After all that, after that long, winding valedictory tour, after a month in which every milestone was recorded and every moment was a memory, there was no chance to say a final goodbye.
The last shot of Arsène Wenger, Arsenal manager, was not of him basking, one last time, in the adulation of his club’s fans, but of him, surrounded by a phalanx of stewards and police officers in bright yellow jackets, being ushered into the tunnel as jubilant Huddersfield Town fans raced on to the field to celebrate a relegation near miss.
Just like that, with no pomp and no ceremony, Wenger’s curtain fell abruptly after a 1-0 victory. He had had so much time to take the applause, and now he had no time at all.
Being deprived of that moment was a disappointment; Wenger had come to Huddersfield determined to savor every second of the day he never thought would come and never wanted to end. Long ago, he became a meme — before memes existed — because of his penchant for occasional, apparently voluntary blindness; here, his eyes were eagle sharp, the precise vision of a man trying to preserve his memories in perfect focus.
He took in everything he could: the portrait of Herbert Chapman that hangs outside the away changing room here caught his eye; he took the time to examine it, rather than just rush past with a cursory glance.
It was fitting that Wenger would exit the stage here, of course. Chapman, manager of Huddersfield in the 1920s and Arsenal in the 1930s, is regarded as the best in the history of both. In the picture, he is beaming. “He smiled at me,” Wenger said. He has always been a romantic, of course, but he is a sentimental soul, too.
For an hour or so before kickoff, when the nerves would normally have been at their height, the adrenaline coursing, Wenger sat in his dugout, in the sunshine, watching his players go through their warm-up and the fans drift into the stadium, the noise gathering and the clock ticking. The weather was good and the mood was high, he said, so he thought he “deserved some oxygen.” He wanted to soak, and maybe to wallow, in a feeling that has become so familiar, but that he will never have again.
As the teams filed out, he walked over to Arsenal’s traveling fans — long-suffering, these days. The team had not so much as tied a game on the road in 2018 — and, with theatrical flourish, offered a deep bow.
It was a spontaneous show of respect for his team’s most ardent followers, he said, but perhaps, too, it served as a little reminder of quite how good they have had it, all these years. A bow for the league championships and the F.A. Cups and the Invincibles; a bow for Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp; a bow for the new stadium and the new training facility; a bow for how different the club he leaves is to the club he found, for all the things he has done. NYT