I knew it was coming, but it still felt so surreal.
The Arsenal clock, which oversaw 70 years of success at Highbury, hit 6:15pm on Sunday and signalled the end of Arsene Wenger’s final home match as manager of my club.
Being too young to remember any manager before the Frenchman, the end of his tenure brings with it a strange mix of emotions.
The man has been at the club since I was born.
He was there as I went through school, as I graduated from university, as I got a job.
Wenger, always there.
In the chaotic and frivolous world of football, he was a constant upon which the rest of the sport could be measured.
Every Arsenal fan has their own unique feelings towards Wenger’s departure, and every opinion was evident at the Emirates on Sunday.
The weather was fitting for such an occasion, as the sun beat down on supporters draped in replica shirts, many of which featured personalised messages to the departing manager.
Nobody cared about the inevitable sunburn which would be plastered across foreheads and noses the next day, today was about one man only.
The areas outside the Emirates were unusually packed several hours before kick-off.
On a normal matchday, everyone arrives tanked up about five minutes before and mass crowds are stuck outside and miss kick-off.
Every fan had a spring in their step as jubilant Gooners posed for photos alongside the legend statues, an honour that will surely bestow Wenger in the near future.
Every group of fans were deep in conversation about the Frenchman.
“It’s the end of an era,” was the phrase on everyone’s lips.
I lost count of how many times I heard this.
I shamelessly joined a host of Gunners fans in queuing an hour to sign one of two tribute books for Wenger.
Hordes of supporters were ready to put their farewell messages down on paper, reciting quietly to themselves what they would write as they waited in the blazing heat.
Once you eventually reached the oasis of the air-conditioned shop, you were greeted with mannequins dressed in kits which featured messages for Wenger from the players.
The poignant words made you realise the impact that the Frenchman has had on them all, he is so much more than just their manager.
We were unnecessarily supervised as we wrote down our farewells to our manager of 22 years.
I struggle to believe any fans would have had negative words for Wenger, not today.
“Thank you for everything, apart from Yaya Sanogo,” was my personal favourite of the tributes I caught a glimpse of.
Wenger masks were bloody everywhere as we all made our way into the ground in plenty of time for kick-off.
You could barely move in the concourse, something which has rarely been the case this season.
Fans had turned up in there droves today to pay their respects.
If that sentence sounds like a line from an obituary, that’s because the occasion did have something of a wake about it.
More cheerful than a funeral, but certainly mournful.
A free commemorative t-shirt was placed on every single seat inside the Emirates, even on the posh burgundy seats where Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke sit.
I counted just two in that Diamond Club area who had put on their red shirts, the rest of them remained suited and booted… spoilsports.
As for us actual fans, we all wore our novelty XXL shirts, and with pride too.
The guard of honour from both teams formed before the match was a nice touch.
Chants of “one Arsene Wenger” accompanied the Frenchman’s entrance to the pitch.
I genuinely can’t remember the last time I heard that sung at the Emirates.
I felt like I was back at Highbury in 2004, as choruses of “Thierry Henry” “Bergkamp wonderland” and even sporadic references to the red hair of Freddie Ljungberg echoed out around the packed stadium.
Wenger duly obliged whenever instructed to “give us a wave,” and you could tell he was enjoying his moment.
The football was brilliant, it was the sort of football that put a smile on your face, something we haven’t been able to do too much this season.
Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started together and their link-up would have been encouraging for any perspective new manager.
Konstantinos Mavropanos impressed at the back, marshalling Sam Vokes all day and putting in a performance reminiscent of an Arsenal defender in Wenger’s early years.
A fan behind me even labelled him “the Greek Tony Adams.” Steady on, mate.
I even cracked a smile when Alex Iwobi gave the ball away at one point, that’s the sort of day it was.
There was just something poetic about the Arsenal man completely killing a promising counter attack as fans were bellowing out “one Arsene Wenger.”
Credit to Iwobi though, he shut myself and several others up when he rifled one into the Burnley net to make it 4-0.
The match was also to be Per Mertesacker’s final outing at the Emirates before he hangs up his boots to start a new role with the club’s academy.
The German has polarised supporters during his time in North London, but we will never forget his colossal performance in last season’s FA Cup final.
Mertesacker’s arrival to the pitch was greeted with his infamous chant (you know it.)
The German was cheered every time he touched the ball, as the atmosphere towards the end of the match reached fever pitch.
After the 5-0 win, everyone was left asking themselves, ‘where has this been all season?’
It was probably just the heatstroke (or the alcohol), but I couldn’t help but liken some of the current crop to Arsenal legends from the past.
Aubameyang’s clinical performance and movement reminded me of Thierry Henry all day, the striker even wearing the legendary No14.
Full-time came and hankies were well and truly at the ready for what everyone knew would be an emotional post-match ceremony.
Arsenal Chairman Sir Chips Keswick was introduced pitch-side at the start of proceedings, his appearance on the big screen greeted with a chorus of boos.
First, Vic Akers was presented with a memento, as the long term kitman will be leaving at the end of the season.
Arsenal Women’s Captain Alex Scott, who is also retiring, was the next to soak up the applause.
Scott’s long list of honours were read out and met with chants of “Tottenham Hotspur, she’s won more than you.”
Next, Bob Wilson and Pat Rice were brought out to introduce the departing Wenger.
Wilson, the goalkeeping coach when the Frenchman arrived at Arsenal, is much loved by fans, who are constantly left baffled at the club’s neglect to invite a figure like him onto the board.
The former Arsenal goalkeeper shared some great memories of Wenger, before announcing that the gold Premier League trophy awarded to the club after the ‘Invincibles’ season, would be gifted to him to keep.
The trophy had previously been kept on display in a cabinet in the corporate lounge of the stadium, I think all fans would agree Wenger deserves it more.
It was then the moment everyone was waiting for.
Shielded by another guard of honour, this time players on one side and club staff on the other, Wenger made his final walk out to the Emirates pitch.
The seven-time FA Cup winner showed his class once more as he started his farewell speech by sending his best wishes to the recovering Sir Alex Ferguson.
During Wenger’s speech, Kroeneke was shown on the big screen for a split second, the American was given the same unfavourable reception as his mate Sir Chips.
Fans taking a split second out of listening to the speech to show their disdain for the club’s majority shareholder before focusing intently once again.
Shortly after declaring himself “an Arsenal fan,” his microphone unfortunately cut out just as he was giving us a classic Wenger analogy about his love for football.
The symbolism was clear but let’s not get into that.
He topped off the address in typical Wenger style.
Stating he would finish off with ” just one word” before proceeding to say four, “I will miss you.”
The traditional end of season lap of honour was fronted by Wenger leading the players around the pitch.
It was a stark contrast to last season’s equivalent, with the stadium half empty and the manager watching proceedings from the tunnel.
The highlight of the walk came when Wenger gave a young fan his tie.
I left the stadium in a reflective mood.
Everyone was sad at having to say farewell to the man who has been a constant for 22 years.
The man who changed Arsenal, who made it.
However, there was also a sense of widespread excitement for next season and optimism about what we have to look forward to under a new manager.
You’re hard-pressed to find an Arsenal fan who disagrees with Wenger’s decision to leave, I certainly don’t know any.
The truth is, the majority had wanted him gone for a couple of years.
But, that doesn’t take anything away from our appreciation shown to him on Sunday.
That was genuine.
It’s perfectly possible to believe that now is the time for him to leave and that he is deserving of a respectful send-off.
My only regret is that an announcement wasn’t made at the start of this season.
The Emirates has been toxic for much of this campaign, too many times I have witnessed fights during disappointing performances.
Had Wenger come to a decision sooner, and his intentions to step down been made public earlier, who knows what we could have achieved this season with a united fan base.
Despite two more games remaining in his reign, first away at Leicester before Arsenal finish their season at Huddersfield, this was the end of an era.
That phrase again.
The club should waste no time in announcing their plans to honour him after his departure, a stand named after him or a statue would be fitting tributes.
It’s difficult to sum up your words of appreciation for such a man, perhaps it’s just best to say…
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