We always knew the time would come. The day when the sun would set on the reign of Arsene Wenger, thus bringing to an end the most bitter of Islington Civil Wars. The club have attempted, as best they can, to present an image of consensus to usher in an era of unity, although tell-tale signs indicate this had been anything but amicable. Final proof will arrive in the form of Wenger reappearing in another dugout, a defiant gesture that this is a man who felt he had unfinished business. Yet whether you were “IAWT” or “Wenger Out”, nobody took pleasure from the way the fans had become so bitterly divided. We are now left to survey the scenes of devastation which depending on who you ask, marks the culmination of a battle for the “soul of the club” which lasted 5, 10 or even as long as 12 years. I can remember some fans as far back as 2006 calling for his head, following our Champions League defeat during that cruel night in Paris.
Visitors to my blog will know I am somebody who will never tolerate hypocrisy. I have more respect for people who stand by their beliefs, than those who surf upon bandwagons attempting to ride a wave of populism. It’s why I texted Stafford Scott recently and described him as a weather barometer. Rain or shine, you know where you stand. It’s why I have an awful lot of time for him; the world needs more like his type. It’s also why I find myself unable to contain my contempt for people like Lammy who has spent the past nine months attempting to reinvent himself as some kind of tribute act to Bernie Grant, despite spending the previous seventeen years doing everything he possibly could to represent the polar opposite of everything he stood for. Lammy will always come to represent more a child of Thatcher than Bernie, hence the reason I am able to swiftly dismiss his recent biblical conversion from Saul to Paul.
I appreciate the fact that those who wanted Wenger gone will feel elements of vindication, especially as the story becomes clearer and it does look like the parting of the ways had been forced by the board. I don’t want them now to cry crocodile tears and pretend they appreciated the past 22 years. However I also feel that you can feel triumphant without treating such a day like the club has won a trophy. It’s a fine line, a delicate balancing act, but having surveyed reactions from many fans since that momentous announcement, it can and must be done.
One such fan, a close friend, I had to spend time reading the riot act to. I explained that in my life as an Arsenal fan which began in 1985, this is the fourth occasion I have experienced a changing of the guard. The one that stood out the most prior to this week had been the end of George Graham. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard, a ‘JFK moment’ of my childhood as a Gooner. It was half term and I had spent the afternoon with my cousins swimming at Leyton Leisure Lagoon. I was getting changed and speakers inside the changing rooms relayed Capital Radio who had their hourly bulletin announcing the news. It stunned my 14 year old self. The criminal, this crook, a thief who stole from our club, fired for being caught with his hand in the till, so to speak. Sacked in disgrace and later given a worldwide ban from the game. But I couldn’t do any fist pumps or perform a merry dance. Frightened, I looked to the future with a sense of trepidation. It had been a miserable season. The ‘house that George built’ was falling down all around us, ITV’s London Tonight were running features on Arsenal falling out of the top flight for the first time since 1919 and bookies were taking odds on the club being relegated. Yet I never wanted Graham fired, I thought his six trophies in nine years earned him the right to turn it around. I’m a loyal person; it probably marked out the characteristics which would make the classic ‘apostle of Wenger’ all those years later. I still feel emotion recalling the day, a chapter closing and a sense of sadness which never has nor never will leave me.
Similarly when Rioch found himself fired on the eve of the 1996/97 season after just a year in the job, his running battles with our then best player (Ian Wright) had raised the unthinkable prospect of our star striker leaving, I do not look back at the day as one for celebration or joy. Staring at an uncertain future, I feared the direction this club of mine were heading. Rioch for all his faults, had taken us back into Europe again, restoring our status as a club with a profile which in my eyes deserved to be broader than just a quest for north London supremacy.
As the page turned in the journey of my life as an Arsenal fan, a chapter commenced and the end of Wenger’s time represents the end of that special period. We are such a different club from what we were then with different aspirations and ambitions. I guess looking around now, I wonder if it is the club I recognise anymore. We have an enormous fan base today, one that stretches far beyond the M25, but I ask myself, 'at what price?' I loved Highbury and of course I think the Emirates Stadium is wonderful, a bold statement of our intentions to become one of the biggest clubs in the world. Although that old adage of bigger not always being better, does gnaw away today.
The club I started supporting as a five year old is one that feels part of me, a personal connection, through my childhood, my years at school, especially that privilege of attending St Joan of Arc. Epitomised by experiencing “Arsenal in the Community”, where the club would send staff members to our school to oversee our Physical Education afternoons. This wasn’t a club I adopted from hundreds or thousands of miles away, this is a club that was part of my community and in turn became an extension of me. When the club would be happy, I felt joy too. Such as watching ‘Anfield 89’ on ITV as a nine year old from deep behind enemy lines growing up down the road in Tottenham. Winding up next door neighbours, living and breathing every peak and trough the club encountered.
When the club mourned, I shared that pain too, emphasised by my earlier accounts of the end of Graham and Rioch. The concept of fans who selected a club over their local side hundreds of miles away to adopt another, like selecting a horse in a grand national with a pin, is an alien concept to me, one which will I never begin to understand. Nor do I attempt to. Furthermore, I don’t even want to.
I watch those fans rejoice as the club grieves, I politely shake my head in despair when all I want to do is scream from the top of the Cornerhouse in my adopted city of Nottingham, a chant which became such a poisonous battle cry of those who for years wanted Wenger dismissed from his role: I WANT MY CLUB BACK!
I think what is needed now is a period of prolonged decline, an era of mediocrity. Of course, I am not talking about European competitions, with a nod to those at the forefront of the “Wenger Out” movement with their view that “4th place is not a trophy”. I am talking real mediocrity, barren years, and an extended chasm where the club can shed its skin. As fondly as I look back on this Wenger reign, we have attracted a vast number of fair-weather fans down the years. Ones who assume we have a right to be at the top, always in the mix for trophies and when it hasn’t happened, it has been comparable to a national scandal.
I valued the Arsenal that I grew up around, where trophies were treasured, where title races were valued and fantastic seasons adored and not viewed upon as almost as being “par for the course”. I was 13 years old before we won the FA Cup for the first time in my life, when I went school the next day, there were celebrations which accurately reflected the magical experience. I can still see my history teacher, fellow Gooner Mrs Rimmer, responding to me when I had been sluggish in my answer to a question, that I’m “day dreaming about the cup win the previous night”. We all shared the joy, a community united in happiness. I could never imagine then that a manager would later be fired for winning that competition three times in his final five years. Graham was sacked having won the competition two years earlier, but criminal activities aside, this was not in any way a reflection of what had happened on the pitch, even if we weren’t having a great season as referenced earlier.
If we can experience some difficult years, not just one or two, but a prolonged period where we effectively find ourselves again, it may become a blessing in disguise as the “pin-dropping” fans who have no community based connection to the club, can find someone else to adopt. It may even become a welcome boost for local teams in the cities they actually grow up in. Because they’ll be able to establish a deep-rooted link to a club which is something they live, breathe and feel. One day they’ll look back at my response to all of this and understand why I found their reactions so incomprehensible.
They’ll know what it’s like to mourn when the club is weeping and sing when the club is winning.