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Goodbye, Arsène

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On Mr. Wenger, childhood, and the end of an era

Arsenal v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

To many Arsenal fans, Arsène Wenger is the only manager we have ever known. This is particularly true for the generation of fans born in the early to mid-nineties. Speaking as one of that generation, but by no means appointing myself the Millennial Arsenal Fan spokesperson, Arsène Wenger’s reign at The Arsenal corresponded with my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The last time Arsenal were managed by not Mr. Wenger, I was less than three years old. My goal here is not to re-litigate the Wenger era--there have been enough pages about that. Rather, I want to discuss the man, and for why a generation of fans, Arsène is some form of a close family figure.

Growing up in America meant I didn’t see my first Arsenal game until either 2002 or 2003, the first time they were on local access TV. I was, though, already an Arsenal fan, because my dad was (and still is) an Arsenal fan. He was an Arsenal fan because his dad, my grandfather, was an Arsenal fan, and would go to Highbury during the 1950s with his brother-in-law. I was, then, bound to Arsenal through familial glue, and thus, because Arsène is Arsenal, I was also bound to Mr. Wenger. Arsenal have been a constant of my life. Whether I was a kid living at home, an adolescent at university waking up far too early on weekend mornings after a night out, or an adult moving from one coast to another, Arsenal have been there. They have been a comforting presence; at some level, when you’re moving between friendships, and moving in that awkward transition from high school to university and then university to the real world, having something familiar, having something that you can always talk and think and write (and spend far too much time on) about is essential. For many of us I would wager that Arsenal matter to us more than some members of our extended family; indeed, that Arsenal itself, the players, the fans, as a club, is some form of a family. An inextricable part of that family has been Arsène.

On some level, I have known that Friday’s announcement was coming, one day. Mr. Wenger was never going to manage forever; one day, he would leave the club. There is, however, no way to prepare for it. I found out in the early hours of the morning, when I woke up to go to the bathroom, checked my phone, saw a WhatsApp message from a friend saying not to go on Twitter, and then saw the Guardian news notification; indeed, it was such seismic news that it was equitable to a major news event. My first reaction was one of utter disbelief; my second was feeling like I had the air knocked out of me. My third was to phone home. All of these steps are ones you would take if an immediate family member passed away, because that’s exactly how I felt, and still feel: that a person close to me died. I recognize that this is ridiculous; Arsène is in wonderful health for a 68-year old man, and, more pertinently, I have never met him. Yet I have spent countless hours with him; an average of about four hours a week, for ten months of the year, for over fifteen years. For friends of mine--friends I have met through Arsenal--it has been longer.

The lineup for the first Arsenal game I ever saw featured Thierry Henry, Martin Keown, David Seaman, Ray Parlour, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires. The last Arsenal game I saw at the time of writing, Arsenal’s dismal 2-1 loss at Newcastle, featured Joe Willock, who was three years old for that first game. Since then, three Arsenal strikers, Robin van Persie, Olivier Giroud, and Theo Walcott, have scored 100 goals. Two midfielders, Cesc Fabregas and Aaron Ramsey, have scored and assisted 50. There have been eight club captains. There have been two stadiums. There has been one constant: Mr. Wenger. For a lot of Arsenal fans, despite this perhaps being a step into the unknown, a time of great emotion, they have known Arsenal before Arsène. They remember a time before, and were perhaps children and then adolescents during George Graham’s reign, one that also ended a far cry from its heights, like Arsène (though Arsène never finished 12th). For me, and for my generation, there is no Arsenal without Arsène. This is not to say that it isn’t the right time for him to leave, or that he should’ve been the manager forever. But rather, what it means is that our relationship with the club is about to become fundamentally different, for the one man who was always present, who defined what it meant to be an Arsenal fan, is gone. This is not necessarily a bad thing; but it is a loss.

How is it a loss? Well, Arsène informed my view of football. I believe a team is not balanced unless one wide player is a forward and one is a playmaker who likes to drop centrally into midfield. I want my centre backs to play out from the back. I want a striker who drifts wide. I believe in mental strength, a little bit of a handbrake, and so many other Wengerisms.

As the years went on, I became desperate for Arsenal to do well; to win Cups and trophies again. This is not only because I wanted Arsenal to win again, but because I wanted Arsène to win again. I wanted Arsène to win because it would stave off uncomfortable questions and truths. It would delay the inevitable. Just one more cup; one more player signed; one more tactical revelation, and things would be back to as they were; as they were when I was younger, and Arsène could do no wrong, even as Henry and Vieira and the Invincibles left, replaced by Fàbregas and van Persie, my favourite players from childhood, players I looked up to and dreamed about emulating and felt a real, personal connection to; players, like Cesc who were closer in age, who seemed to love the club as much as I did. This is also because, as adults, things never seem quite as good as you hoped for as children. This is not to say, like the situation of Arsenal Football Club, that things are terrible. But rather, compared to what one might have imagined, they’re not quite as good as you dreamt. Arsenal do not have three league titles on the back of Fàbregas and van Persie; they have three FA Cups in four years, a triumph and one that was very enjoyable, but they also have finishes of 5th and 6th. My desire for Arsène to do well, then, is in part a feeling of childhood nostalgia.

When you grow up, your relationship with people and places change. Arsène leaving Arsenal is part of that. My relationship with Arsenal will unavoidably change. Arsène provided much of the human connection with the club, as the players changed, but he remained, with his philosophical riffs in press conferences and his unshakeable confidence in his players, no matter how many times they let him down. Towards the end, though, he’s also let them down. The cracks that you never foresaw as a child formed, the awkward thoughts became pressing questions. And now here we are. Arsenal will continue. Come August, they will be back, and life will go on. As it does, the final link to the past will fade away, leaving all of us having to confront the future.