The magic had gone: Arsene Wenger outstayed his welcome at Arsenal

That other long-serving managerial giant of the Premier League era left Manchester United on a high – timing his own exit as expertly as he had applied the boot to players he no longer wanted.

Arsene Wenger, by contrast, had outstayed his welcome.

An unheralded line from his final news conference before the announcement of his departure was telling.

“We want to finish in front of Burnley,” he said.

With all due respect to Burnley’s achievement in even entering that sentence, it is a measure of Arsenal’s slide that Wenger was reduced to aiming to avoid slipping below them into seventh place in the Premier League.

My busy text inbox after the announcement included this, from an Arsenal-supporting senior executive in another sport: “Far too late but thank God.”

From his arrival in autumn 1996, Wenger steered his club into the Champions League every season – until 12 months ago.

Then, a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League consigned Arsenal to the relative backwaters of the continent’s secondary competition, the Europa League.

Many expected that Wenger – or his employers – would take that as his cue for the ride into the sunset, laden with honours, albeit everything that mattered bar the FA Cup dating back more than a decade.

Instead, Arsenal gave the manager a new two-year contract. No other elite club would have done it.

The magic had gone.

In his early Arsenal years, Wenger led the way in changing the culture of English football, dragging an entire generation out of the bookies and the boozer and into a brave new world of sports science and managed diets.

His first decade brought three league titles, four FA Cups and a whole season unbeaten in 2003-04.

A magic touch with (mostly foreign) young signings helped Arsenal keep their place at the top table while investment was focused on building the new Emirates Stadium.

And he retained throughout a sense of humour, perspective and dignity.

But now, after years of under-achievement, months of discontented rumblings and weeks of empty Emirates seats, Wenger has finally decided – or been persuaded – that the game is up.

What a game it’s been. What a legacy.

He deserves the waterfall of tributes that have flowed his way.

Sir Alex Ferguson said: “I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man.”

And there may yet be a glorious finale.

If Arsenal can overcome Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-finals, the final would be Wenger’s last match, with qualification for next year’s Champions League as the bonus prize.

Fergie again: “He can now have the send-off that he truly deserves.”

A tough act to follow. But he has failed to live up to his own record. Time for someone else to try.

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