Arsene Wenger: Huddersfield acclaims legendary purist at the end of an era as Arsenal win his final match
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Arsene Wenger had walked through the doors to the John Smith’s to huge acclaim as he disembarked from the team bus on a gloriously sunny day in Yorkshire. But it was the reaction from a woman on the Huddersfield Town administrative staff which was as telling any reaction on this momentous afternoon.
As the doors shut on the noise of the crowd assembled yards away, and as the interested eyes turned away, it was the emotion the woman showed that lingered long in the memory.
She politely greeted Wenger, just to say well done. She wasn’t interested in a selfie, or even a hug. She simply wanted to give her best regards to a genuinely good man.
She thanked him. He, in turn thanked her with grace. It was a momentary exchange. The kind of brief meeting with a stranger that the 69-year-old Frenchman must had have a large number of times during his career.
But as the cultured man walked down the corridor, the women, who had the largest smile imaginable on her face, turned to her colleague and punched the air, mouthing ‘yes’.
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Before kick-off he was given a guard of honour from both sets of players before walking towards the away end as he took the travelling fans acclaim.
It was a tribute that ran alongside the impressive home support’s hailing of such an icon.
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On 22 minutes the whole stadium rose to applaud him. It was as heartwarming as it was wonderful to experience – every Arsenal fan should tip their hat at such a magnanimous gesture.
The respect was tangible. It wasn’t to do with celebrity, perish the thought. It was just about good people praising a good man.
That is the essence of Wenger.
A dignified, intelligent man whose principles and a refusal to compromise his beliefs and philosophy for better or worse – a complete avowal of pragmatism – in search of the beautiful game, a purists’ purist with a heart that cared more about the beautiful game and his responsibility to it, than the mere search of results, struck a chord with so many.
How many managers thank journalists while showing empathy saying that he understands they do a difficult job? That is what he did last week in the packed press room deep inside the Emirates.
Equally how many managers get bought an expensive bottle of wine from hard-bitten reporters and a round of applause. Wenger did last week.
His final match, his 1,235th match in charge, against the Terriers was no different. It was emotional.
You could understand why he has received such acclaim.
North London was full of it on a gloriously sunny afternoon last Sunday with Huddersfield – with their historic links with previous Arsenal mangers – also doing him proud.
‘He’ll get a good reception here” said a stout man with a stout Yorkshire accent outside the ground, before adding with a glint in his eye: “Herbert Chapman saved you lot when you were Woolwich Arsenal.”
Fans had come from all around the world to praise not bury departing Arsenal manager Wenger over the last week – and the whole of the John Smith’s stadium bought into it on Sunday.
This week there was a plane hired specially for the occasion to pay homage to the great man.
How ironic that it was a flight which came to praise him on his final match when you consider the antagonism created by the last airborne flypast at West Brom last season when both the pro and anti fan factions made their point.
But today was a day for celebration. And to honour a great man.
Just like last week was too.
From burger vans plastered with pictures of the Frenchman – who has spent 22 years at the ‘love of his life’ at the Gunners – to those who congregated outside the Marble Halls on Avenell Road in a form of a footballing wake.
The programme sellers, once their special edition ‘Merci Arsene’ shiny publications arrived, were also busy. Near to the Tony Adams statue – who Wenger called the ‘doctor of defence’ – fans were buying handfuls of the collectors issue, only days after the EFL considered scrapping a requirement for lower league clubs to produce a matchday offering in print.
Piebury Corner on the Holloway Road, a Mesut Ozil through-ball from the Emirates, conjured up a pie in his honour. Chicken and broccoli in homage to Le Professor’s early work when he banished tradition pre-match fayre of steak and chips at Arsenal. English football followed suit a few years later, copying his revolutionary take on sports science which included drinking water at the optimum temperature and masticating the correct number of times for the full effect.
Wenger had spoke movingly this week Highbury. Not just his Highbury years. But the beloved stadium much missed by so many.
“I believe Highbury had a special spirit”, he explained at a moving final press conference at London Colney ahead of the trip to Huddersfield.
“It’s a cathedral, a church. You could smell the soul of every guy that played there. So it was special.
“It will always be special for me. The Emirates for me was like buying a new house. It took us a while to feel at home there.
“It’s a fantastic stadium - but there was something special at Highbury that you could never recreate when you build something new.
Wenger admitted he gave himself a maximum of three years as boss when he joined in 1996 – more out of the expectation that top flight English managers don’t last too long in such a cut-throat environment.
It went far better than 36 months.
The years from 1996 to 2006 brought some of the finest football in Arsenal fans had ever seen, played by footballers who appeared to be from another planet – or at least far removed from their stodgy English counterparts.
Wenger extended the shelf life of the famed back four and gave them all a new lease of life by stretching their talent and hard work metaphorically and literally as his current number two Steve Bould among many others credited the Frenchman with adding years onto his career.
In a neat but desperately disappointing reverse of that scenario wags have said that Wenger has also done that to Bould during his coaching career – by refusing to let him do any work on the training ground.
The thing with innovators and revolutionaries is by their very definition they can only do that once. And so it was with Wenger.
Once even the likes arch anti-football protagonist Sam Allardyce started firing up Power Point presentations on the value of the correct nutrition the writing was on the wall.
Magnificent doubles in 1998 and 2002 followed by the immortal Invincibles in 2004 and finding themselves 17 minutes from eternal glory on a warm Paris night in May 2006 in the Champions League final against the might of Barcelona slid into a form of mesmerising mediocrity thereafter.
Wenger and Arsenal were hit by a perfect storm of a changing landscape on and off the pitch as billionaire oligarchs rendered the self-sustainable blueprint – which predicated the move from Highbury – completely irrelevant.
All had changed. Changed utterly.
And Wenger and his methods, which were never given to in-depth tactical analysis, certainly not on the level of his new managerial rival Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in the summer of 2004, looked old and dated.
The fact he was operating with a financial handbrake with the move from Highbury, coupled with the loss of his Consigliere, David Dein, and the fact he decided, madly, beautifully, infuriatingly, and ultimately unsuccessfully to adopt a youth is best policy – aping his bitter rival Sir Alex Ferguson who won things with kids.
Yet Wenger was let down by players who were unfit to lace the shoes of the Invicibles – from Alexandre Hleb to Alex Song and so many others as well, which when his inexplicable decision to dispense of his 2003-04 side far too quickly, handing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires one-year contracts.
These legends had little reason to comply. But they did. Because of Wenger.
But the former Monaco coach had refused to follow Ferguson’s lead of periodically employing new number two’s who could inject new vigour, ideas, methods, tactics and faces into the increasingly tired looking scenario at London Colney.
Pat Rice will always be a true Arsenal legend who devoted his life to the cause, but he was hardly to be spotted at a UEFA tactics seminar.
And as the glory years sped into the past – compounded with humiliating and completely avoidable defeats such as the 8-2 shellacking at Old Trafford in August 2011 – the feeling was Wenger appeared to be past his sell-by date.
He responded with three FA Cup victories in four years. A triumph which has not had the acclaim it deserves, yet despite the never-to-be-forgotten comeback against Hull City in the 3-2 victory in 2014 and the wondrous 2-1 triumph to deny Antonio Conte’s Chelsea champions the double last year, the feeling existed that Wenger had become a 21st century equivalent of the final days of George Graham in 1995 after the team had become a cup side that could not challenge for the highest honours in the game.
His double act with sidekick Dein was mourned by many when Wenger’s off-field confidant departed. With many tracing the loss as the start of the final chapter of his story. And not a happy one.
He said this week: “Ideally I would have loved to continue working with him.
“I think it was down to the fact that the football world has changed and that you build a stadium. I signed for five years accepting it will be more limited resources. When you have that you have less good players.”
With Wenger there is always an element of otherworldiness. And so it was with his ethos.
That things should be done the right way. The Arsenal way.
Which chimed with millions of supporters, not just in North London but around the world.
It was instructive as an Arsenal correspondent chronicling the club’s run in the Europa League this term just to see the respect Wenger has been held in around Europe. From Red Star Belgrade’s Marakana Stadium to the San Siro to Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano Wenger has been feted with love and admiration.
Which he felt was denied him from various pockets of supporters on the internet and social media, that, unable to express their dissatisfaction with any form of articulacy resorted to the lowest common denominator – personal abuse.
Despite what the dignified Wenger said in public, it did hurt him. He hinted as much in his first public press conference after the news he was to leave the club.
It was to his credit when the day came the first thing he asked for was his entire staff to have their contracts paid out in full.
However, the desperately disappointing defeat at the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atletico in early May, to end any hopes of the club being swept to Europa League glory on a wave of emotion at Wenger’s departure was indicative of his later years at the club.
Despite the players talking a good game they went out at a raucous Metropolitano with a whimper. As they have done in the majority of big games they have played over the last decade.
When Diego Costa’s goal sealed the defeat it felt like a culmination of every single crushing loss over the past 12 years rolled into one.
Yet on Sunday against Burnley everyone in the Emirates hailed him.
As they did today at Huddersfield.
Wenger is loved and respected through his innate decency allied with glorious memories of his first decade of unrivalled silverware.
He was given a guard of honour from his side and Sean Dyche’s Burnley last week but this week the crowds didn’t wait until after the game to applaud him.
The large assembled throng gathered greeted Wenger as warmly as they hailed their own heroes as the Arsenal team and their departing manager disembarked their bus to enter the John Smith’s.
And from that moment onwards, in his 828th and final Premier League match in charge – to make 1,235 in total – they hailed him.
As the away fans did when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slotted home on 38 minutes to put Arsenal ahead and seal the match to signal the end of an era.
There will never be another Arsene Wenger. Everyone here at Huddersfield knew that.
Which is why they saluted him so warmly on a never-to-be-forgotten day.