. One day when Arsenal would reach the success that you always wanted, the joy on your face would be as unadulterated as it was when your favourite ward Thierry Henry used to bang in the goals at the North Bank end.