Until Death Do You Part… As they say, when people take their marriage vows…
Wenger and Arsenal WAS a marriage, and today, as we hear that he will step down as manager at the end of the season, I feel that we are witnessing something akin to a death.
Marriage and Death may seem like overblown metaphors and many will prefer the more pragmatic notion that this is Wenger retiring, or, if it suits certain segments of the support, it is a much needed sacking, but, perhaps, done right. After all, Wenger has always maintained that he sees out his contracts and surely he wanted to see this one out, believing, as always, in his ability to serve the club well.
Retirement or sacking, let’s call this an end to era as well as to one man’s job, an epic 22 year professional commitment, the likes of which, in this day and age are not seen in many professions, let alone football management.
What does a person have left when they’ve given their full commitment to a job and the end comes? Many people simply can’t do it, and the stories of people dying soon after ending their working lives are legion. While some tiny group of Gooners have been so vile as to wish for his death–at least from behind the safety of their keyboards–let the rest of us hope that AW lives a long and fruitful life and enjoys the legacy of all he’s given to the club he served for 22 years.
I’ve told (and re-told) my story about how I landed at the address I’ve taken as my screen-name (17 Highbury Terrace, N5) in the autumn of 2006, Wenger’s first season in the new stadium, which, I believe, will ultimately be named in his honor. If you want to read some of that story, mixed in with my personal history of watching sports and finding sports heroes, here it is.
Being in that part of North London at that time was great. I was new to Arsenal but you could feel the enthusiasm as crowds made their way to the new stadium. There was (big) turnover in the team, but Arsenal had made the final of the Champions League the previous spring, and the economy was booming; tickets were expensive and very hard to come by. In fact, I never got inside the stadium, but nonetheless I immersed myself and, despite Arsenal’s difficulties on the pitch, I could sense Wenger’s vision for the club. My take on that probably repeats my personal story a bit much for many, but there you go. We live in a culture of narcissism and I don’t want to throw any stones in that glass house.
One thing I could surely see–right from the start–was that nobody I’d ever seen in sports represented his club as completely as Wenger. I was impressed. So, for me, watching and admiring Wenger as I have for a dozen years and sensing that this is the close of his Arsenal career IS personal.
Like Arsene and Arsenal, my wife and I almost (well, kinda-sorta) have similar last names (she’s kept hers) AND she has committed her entire post-graduate career (thus far) to one institution (a community college as we call them here in the States) while my “job” (or long-term commitment) has been to support her, mostly by using some skills I’d acquired in taking care of and working on our house(s)–including managing its rebuild after a forest fire. (Like Wenger, doing this work and more generally, I have always been a “home economist,” prioritizing functionality and financial stability over shows of luxury.) An even bigger responsibility was being the primary care-giver (“stay-at-home dad”) for our boy, now 16 years old.
At my son’s current age, like AW managing Arsenal in recent years, that latter “job” is somewhat thankless these days, or maybe satisfying results seem harder to come by. Still, like Wenger, I feel compelled to “honor my contracts,” even if my “baby” is rapidly moving on from under my direct supervision and care. On this front, I need to step down. Or maybe I’m getting the sack. Hard to say. Ask my son, these days he knows everything…
Please pardon the tortured analogies. Still, in a world where even the stewards of entire countries (remember, I’m writing from here in the US) seem most concerned with fame and fortune and place conventional morality and norms neatly to one side, a man of Wenger’s character seems worthy of praise and emulation. He’s been a inspiration and model for me. He may not be your hero, but he is mine.
Back to the pitch.
Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal divides somewhat neatly between the Highbury years (good ones, very good ones) and his time at the new stadium, generally characterized as a long, slow demise. Personally, coming in when I did, I don’t see it that way. Yes, there was a big emphasis on young players of dubious quality and an attendant trophy drought. Financial stability and top-four league finishes that might give us a chance in the European Champions League were priorities. In 2009 we reached the semi-finals of the CL but were given a drubbing by Manchester United. In most seasons, however, it began to feel silly to aim so completely for a tournament many believed we had no chance of winning.
In more recent years, we’ve competed more successfully on the domestic front, winning the FA Cup in 2014, 15 and 17, while our best shot at the league title was the intervening season, 2015-16, the year that Leicester City won their miracle title. Ours was undone with winter injuries to Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, yet we still pipped our arch-rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, on the final day to finish 2nd. It hasn’t been so rosy since, and Spurs finishing above us these past couple of seasons has been a source of real misery, especially for local fans.
The ENTIRE time I’ve supported Arsenal, Gooners have wanted Wenger gone. It was only a few voices (and bloggers) who took this tack early on, but, over the years, more have joined in and the intensity of his critics, most certainly, has increased. I’m his biggest supporter, but even I believed his situation seemed untenable some 14 months ago when we were dumped out of the CL (by Bayern Munich) by an aggregate score of 10-2. That was compounded by losses at West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace that, in effect, made a top four finish all but impossible. With pressure mounting but a new contract on offer, Wenger, often criticized for his inflexible tactics, tried a three center back formation and won nine of his final ten league matches and semi-final and final FA Cup matches at Wembley. It seemed a miracle to me, but of course, it did not stop the pressure on the man. Once a Gooner goes to the darkside, it’s hard to see the light, I guess.
And, have no doubt about it, Arsene Wenger took on FULL responsibility–the full weight of representing the club through these ever darkening times, becoming, through no fault of his own, a truly divisive figure. As such, to my mind, for many on one side of that divide, the idea of Wenger Out became an all-purpose solution for all of Arsenal’s ills. For me, it mirrors the darkness of the politics of our time, with similar divisive tactics and rhetorics of blame bringing far-right parties and candidates to power. If you buy into these ideas or you’re able to ignore the real-world problems (and extreme amaturism) some of these folks have brought with them, you cannot overlook the entertainment value they embody. I mention no names, but, again, I’m writing from here in the States.
I’m NOT saying you’re a fascist if you’re happy that Wenger is (finally) out. In fact, it could easily be seen as a progressive move and a toppling of conservatism at the club. What I am saying is that sports (more than politics, I would hope) is most certainly an entertainment industry, and something (anything) new, including a new coach, presumably bringing in new players, means the entertainment value at Arsenal should go up. Already, with the appointments of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi we’ve seen big action in the most recent January transfer window. Now a new manager (or first-team coach) must be selected. Unlike Wenger’s near complete control of the club, it should be management by committee going forward, with the on-pitch guy expected to produce results. I would expect supporters to give a new manager a bit of patience: at least one season to bed-in and show off his (or her…haha, Arsenal aren’t that progressive) ideas, with little pressure for immediate improvement in results. That second season, however, had better make Arsenal great again.
Or maybe not. Perhaps Gooners will come to realize that so much in the world of football has changed and blame and simple solutions are not the answer. Starting about fifteen years ago, a handful of English clubs sold out to the princes and emirs of the world, including billionaire American owners, like our own Stan Kroenke. Simply put, the game is now consumed as much on television and the internet by a worldwide audience as it is by those who go to the stadia–with attendant monies pouring into the game. That’s something few would have imagined a generation or two previous.
So, just like the rest, I cannot predict the future. Maybe I’m the one who has become conservative, simply wondering if Arsenal (or America or our increasingly global culture) can EVER be truly great if we don’t have a committed figurehead who will take responsibility for the present AND future of the club. Stan (or Josh) Kroenke? Ivan Gazidis? Sven and Raul? Where does the buck stop?
Consider me scared, or at least wistful, which brings me back to marriage and death and why Wenger’s commitment to Arsenal has meant so much to me. 53% of all marriages (again, in my home country, the United States) end in divorce and those that don’t end in death. Likewise, 100% of all lives end. Ideally, one enters this world with (nothing but) hope (from others already here) and leaves it with (nothing but) memories, good ones, ideally. When Wenger arrived–as with any football manager–there was hope, and with his leaving there will be memories, lots of them, and probably, for most Gooners at least, memories of things for which they couldn’t have hoped.
I’d argue that a big reason we should celebrate these memories–and something that makes them EVEN BETTER is the FULL COMMITMENT and TRUE PASSION that Arsene Wenger gave to his, no OUR, club. And his satisfactions–along with his struggles–were borne fully, which, I believe, added to the experience. All I really know is that they, and thus the man himself, have been an inspiration to me. Hopefully, for you too. And, hopefully, they will inspire our players in his final seven (or, possibly eight) matches…and well into the future.
So, for Arsene and for Arsenal, (and for myself, I guess…) I say…
Go on then…