Arsene Wenger said his farewell to Emirates Stadium in the same way it all began for him as Arsenal manager 7,876 days ago – with victory.
In a season of discontent and occasional open rebellion, this was a day for a united front to celebrate the career of the manager who has brought so much success and style to Arsenal since starting his reign with that 2-0 win at Ewood Park in 1996.
And in a campaign of disappointment that will now be viewed as the end of an era, the last hope of success snuffed out by the Europa League semi-final loss to Atletico Madrid, Wenger at least got the home send-off he so deserved – with a stylish win over Burnley.
The Clarets, who have a wonderful story of their own this season, were outclassed as Arsenal ran out 5-0 winners to give Wenger his 475th win in 826 Premier League games.
This was not the time to celebrate a single victory but to reflect on all the triumphs and pleasure Wenger has brought to Arsenal in almost 22 years, and everyone played their parts perfectly on and off the pitch. The differences of this season were set aside as the good and the great of Wenger’s reign came into sharp focus.
The Emirates was draped in tributes to Wenger, with giant “Merci Arsene” banners outside the ground, while 60,000 red T-shirts bearing the same slogan and the date were placed on every seat.
Wenger, who is clearly departing with reluctance with 12 months still to run on his contract, made his entrance through a guard of honour formed by Arsenal and Burnley players, along with their manager Sean Dyche.
As he made his way towards the centre circle, huge applause reverberated around the arena that can stand as a monument to his footballing wisdom and financial expertise in the transfer market.
There have been fallow years and subsequent fall-outs with some Arsenal fans, but this was an occasion viewed through the prism of three Premier League titles – including two league and FA Cup doubles in 1997-98 and 2001-2002 – and “The Invincibles” season of those 38 unbeaten games in 2003-04.
Wenger’s seven FA Cup wins have also earned him a place in history and many of the figures central to his achievements were here to pay their own tributes.
Martin Keown and the great France midfield man Emmanuel Petit were backstage, and perhaps the most poignant sight of all was the return of David Dein to the Arsenal directors’ box for the first in 11 years.
It was a reminder of a once-unstoppable partnership between Wenger and the man who brought him to Arsenal – and perhaps things have never been quite the same since vice-chairman Dein left the board citing “irreconcilable differences” in 2007.
And looking on from behind dark glasses was Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke, who, along with Arsenal’s board, must replace the man Dein says is “an impossible act to follow”.
In contrast to so much here this season, this was a day of complete satisfaction on and off the field, the sea of 60,000 red T-shirts watching a comprehensive attacking display that was Wenger’s trademark from those glory days.
And it was the potent strikeforce Wenger will leave behind that set up this easy win, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette establishing the platform by half-time.
Sead Kolasinac, Alex Iwobi and a second from Lacazette wrapped up sixth place – but this was Wenger’s day.
His name swept around the stands inside the first two minutes, swiftly followed by that of Patrick Vieira, who has been linked as a potential successor.
The other great names who brought glory under Wenger were also recognised in song, from Thierry Henry and Keown to Dennis Bergkamp.
Burnley’s fans sang their own tribute to Wenger, but were also quick with a cutting comeback to the adulation by singing “You Wanted Him Sacked” at Arsenal’s fans.
Other former Arsenal players, such as Jens Lehmann, Robert Pires, Kanu and Sol Campbell, were there to join in the emotional post-match scenes.
No Arsenal fans left their seats once the real celebrations began at the final whistle – although the one note of dissent came when Arsenal chairman Sir Chips Keswick was jeered as he emerged to make presentations to retiring veteran Arsenal backroom man Vic Akers, ladies’ captain Alex Scott and Per Mertesacker, who was given a final appearance before becoming the club’s academy coach.
Arsenal’s great statesman and double-winning goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was goalkeeping coach when the French visionary was appointed, then paid homage to “the greatest manager we have ever had”. His long-time assistant Pat Rice then presented Wenger with the gold Premier League trophy that was handed to the club after the Invincibles season.
It was then Wenger’s turn to speak, and the Emirates fell silent for his final words, which started with a touch of typical Wenger class and humanity as he sent his best wishes to his old adversary and latterly friend Sir Alex Ferguson.
Wenger was receiving another presentation at Old Trafford just seven days ago, from Sir Alex Ferguson.
‘I will miss you’
Wenger, with his own giant image paraded on a floating flag behind him, spoke quietly with genuine emotion, ending with the message: “I will miss you.”
A lap of honour saw Wenger being applauded with huge affection, the fractiousness of the last few months forgotten, especially by one youngster who got his wish after spending most of the afternoon holding up a placard reading: “Arsene – please can I have your tie?”
Wenger will cut the ties that have bound him to Arsenal at Huddersfield Town next week before this giant club starts to navigate a path away from the Wenger era.
With giant letters spelling out the day’s main message “Merci Arsene” behind him, he waved one final goodbye as he disappeared down the tunnel. Now a new chapter will begin for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.