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Merci from a new fan

Or, how Arsène Wenger and his team saved sports for me.

Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Thank you, Arsène and company, for being a shining example of goodness and joy during my terrible 2015 and right on through to the end.

To be honest, this still doesn’t quite seem real. Arsène Wenger has managed Arsenal Football Club for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and as I became a fan about two and a half years ago, he’s the only manager I’ve ever known at the club. I struggle to imagine what the club will be like next season, partially because there are still several possible paths forward, and partially because Arsenal and Wenger occupy the same space in my mind.

I am lucky that I got those two and a half years with Wenger’s team, and that I started paying attention to them when I did—because the club and its legendary boss turned out to be a big part of the path out of my 2015 pit of despair. I mean that quite literally; when my other sport was making me sad, which at that point was most of the time, the Gunners made it fun to be a fan again.

My other sport is motorsport, in particular Formula One, and the 2014 season had turned into a downer, to put it mildly. One of my rooting interests, Jules Bianchi, a future Ferrari star who was both fun to watch on the track and an all-around top-notch human being, was involved in an awful accident that left him with a severe head injury. As the next season started and trundled on without any progress for my guy, it became clear that he wasn’t going to recover, but I still wasn’t prepared for his death in July of 2015, and that made for a rough rest of the year. This fellow was a fierce fighter in the car and a wholesome bean out of it, and nothing could patch the gaping hole that he left in the F1 paddock.

And then in October, on a whim, I flipped on the TV and found a Premier League game and discovered a whole bunch of wholesome beans—wholesome beans who were also really good at football. The game was Watford against Arsenal, it turned into a 3-0 Arsenal beatdown, and I got three of Wenger’s little strolling fist pumps and ninety minutes of mesmerizing teamwork. Per Mertesacker directed from the back and Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey worked their magic up front, and I just sat back and watched and smiled.

It bothered me at first that Arsène’s name was so close to that of his club, but after a couple weeks I thought that was great, too.

I have Wenger to thank for everything I love about Arsenal. What I saw that day in October was Wengerball as it’s supposed to work—fullbacks getting all the way up to the opponents’ penalty box, little darting runs into wherever there’s space, enough passes strung together to make the defenders dizzy, and a solid strike at the end to send the ball hurtling into the back of the net. It was at that point, upon seeing Wenger’s team play, that the game became beautiful to me, that I began to see the complexity of each match and the athleticism and intellect necessary to play at that level. Once in a while, the Gunners remind me of how Jules drove, especially Ramsey—flying in seemingly out of nowhere to gaps that look too small, and then somehow making the move work. Wenger would turn him and Özil loose during matches, leaving them free to see those half-gaps and make whatever use of them that they could.

I called the players wholesome beans, and while this description varies in accuracy from player to player, I think it fits the team as a whole, and it comes from another of Wenger’s philosophies—that his job extended beyond football. Tributes from when he announced the end of his run as Arsenal manager tended to touch on football briefly, and then focus instead on who he was off the pitch and how big an influence he was to his players from a personal standpoint. He explained this himself on Sunday, in his strangely poetic way: “Above all, I am like you, I am an Arsenal fan. That means this is more than just watching football, it’s a way of life. It is caring about the beautiful game, about the values that we cherish.” The man is made of pure concentrated class, and he has instilled that in his players, too. Just look at these two after Sunday’s match:

This is why I fell in love with the club. Wenger’s Arsenal has both of the things that I like in sports, and both of the things that I liked about my guy in F1—serious skill, as they’ve shown us all time and again with their intricate team goals and their sneaky runs in behind the defense, and good hearts on and off the pitch. When F1 is an emotional steamroller, I can turn right around and find some Arsenal player doing something, whether it’s football-related or not, that makes me happy. Sometimes I’ll see a thoughtful interview from Per, most wholesome of beans, and other times Rob Holding will have Diego Costa in his back pocket while Ramsey scores the winner for Wenger’s seventh FA Cup and my family and I wake up the neighbors with our ecstatic screaming. Wenger won’t be on the touchline next season, but the club will continue on its new adventure, and luckily, “you don’t stop the love story from one day to the next. That will never end.”

After his last home game at the Emirates, when asked about coming back as a fan, Wenger joked, “The positive of that is I can shout at the next manager.” Mr. Wenger, you come back to your stadium as soon as you can and shout your lungs out. Merci, and until next time, boss.