I think Sunday afternoon was, by some distance, my favourite home game since Arsenal moved to Emirates Stadium. Perhaps ‘favourite game’ isn’t the right phraseology, ‘favourite occasion’ seems more apposite. There was an unashamed air of celebration, of nostalgia and of gratitude. It was as close as the Emirates has ever come to a carnival atmosphere.
The mood of joie de vivre provided a stark contrast to the more typical mood music of recent seasons as Arsenal’s decline gathered pace. Since the New Year, banks and banks of empty seats have grown ever more visible, as apathy gnawed away at the fanbase. Those hardy souls that did turn up, seemed to do so out of a sense of obligation as opposed to enjoyment.
Around me, I began to form the impression that some people actually revelled in the misery, that it became their reason for going in the first place- to vent some spleen. And yet, it feels, to me at least, like the mood of the Emirates has been miscast in recent seasons. There has definitely been some grumbling, some empty seats and a general undercurrent of discontent.
But none of it ever really boiled over en masse beyond some loud tutting and sighing. If the Emirates had been a person, it would have been Mark Hughes- permanently wearing the grimace of a man who is mildly inconvenienced. It never became truly mutinous- and a lot of that was down to the level of reverence that Arsene Wenger still holds with the majority of Arsenal fans.
I have watched him rescue enough AGM’s from the ghastly forked tongue of Sir Chips to see that the undercurrent of respect and affection always remained for many. The Emirates is not and never has been the bubbling cauldron of hatred and loathing that many would have you believe. In April 2016, prior to the ‘It’s Time For Change’ protests, I predicted that they would not gain much traction on the Arsecast.
This was because the home fans are not for turning in this way (and this isn’t me cocking a snook at those that did protest). The make-up of the Emirates crowd just never felt to me like a fertile ground for active protest. The away fans turned some time ago, and volubly too, the atmosphere at away games turned audibly sour.
Though no longer outwardly supportive of Arsene Wenger, the Emirates never broke ranks into outright opposition. On Sunday, all of that pent up anxiety and desperation melted away in the North London sunshine. No matter your position on the manager, Sunday was a chance for thousands of people to leave their reservations at the turnstile and celebrate.
Sunday showed us not to view the foam mouthed minority as representative, it showed us not to conflate a handful of people on twitter with the stadium. Those that clacked their tongues and accused Arsenal fans of hypocrisy for showing thanks to their long serving manager not only lack the capacity for nuanced thought, but they are guilty of believing the hype.
They are guilty of reading one too many “Arsenal twitter reacts” articles and tarring an entire fanbase with the same brush, of believing the darkest recesses of their twitter mentions represent anything other than splinter factions. On Sunday, the long silenced majority sang up in tribute to Arsene Wenger in recognition of his past achievements.
Those that very vocally wanted him to leave got their wish and had every reason to join the celebration. Those, like me, who have wanted Arsene to leave for a little while but refused to take against him out of respect, were able to untie that knot in their stomachs and express their gratitude again. If I could describe Wenger’s Emirates curtain call in one word, it would be ‘liberation.’ (If you were especially unkind, you might even call it an ‘exorcism’).
And that also goes for the man himself, who finally looked happy again. It has been painful to see him so pained so often in recent years. From my perch in the East Stand, he looked at ease on this occasion. In fact, during the lap of appreciation, he looked as though he was lapping up the appreciation in a way that slightly surprised me.
I expected him to feel uneasy about what was ostensibly a wake for his tenure. Even in Arsenal’s worst season for nearly a quarter of a century, without a Europa League Final to look forward to, the occasion did not lose any of its gravitas. Suddenly it felt ridiculous to have fretted so much about the epilogue of this particular opus.
I don’t doubt that the sudden timing of the announcement in April was concocted with the Atleti tie in mind. I think Arsenal and Arsene probably wanted to try and create some momentum for his sagging players. In the end, it proved in vain, but as much as it would have been nice to see Wenger leave with the FA Cup hoisted above his head last year or in 2014, at least on Sunday, we knew it was the final curtain call and it created an unforgettable occasion- an outpouring even.
There was a palpable sense of history in the air as a result. That’s why programme queues snaked endlessly near the stadium walls. Arsene Wenger’s final home game was an historic occasion- especially in the social media age of instant documentation. Just saying you are there is enough in the ‘experience economy’.
It’s also true that much of the atmosphere was driven by excitement for the future again. Wenger’s presence had become obstructive to optimism, as groundhog seasons piled upon groundhog seasons. His departure sets us free, it allows us to speculate and wonder how things will be done differently next season. It might not even be much better, but it will be different and that feels like enough.
That baked itself into the generous mood on Sunday afternoon. Little things that had all but disappeared, like applauding the subs as they came to warm up, like imploring the manager to “give us a wave” all came gushing back again. Wenger has always looked and felt a little awkward about being the centre of attention, but he genuinely seemed to enjoy it on this occasion (and rightly so).
I hope that was a manifestation of his own internal liberation. I’m glad he got the opportunity to see that, for most of us, it was never personal and that the respect for his achievements and his personality remained. I hope that he no longer views a life without Arsenal with trepidation. I hope he begins to regard his future with excitement and anticipation again, now that he no longer has to drag this sizeable ball and chain at his ankles.
But most of all, I hope he is happy in whatever it is that comes next. He deserves it. Merci Arsène. It won’t be the same without you.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.