I last saw him 14 years ago. It was at Highbury. I was on the Clock End, a few metres behind the goal. He was on the touchline. It was a wonderful autumn afternoon in London. We were playing Charlton Athletic. We won 4-0. Thierry Henry scored twice, including the famous back-heel goal. It was the second-last game of the unbeaten run, but we didn’t know it then. The crowd erupted into a chant only one club in England has had the right to sing in over a century, ‘We are invincible’. But the crowning moment, as the final whistle went off, was the congregation of Gooners breaking into an impromptu song, set to the tune of Winter Wonderland: ‘There’s only one Arsene Wenger’. He smiled, waved, smiled again, disappeared into the tunnel.
Fandom is not about savouring victory. It is about the sweet misery of defeat. About having no control whatsoever over something thousands of miles away, but letting it affect your mood, your day, and often unbeknownst to you, your personality.
In between, there are a few good days when you win.
Football fandom, in particular, is not celebrating a great finish or a perfectly measured pass. It is about the qualities that make your club, your favourite national team, even your local six-a-side consistently find itself in positions that it does. It requires engagement, demands partisanship. You can’t dabble in it, you have to live it.
Sure, you can admire Diego Maradona’s solo run against England in 1986, or Pele’s pass to Carlos Alberto in 1970, or van Persie’s flying header in 2014 no matter which team you follow. But the larger narrative trumps these moments of brilliance. And that narrative is scripted by the manager.
A lot of us in India who have grown up following cricket don’t fully grasp this concept because of how different the two sports are. In cricket, a player has time – between deliveries, between overs, at session breaks – to sit back and analyse the match. A captain can shuffle the batting order, change bowlers, tinker with the field. He turns to a coach for advice, not orders.
In football, the physical load on a player is too high to think about the bigger picture. A captain has too much work at his end of the field to worry about how his defenders or wingers are measuring up. You need someone sitting outside to read the game, to run the play.
That’s what makes the manager so important, and tenures so short. Wenger is remarkable because the three Premier League titles and the seven FA Cups are not his greatest achievements. He stamped his philosophy on one of the few super clubs in the world.
He made them overachieve for nearly all of his 22 years in charge. He decided they would play a brand of football, become a certain kind of club in the face of immeasurable pressure from within and countless changes in the universe around him.
He had the time to build relationships with his fans that managers no longer do – buddy, role model, father who just doesn’t listen – and bring into their lives Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
Wenger was first a moderniser credited with transforming British football and later a purist who fought against the temptations of consumerist team-building. In the end, he was seen as a relic of a bygone era.
He was stubborn, tough, sometimes in denial. But he was trustworthy, graceful, forever willing to pick up the pieces and carry on.
Wenger had to go someday. He led Arsenal out of the tunnel for the last time on Sunday evening. It wasn’t a glorious setting. Just the final game of what has been the team’s worst Premier League season in two decades. It was neither at Highbury nor at the Emirates.
It wasn’t in Kiev, where Real Madrid and Liverpool will play the Champions League final. And it wasn’t where it could’ve been, in Lyon, where Atletico Madrid and Marseille will square off for the Europa League.
At the John Smith’s Stadium in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire – something which will now go down in history as a quiz question – he looked older, sombre and somewhat relieved. Arsenal won 1-0. His last signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored. There was no back-heel involved. But when the final whistle went off, the congregation sang – home fans and away fans in unison.
There was only one Arsene Wenger. There doesn’t come such another.