Robin van Persie will return to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday as a Premier League champion. It will stick in the craw of Arsenal fans everywhere, but the Dutchman has won the trophy he left the Gunners to seek.
The club are currently contemplating whether or not to perform a guard of honour to welcome Manchester United to the Emirates this weekend. If they do, Arsenal fans will be expected to provide a respectful welcome to an all-conquering United. They will be asked to show hospitality and even deference to a hated rival.
That would be a big ask at the best of times. For a side containing the treacherous Van Persie, it’s impossible.
There are those who say Arsenal fans should rise above football’s traditional tribalism. These pundits suggest that a club with Arsenal’s pride and history is degraded by abusing a former player.
These pundits don’t understand the emotional effect of Van Persie’s departure.
Rationally, Arsenal fans can understand Van Persie’s decision. His career is short, and he felt his chances of winning the trophies he craved would be improved by a switch to United.
However, Van Persie’s conduct in leaving the club lacked class and consideration. In releasing a public statement declaring his desire to leave the club, he forced Arsenal’s hand and weakened their negotiating position.
His statement also raised questions over the club’s ambition, publicly calling Arsene Wenger’s stewardship in to question. This showed a tremendous lack of respect to a manager who had stuck by him through countless injury problems.
Then Van Persie elected to join Manchester United. There was reported interest from the likes of Manchester City and Juventus, but instead Van Persie chose to join the club who have probably been Arsenal’s most heated rivals during Wenger’s reign.
As Van Persie celebrated United’s title win earlier this week, Arsenal fans could be forgiven for wondering how close to lifting the Premier League prize they might have come if the Dutchman were still in their ranks.
Van Persie’s guard of honour will doubtless turn into a gauntlet of hate.
The Dutchman will hear the boos and jeers and interpret them as envy. He will be correct—in part. Those boos will also be an indicator that, in switching to United, Van Persie lost something almost as precious as the Premier League trophy: the chance to become an immortal icon at one club.
Van Persie’s greatest inspiration is former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp. Because of his betrayal, he will never be held in the same esteem as his hero.
Shortly before leaving Arsenal, Van Persie stated he “will always be a Gunner.” On Sunday, he will discover that’s simply not the case.
Frankly, he’s no longer welcome.