I won’t lie to you, I cried last Sunday – twice. I knew I was going to. The first came as you – our manager of 22 years – were applauded onto the pitch through a guard of honour in the bright May afternoon sunshine (my sunglasses luckily masked this, and I might have muttered something about hay fever).
By the second time though, the tears were proud, wistful and 60,000 strong. It was like we’d all watched the end of The Shawshank Redemption en masse.
For once, nobody left early to beat the notorious traffic, and the attendance announcement didn’t lie. The place was packed and nobody was going anywhere fast.
You, in turn, graciously strode out to the centre circle, arms aloft, to give and receive the thanks and respect you have deserved for so long, but has at times (at least in the case of the latter) been cruelly lacking.
After a 5-0 walloping of our ‘nearest rivals’ Burnley – a relatively unimportant but emotionally crucial win – for one final time you were embraced like the departing semi-conquering hero you are.
‘All I’ve ever known’
For someone who has been an Arsenal fan since he was five, it’s odd that in many ways the only manager I’ve ever really known is you.
I’ve been an Arsenal fan since 1978, when I watched the team I have come to love go down to an inspired Ipswich Town, 1-0 in the FA Cup final.
With both parents moving over from Ireland, and having little if no allegiance to any team or area, I pretty much had my pick.
At the time, most kids where I grew up supported Ipswich, who were enjoying an incredible period, but I chose the boys in yellow.
Why? First, I thought they were the underdogs. I wasn’t a bright child, and more importantly, Arsenal were a big London Irish team, both on and off the pitch, so they suited my upbringing and identity perfectly.
But spending every second weekend in London didn’t mean I got to see them regularly.
My family were born and bred in the sports of GAA, so growing up I was more likely to be watching my dad hurling on the fields that will be forever Ireland of Ruislip and new Eltham.
My grandad wouldn’t even let me watch ‘English’ sports, including, oddly, athletics!
By the time I could scrounge tickets to see Arsenal, it was the late George Graham/early (I don’t think there was another era) Bruce Rioch period.
I went along happily, and by that I mean I was happy to be there. Highbury was such a glorious ground to watch football, and to rub my eyes and watch Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright in their pomp quickly became more than a novelty, it was love.
But to all intents and purposes, I’ve only really ever known you as our manager. Which is, I guess, why the love, respect and admiration runs so deep.
So much is made of the ‘Arsene who?’ reaction that, in truth, we ALL had when you turned up at the club in 1996.
But you did so much more than just make sure Wright and Paul Merson put down the Mars bars and started eating broccoli, (the pair of them treating the vegetable like you had brought it from outer space).
You took a very gifted, but aging team, and added a belief, drive and deft hand in recruitment that saw a still big club win three titles quickly, including two doubles and our Invincibles year.
It seemed the success would be never ending, we got drunk on it – and then, the world changed.
‘The footballing world changed’
As the era of English football went from the time of the honest pro to the world of the remote, media-trained, PR-controlled global superstar, young, understandably ambitious men had their heads turned while ruthless agents plundered.
Maybe, with the stadium move your hands were tied, maybe you didn’t react quickly enough, maybe you thought you could carry on and find the gold for £500,000 here, £3m there.
The magic stopped working though, and we started watching the same movie, year after year, a few great players, but a fragility that set in and somehow didn’t go away, an early-season flourish followed by a late winter slump that saw us crash out of the FA Cup and the Champions League, and then the desperate dash to finish fourth.
Although a recent respectable run of three cups in five years is nothing to be sniffed at, we all know we haven’t been competitive enough in the league for quite some time.
The problem is that with the immediacy and ‘Fifa-isation’ (that’s a real term, by the way) of the modern football fan, there is no room for barren periods any more. We now live in a world of extremes.
Players and managers are either awful or they are brilliant, fans expect unconditional loyalty one way, but feel well within their rights to boo – and a lot worse – to high heaven when it’s not going our way.
There’s a lot made of the game moving on and you being left behind. If that is true (and I’m not sure for the most part it is) then it’s been in one main area: money.
You always seemed like you have seen yourself as a steward to this club, part of its DNA. Now we are as much the club you have built as vice versa.
I read a great comparison once which likened you to a German in the Weimar Republic who ordered a steak in a restaurant and nipped to the toilet, only to find, on your return that the price had gone up 30,000 Reichsmarks.
You simply didn’t seem to respond to the economics of the modern game. You seemed aghast by the prices – and who wouldn’t?
The problem is that the money is there and if you don’t compete then someone else will… and they have.
Yes, some of those models have been artificially created and bolstered by Russian and Middle Eastern oil money and nobody questions that you know more about football than most fans (by most accounts, by your own admission, it’s all you do. You are probably watching a Congolese second division match as we speak which makes a lack of spending even more infuriating).
At times it was obvious what we were lacking on the pitch.
Your model of how to manage footballers is all about empowerment, the carrot and not the stick. Let the players go out there and express themselves to the best of their ability and that holistic and artisanal approach will win out.
This model is predicated, however, on those players being up to the task in the first place.
Virtually every one of those Invincibles comes across like a well-rounded, emotionally grounded and intelligent human being. Those kinds of footballers are the exception not the rule, which makes your mode of success so hard to maintain.
‘The right time to go?’
Is it the right time for you to go? Probably not. The day which would have done your incredible legacy justice would have been 27 May 2017 when we upset the odds and defeated Chelsea, both physically and tactically, as you won a record seventh FA Cup and the club’s 13th.
I have no problem with people who said we needed a change, because we did.
There’s no hypocrisy in praising you while also wanting a new direction, and as sad as I am to see a proud, stalwart of the game go, I too am excited to see what comes next.
I feel sadness. I am a romantic, and the idea of a manager who has been with a club for 22 years appealed to the sense of tradition I love and see disappearing in the modern game.
But my overall emotion is simply of pride, of a manager who has changed a club beyond all recognition, but still retained its tradition, its values. Have you been perfect? No.
But you have done nothing but devote a large chunk your working life to make the club that is so now imbued with your DNA a success.
So thank you, Arsene. And au revoir…