Arsène Wenger has been a dominant and constant presence in my life over the last 22 years.
In his first full season as manager, 1997-98, he led Arsenal to the league and F.A. Cup double. I had just finished my school exams, and I remember celebrating in my local pub as Tony Adams scored that goal against Everton — the exclamation point in the title-sealing win — in the final home game of the season. The previous summer, as Wenger had begun to construct his first champions, the Labour Party had won the general election, heavily defeating the Conservatives after 18 years in power. I was young, and the future seemed full of wondrous possibilities.
The world has changed considerably since then. Wenger and I are much older. We live in the era of Brexit. A home ground once known as Highbury has become Emirates Stadium.
In the cold breeze of Holloway Road last year, I had a sense that this could potentially be Wenger’s final season in charge. It was not a particularly groundbreaking insight. A subset of fans had been pushing — loudly — for his exit for years, and even I had spoken about it with friends; I recently found an email from 2013 in which I discussed with a friend that “maybe it was time for Wenger to go?”
This season just felt different, though, and so I decided to document it. Still, I never envisaged the match-day murmurs I had sensed on Holloway Road that day were tectonic plates on a collision course that would divide our fan base even further and lead, at last, to Wenger’s exit.
Wenger had always been a visionary, but as with politics and so many other parts of British life, soccer changed considerably during his tenure. As he appeared to be an increasingly lonely soul on the touchline in recent seasons, it became difficult to watch a man of his status, and achievements, endure abuse week after week from a certain minority of Arsenal supporters.
At times, it created a toxic atmosphere. On more than a few days, it seemed as if some in the stadium forgot there was a match going on. So too, it appeared, did some of the players. But something had to change. The most damning points of protest were not the planes trailing banners, or the chants, or the voices raised in anger.
It was the thousands of empty seats at some home games — the ultimate “silent protest.”
After Sunday’s finale at Huddersfield, he will be gone. He already has had his final day at the Emirates, presented with the gold trophy the club’s unbeaten “Invincibles” received in 2004 and rightly honored with warm, insightful speeches recognizing how he revolutionized Arsenal, and the English game, with his vision, his training techniques and his tactics.