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  • By Charlie Stong

Merci, Arsene

Arsene Wenger Photo by Paul Lagan

Something very strange happened to me when Arsene Wenger’s resignation was announced on Friday morning. Nearly my entire Arsenal supporting life seemed to flash before my eyes.

When Arsene arrived at Highbury in late 1996 I was 17 years old. I was still living at home with my parents, I was still taking my A-level exams. I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol and only just allowed to drive. Next year I turn 40.

For all Arsenal fans this past few days have been a whirlwind of emotions. We’re not a club which changes managers like we change our socks. Since I have supported the club back in 1986 we have to all intents and purposes had two managers. George Graham and Arsene Wenger. Bruce Rioch was just a stand-in while David Dein dotted the i’s on Arsene’s contract.

What flashed before my eyes on Friday morning were the good times. The victory parades, the parties with friends and family, the away days, lifting the trophies, the pride felt that our little club were, for a while at least, the best in the land. I even remember being at a few games in the early days of the 21st century wishing we would go a goal behind just to make the matches a bit more difficult. How I long for that felling to return one day!

Arsene Wenger changed the entire landscape of English football. He cleared out the drinks cabinets and made players drink orange juice with supplements instead. When Arsenal players went on England duty others watched at first in bemusement, then in awe, as they stretched and exercised in a way never before seen in this country.

Soon they were all doing it.

The Invincibles are rightly lauded, as they didn’t lose a single league game. But for me the 1998 team was the best. The team still rolls of the tongue as it did back then - Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams, Bould, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Parlour, Bergkamp, Anelka. With Wrighty on the bench if we needed more goals. I’m not sure ever since has an Arsenal side so easily picked itself.

In terms of having fun then there was no beating 2002. During those last few weeks Freddie and Dennis were on a telepathic wavelength. That feeling of just knowing you are going to beat whoever you are stepping onto the pitch against is something wonderful. Half of Islington - me included - had red hair for those 10 weeks in homage to Fred.

And the Chelsea final - it’s only Ray Parlour - well, that topped it all.

I grew up in awe of the 1971 ‘double’ team, thinking such an amazing achievement would always be out of reach. Back in those days when money was not so central to everything in the game, the trophies were often spread out a little more than they are nowadays. The ‘double’ was a harder thing for teams to do in those days.

Arsene Wenger did it twice in his first five full seasons.

His only regret will be that he never won the Champions League. But I can say this with all honestly. Although I would have loved to have won it under Arsene, the league was always the number one. To say you’re the best over 38 games in the world’s most competitive league is something to be proud of. That was the competition I always wanted to win at the start of the season more than any other - and Arsene won it three times.

He also won the FA Cup SEVEN times - that’s the same number as Chelsea and Liverpool have won in their entire history. Chelsea, Liverpool, you want Arsene to stay, you say?

I know there will be people reading this, and other Arsenal blogs, thinking I and others are being hypocritical. That for weeks we have called for the boss’s head and now we are singing his praises. But let me say this, we are entitled to realise that it is time he departs while also recognising all the joy and happiness he has brought to our lives. What he brought me was more than football, it was lifetime friendships and bloody good times.

And for that we will be forever grateful.

There will be time for discussions of the new boss in the weeks to come - now is not that time.

The next few weeks are all about Arsene. The Emirates should be packed out for his last three games and if the team can win the Europa League it would be the perfect send-off.

Paul Merson said yesterday the club should rename the stadium the Arsene Wenger stadium, and I am sure, once negotiations with Emirates have taken place, that may well be something that happens. It has to happen. The stadium is only there because of him.

Thank you, Arsene. For acting with integrity at al times. For being a wonderful human being. For giving us some of the best times of our lives - times we will never, ever forget.

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