herald

Monday 29 May 2017

If fans choose to stay away Wenger fate is sealed

Arsene Wenger. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
Arsene Wenger. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
Empty seats during the Arsenal v Sunderland Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Empty seats. Nothing worse than empty seats when the evenings are turning balmy in North London and thoughts turn to trophies.

Big banks of empty pews provided several good photographers with a telling backdrop behind Arsene Wenger at the Emirates on Tuesday night.

Relegated Sunderland were no big draw but this is the Gunners, marching on Wembley and still fighting for fourth place in the Premier League and there were a few too many gaps.

The fans are war weary by now and will give Wenger all they've got at Wembley in the FA Cup final but their regard and support no longer extends to scrag-end fixtures in a league they wrote off as the year turned.

It sent a stark message to the owners. Most season ticket holders have avoided displaying the impatience they must feel and that is to their credit. Wenger has suffered some abuse but sporadic.

Statement

Not turning up to sit in a seat they've paid for, however, makes a bigger statement than any "Wenger Out" banner will ever do.

After the game, Wenger was his usual graceless self, pulling the rug out from underneath a pillar of the support he has received from many pundits and most recently, Pep Guardiola.

The argument went that Wenger's remarkable record of consistently qualifying for the Champions League despite financial restrictions imposed by the Emirates development was a worthy addition to the trophies he won during his purple patch at Highbury and enhanced his greatness.

Guardiola was making his own excuses when he claimed that finishing in the top four was like winning a trophy while defending Wenger's record and trying to deflect from his own inadequacies.

It's a narrative which was wearing very thin anyway but Wenger scornfully dismissed the top four as nothing special after beating Sunderland 2-0.

"I answered for 20 years the question, 'the top four is nothing special'. So I don't know why suddenly it could become such a big problem. I'm quite surprised," he said.

Eh, sorry Arsene but here's a quote from you in February 2012.

"The first trophy is to finish in the top four and that's still possible. I believe finishing fourth is vital for us, so let's focus on that."

Ironically, he said that after he had just lost a fifth round FA Cup tie 2-0 to Sunderland.

With each passing year, Wenger has traded on his ability to generate cash from the Champions League and finishing in the big money top four slots while appeasing the fans with the odd trip to Wembley.

While the club was building and borrowing, this was smart but Arsenal is owned by billionaires who don't ever seem to spend any of their own money. They loved Wenger's corporate view of finances and the consequence of that is stagnation.

He has earned an astonishing amount of money and deserved every penny, if for no other reason than following the instinct he is qualified for - accountancy - and keeping the club comfortably solvent.

For that and for the great things he did when he took George Graham's defence, added his own touches and won all before him, he is owed respect and a dignified exit from the club. He seems intent on making that impossible.

Last week, he pushed back against widespread speculation that he was willing to work with a new Director of Football at Arsenal, with Marc Overmars the man tipped as the likely candidate.

It may well be the right position to take but it gives the Arsenal shareholders and hierarchy an excuse to wave goodbye if he digs in his heels.

Surely they must see how Antonio Conte galvanised a good squad and turned them into champions across town in Stamford Bridge where they have a director of football.

Even upstart Spurs seem to have found a successful formula with Mauricio Pochettino backed and supported by a well-behaved Daniel Levy.

Until this time next year at least, Arsenal fans will have to live with the knowledge that they are behind Spurs.

Worse, if events play out over the final fixtures of the season, Spurs will be playing in the prime Euro slots on Tuesdays and Wednesdays while Arsenal slum it in the Europa League on Thursday.

That hasn't happened before and if they keep Wenger, there'll be more empty seats.

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