LONDON — It was a strange day at the Emirates. It certainly did not feel like the start of a celebratory long goodbye for Arsene Wenger, but at least we knew by the end the reason why the Frenchman’s departure as manager at the end of the season is laced with apathy and acrimony in equal measure.
When Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement as Manchester United manager in May 2013, Old Trafford was awash with colour and emotion (and plenty of tears too) when Swansea City were the visitors for the game immediately after the confirmation of his decision to step down.
Similarly, when Steven Gerrard played his final game at Anfield for Liverpool against Crystal Palace two years later, the club’s legendary captain was given the full treatment from the Kop as he milked every last moment in a red shirt.
Wenger was surely going to get that, too, after telling the world on Friday morning that this season would his last in charge of Arsenal after 22 years?
Yes, there have been more downs than ups in recent years, the odd family squabble among supporters and a growing belief that he had outstayed his welcome. But then there were the good times: the three Premier League titles, the seven FA Cups and, of course, the “Invincibles” of 2003-04. Yet walking toward the stadium for Arsenal’s clash with West Ham at the Emirates on Sunday morning was a disconcerting experience, and the first hint of what was to come.
There was no fanfare, no groups of supporters with banners, no singing of Wenger’s name. No sense of fans getting there early to experience a seminal day in the club’s history. It was just another Sunday morning in North London and it was weird.
Inside the ground would be different, wouldn’t it? Well, as Wenger emerged to take his place in the dugout prior to kick-off, there was only polite applause from those Arsenal fans who had bothered to turn up on time. There were still vast swathes of empty seats.
Having sat quietly through a drab 0-0 first half and watched as their team went ahead, were pegged back, and then sauntered to a win with three late goals, it was not until Arsenal were 4-1 up that the Emirates finally reverberated to a loud rendition of “There’s only one Arsene Wenger.”
It was as though the supporters, angry with their manager for staying on too long, were only prepared to sing his name once their desire for entertainment and victory had been satisfied.
But the spectacle highlighted the rift that has developed between the Arsenal supporters and the manager they once idolised.
And if that rift was in any doubt, Wenger made it perfectly clear after the game that the relationship between him and the fans was beyond repair. This has become a football divorce between two parties with irreconcilable differences.
“I was not tired,” Wenger said, when asked if he was relieved that his future at the club was no longer a subject of speculation. “I believe that this club is respected all over the world, much more than in England, and our fans didn’t give the image of unity I want at the club. That was hurtful. I feel the club is respected. The image we gave from our club is not what it is and not what I like.”
So there you have it. The disunity at the Emirates, with him as the focus of the disharmony, was a central factor in Wenger’s decision to step down.
“I feel that this club has a fantastic image and for me that is absolutely vital,” he added. “We can speak and speak and speak, but sport is about winning and losing and you have to accept that you will lose games when I am not here anymore.
“I’m not resentful and I do not want to make stupid headlines. I am not resentful with the fans. I just feel if my personality is in the way of what I think our club should be, for me that is more important than me.”
Considering the success he has brought to Arsenal and the development he has overseen on and off the pitch, there is a real sadness to the way that this is all ending for Wenger.
But he still has six games remaining — seven, if Arsenal can overcome Atletico Madrid and book a place in next month’s Europa League final in Lyon — and Sunday needed to be about clearing the air rather than widening the rift.
Wenger is right to cite the damage caused by the disunity, but those supporters who have turned on their manager in recent seasons have done so because they have the club’s best interests at heart. They both have legitimate grievances, but the time has now come to focus on the good and attempt to end the season, and Wenger’s reign, on a high.
When Atletico visit the Emirates for the Europa League semifinal first-leg on Thursday, the stadium has to be livelier and more celebratory than it was against West Ham.
Both Wenger and the fans have made their point, but there is a bigger picture to take into consideration. If Wenger is to get the send-off he truly deserves and if Arsenal are to end their season with a European trophy, both fans and manager must pull together for the rest of the season.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_