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Saturday 21 April 2018

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

            So it would appear that swathes of empty seats and the prospect of the financial pain of a desolate prawn circle, after the installation of more Club Level seats this summer, has finally forced a response to the interminable outcry for change at the Arsenal, signalling the end of a glorious era.

            There will be plenty of ingrate Gooners celebrating Wenger’s announcement, but it feels as if the vast majority of loyal fans of my ilk are left not knowing whether to laugh, or to cry.

            Frankly I’m relieved, if only because I couldn’t abide the thought of yet another fractious season on the terraces, putting a massive dampener upon my own enthusiasm level. Moreover, Arsène simply had to call “time” at some stage and even if his departure should result in several seasons of upheaval, it’s surely better that we bite the bullet sooner, rather than later.

            With the apparent renaissance of the Ox since his move to Merseyside, reinforcing the semblance of uninspiring staleness around the Arsenal dressing room, perhaps the only ammo left to le Gaffer, to try and lift his troops in advance of our daunting Europa Cup semifinal v Atletico Madrid, was to drop this timely bombshell.

            If there was anything that might galvanize fickle Gooners, to ensure that everyone at the Arsenal is finally pulling in the same positive direction, towards the final in Lyon and hopefully to secure a precious seat at Europe’s top table next season by bringing home the Europa Cup bacon, it will be the opportunity to give the old codger a fitting send off.

            Despite the depressing downturn of the past decade, younger Arsenal fans simply cannot fully appreciate quite how good we’ve had it over the fulsome course of Wenger’s astonishingly enduring tenure. Davie Provan emitted a duly scornful snort, during his midweek commentary on Brighton v Spurs, when his Sky colleague revealed that our North London neighbours have enjoyed a whole 29 days sitting atop the pile, during the entire 26 years since the Premiership’s inception.

            Meanwhile, we Gooners were savouring the fabulously filling fruits of the sort of relentless silverware diet, the 3 titles and 7 FA Cups that proved to be the rod of success that would eventually be used to beat le Boss into submission.  After having grown so ungratefully blasé about finishing in the top four, it is only in retrospect, with our noses pressed firmly up against the Champions League window that we’re learning the full value of Arsène’s incredible feat of consistency, during the past two decades of competing upon football’s most illustrious stage (with one hand tied behind his back, financially speaking, while the Arsenal dug themselves out of the new stadium black hole!).

            While Guardiola’s City are deservedly receiving all the plaudits for playing the competition off the park all season long, the failure of such a dominant team to last the course unbeaten, serves as proper context to the achievement of the Arsenal’s Invincibles. Enduring the thirty-eight game marathon, without once falling down on the job, is a feat which is likely to stand the test of time because it might never be repeated. Few will recall the succession of draws necessary to get the Gunners over the line in 2004.

            Yet if the Invincibles were a reflection of our manager’s unstinting stubbornness, it was the supremely balanced squad of the class of ’98 that first converted Gooners to the church of Wenger. Bruce Rioch’s signing of Dennis Bergkamp was the precursor to this new era, gifting Arsène with a magnet to attract players of the calibre of Vieira and Overmars. Wenger was blessed with being able to build a scintillatingly artistic side around the impermeable backbone of George Graham’s defence.

            Following a childhood spent listening to my peers laud the feats of the Hammers’ Moore, Hurst and Peters, we revelled in Vieira and Petit doing likewise in the Stade de France in ’98. I still have the t-shirt buried in my cupboard that’s proudly emblazoned with the Mirror front-page headline “Arsenal win the World Cup”.

            A title winning campaign is such a momentous achievement that they are all extremely special, but in the summer of ’98 it truly felt as if the Gunners were on top of the world, as we struggled to come to terms with the fact that our “boring, boring Arsenal” had suddenly become the darlings of the beautiful game. Sitting in the Highbury sunshine, savouring Arsène’s first title with that 4-0 drubbing of Everton, sealed with Stevie Bould’s defence-splitting through ball, for the donkey, Tony Adams, to volley home, in that moment, it honestly felt as if football (life even!) couldn’t possibly get any better.

            Winning the title at Old Trafford in 2002 and then at White Hart Lane in 2004 (after having seen Ray Kennedy do likewise in 1971) both occasions proved no less memorable. We might have ground out our entirely unbeaten run in 2004, but with goals scored in every single encounter in 2002 and winning every game on the road, it could be argued that this flair-filled title charge was a more impressive achievement. Yet when you consider the vast multitudes of footie fans who’ve never seen their side challenge for a title, let alone making Wembley Cup Finals their second home, there can be no denying that Arsène spoiled us all rotten.

            It’s ironic that eight years later in 2006, the Stade de France became the scene of what must rank as Wenger’s (and every Gooners’) greatest disappointment, with our defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Little did we appreciate back then that this was as close as he’d get to crowning his career with the big-eared prize (it will rankle more than a little if the Ox pulls this off with the Scousers at the first attempt, or if Wenger ends up doing likewise with PSG!).

            This was an incredibly emotional ten-day rollercoaster, with Thierry Henry signing off at Highbury with a fitting celebratory hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Wigan. I was devastated to depart our Home of Football. Our antiseptic new arena doesn’t hold half the charm of that glorious Art Deco ground and watching the Arsenal will never be the same. If I’m being entirely honest, I can’t help but begrudge the probability that without Wenger’s vision, the staid Arsenal suits would likely still be dawdling over such a mammoth investment gamble.

            Yet, from an entirely selfish perspective, while I’d love to still be watching the Gunners from my privileged West Upper pitch at Highbury, I could appreciate Wenger wanting to put the Gunners on the map, as one of European football’s big players.

            With le Prof’s arrival in ’96 proving to be the catalyst for a complete revolution of the game in this country, for all his obdurate, blinkered faults, there remains an inestimable debt of gratitude, which has made the demise of this decent and honourable human-being, from innovator to an anachronistic dinosaur, utterly agonising viewing.  When my cancer was diagnosed five years ago, I demanded of the oncologist if I’d be around long enough to witness the Arsenal winning the Champions League. As with so many other poorly Gooners, I was incredibly touched to receive a personal letter from le Gaffer, wishing me a speedy recovery.

            The mélange of emotion is mixed with a great deal of comfort, knowing that Wenger won’t be hounded out, but will instead enjoy a fitting send off over the remaining few weeks of the season. If he’s not destined to leave us with a Champions League trophy, I’ll gladly settle for the consolation prize of its ugly sister. Now if only our squad can muster the necessary determination to gift the greatest manager our glorious club has ever known with a suitable golden watch?
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