I was sitting on a plane to Scotland this morning when one of the crew suddenly rushed over to me and exclaimed: ‘Piers, have you heard? He’s out…HE’S OUT!!’
I didn’t need to be told who ‘he’ was.
The expression of orgasmic excitement on the man’s face told its own story: this was clearly a fellow Arsenal fan and the ‘he’ was clearly Arsène Wenger.
Our club’s longest serving manager was finally leaving after 22 years.
If someone had told me a decade ago that I, or any Arsenal fan, would be remotely joyful at this news, I’d have thought they were bonkers.
But sadly, I think the vast majority of fans will today share my own sense of huge relief at Wenger’s departure.
It is the right decision.
Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal after 22 years today. Gunner Piers Morgan writes of his relief
In truth, he should have gone years ago when his managerial genius began to wane at the same speed younger, more dynamic rivals emerged to beat him with monotonous regularity.
I first called for Wenger to resign in a Mail column on November 24, 2008 after a 3-0 beating by Manchester City.
It seemed to me then that Wenger had lost his cutting edge.
‘Wenger looked like a Death Row inmate waiting to be taken to the electric chair,’ I wrote, ‘angry, frustrated, careworn and suddenly very old. Arsenal are disintegrating before my eyes as a major club. It’s time Arsene Wenger and Arsenal parted company.’
They didn’t, things carried on disintegrating, and Wenger has looked ever older, angrier and more frustrated.
For a while, he was able to cling to excuses about lacking the money to win against billionaire-backed clubs like Chelsea and the two Manchesters.
But for the past seven years, Arsenal’s had an owner just as rich as Roman Abramovich in the form of American tycoon Stan Kroenke – and nothing has changed.
Last year was Wenger’s worst as Arsenal manager: we came 5th in the Premier League and failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in his tenure.
Piers with Wenger in 2000. He has since grown tired of his team’s poor performances and has been calling for him to go
This season has been even worse than that.
We’re currently 6th in the League, out of both domestic competitions, and all that’s left to play for is the Europa League, the ugly sister to the Cinderella-style Champions League that no big club wants to play in.
As performances on the field have fallen, so has the size of the crowds.
The Emirates stadium, supposedly our bold new platform to the elite of world football, has resembled a half-empty graveyard at times during recent games.
Yet still Wenger’s excuses have kept coming; there’s always a reason for our persistent failure in big competition, which has nothing to do with him.
In the end, there is one statistic that says it all: Sir Alex Ferguson has won the Premier League five times since Wenger last won it, and he’s been retired for five years.
It’s been so sad to see the slow, inexorable demise of our once great titan.
Some Arsenal fans have long waged a campaign calling for Wenger to be sacked
Arsenal legend Ian Wright put it well recently: ‘Watching Wenger now is like witnessing the ageing Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes or Brazil’s Ronaldo when he got fat. The problem with Arsène is there is no one in his corner prepared to throw in the towel.’
Well, now he’s done it himself.
Or perhaps he was urged to throw it by board members at Arsenal? I know at least one who told me a few months ago he was hoping to persuade Wenger to finally see the writing on the wall.
It doesn’t really matter.
Wenger’s going and it’s the end of one of the longest and most extraordinary reigns by any manager of any football club.
Nobody, least of all me, has enjoyed seeing him reduced to a pale shadow of the manager he used to be
It’s a bitter-sweet moment, even for people like me who’ve been demanding it happen for nearly a decade.
Before the comparative misery of recent years – just three (devalued) FA Cup wins in 14 years is not a return ‘big club’ fans paying the highest ticket prices in Europe should reasonably accept – Wenger was a God to all Arsenal fans.
We won the Double in his first season 1997/8, and again in 2002.
Then in 2004, we became the first – and to date ONLY – team to go through an entire English league season unbeaten.
The ‘Invincibles’ as they became known were a dazzling side, bursting with incredible talent like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, and a ferocious fighting spirit led by captain Patrick Vieira that cowed many opponents into submission before the game even started.
When we won the League that season, at the home of our bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, I was a guest of Lord Sugar’s in the Spurs boardroom.
Understandably, it had emptied long before Arsenal’s players stopped celebrating out on the pitch.
(Sugar was half way back to Chigwell before the final whistle, so desperate was he to avoid my inevitable gloating.)
In fact, there was just me and my dad, ironically a lifelong Spurs fan, left when the door suddenly swung upon, and in walked Wenger and his long time No2, Pat Rice.
I embraced them both like they were surgeons who’d just saved my life – arguably, preposterously, this achievement felt even sweeter than that.
Then I ordered the most expensive bottle of French red wine the boardroom stocked, at Lord Sugar’s expense obviously, and the four of us sat alone together for an hour chatting about football.
I met Wenger many times in those glorious early years and football was pretty much all he ever talked about.
But he did it with such passion and knowledge.
As anyone in the game will attest, Wenger’s an erudite, well-read and charismatic man who is totally obsessed with football.
Wenger was a God to all Arsenal fans and he’s an erudite, well-read and charismatic man who is totally obsessed with football
His idea of a great night is sitting at home watching a lower league Swedish reserve game on TV.
For my part, that hour I spent in the Spurs boardroom with him remains one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I can genuinely say I’ve never loved any man more than I loved Arsène Wenger that day.
By yesterday, 14 years on, that love had dissolved into a feeling of such despair I could barely look at the man.
As Socrates said: ‘The hottest love has the coldest end.’
And yet now, as I finally write Wenger’s Arsenal obituary and remember the incredible highs I experienced under him in that first epic decade, those old feelings stir once more.
Like any elongated divorce, this has been a painful process for all Arsenal fans.
Nobody, least of all me, has enjoyed seeing him reduced to a pale shadow of the manager he used to be.
I particularly loathed seeing him showered with vicious personal abuse in the street from time to time by a few idiotic yobs.
Contrary to popular belief, I have never hated Wenger the man; I’ve only hated his refusal to step down when it was obvious he should, especially when brilliant potential replacements like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola came on the market and were swooped up by Premier League rivals.
But now, finally, he’s done so and that allows me to pay tribute to Arsene Wenger, rather than incessantly moan about him.
Wenger pictured when he first arrived at Arsenal’s then-home Highbury in 1996
For eight years, he rivalled Sir Alex as the best manager in the world and based on that period alone, he was the best in Arsenal history.
He’s won 10 trophies in 22 years and over 1200 games.
But his true legacy will be the way he transformed the way English football was played and how the players conducted themselves.
Out went the beer, in came the scientific diets and fitness regimes.
More importantly, Wenger drove his teams to play exhilarating one-touch, high-speed football of such exquisite skill and style that it made us the envy of the world.
‘My never ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man,’ he told L’Équipe in 2016.
That struggle grew harder in recent years as Wenger’s powers lessened, but this is not the day to dwell on that.
This is the day to look back with gratitude for the great times he gave us.
Wenger’s announcement hit the perfect note.
‘I managed the club with full commitment and integrity,’ he said, which is entirely true.
Then he added: ‘I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever.’
I have no doubt Arsenal fans, for so long bitterly fractured by contrary views of Wenger, will now rally as one to salute him into his Arsenal retirement
Whether you were Wenger Out, or Wenger In, that’s a sentiment to bring a lump to the throat.
I hope we now go on and win the Europa League for him.
That would be the best way to send Wenger off.
It won’t be easy because our semi-final opponents are the very capable Atletico Madrid whose manager Diego Simeone is just the kind of youthful, ruthless, dynamic firebrand that Wenger used to be.
But I have no doubt Arsenal fans, for so long bitterly fractured by contrary views of Wenger, will now rally as one to salute him into his Arsenal retirement.
The Emirates stadium will be packed for every one of the final few home games, and the roars of ‘One Arsene Wenger’ will once again be heard all over North London.
That is no less than he deserves.
It’s time for Wenger’s most ferocious critics like me to get off his back and say what we have wanted to say throughout these long, tortuous years campaigning for his exit: ‘Goodbye, Arsene, and thank you.’