On an emotional afternoon in May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson got the happy ending he always craved and believed he deserved at Manchester United.
His final game at Old Trafford was a typically comprehensive win over Swansea City, and afterward the ground hosted both Ferguson’s farewell party and a trophy presentation as United collected the 13th Premier League title of his reign.
The former United manager led his team of champions from the tunnel, lifted the Premier League trophy and made a speech from the centre circle to a respectful crowd before going on a lap of honour around the pitch with a medal swinging from his neck.
Ferguson could not have arranged a better send-off; he was retiring as a winner bathed in adulation.
A few days later, as the Scot detailed in his autobiography, a fan approached him with an article from an Irish newspaper that greatly pleased him, because it had said: “I had left the club the way I had managed it: on my terms.”
His great rival from the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger must have watched Ferguson’s carefully staged farewell accompanied by a trophy with a mounting sense of despair and jealousy.
How the Frenchman would love to be able to do the same and retire as a winner, entirely on his own terms.
But instead Wenger’s own departure is becoming a long, torturous and miserable affair, with no happy ending in sight.
For now, he still controls the timing of it, but it looks increasingly unlikely he will be able to bid farewell to the Emirates Stadium by hoisting the Premier League trophy above his head.
The truth is Wenger’s desire for a happy ending is hurting Arsenal. The Gunners are trapped, for they will never fall so far that he would be sacked, but they will never rise so high to the summit that it allows him to bow out as a title-winner again.
And so Arsenal are forced to endure the same season again and again, with some fans now actually hoping to finish outside the top four, in the belief this would force the club's hierarchy to act and ask Wenger to finally step aside.
There is now a dwindling "Wenger In" camp among the Arsenal fans, and rather two larger wings within the "Wenger Out" camp. One side is consumed with sadness—those who hate to see the Frenchman limping on, but have come to accept it is time for a change—while the other side is more militant and fuelled by anger and resentment, and simply wants the manager to leave as quickly as possible.
Wenger had the chance to leave Arsenal as winner when the Gunners lifted the FA Cup in 2014, ending a nine-year drought without a trophy, and then again when they successfully defended it in 2015.
But rather than sate him and offer him the chance of a dignified exit, those cup wins instead emboldened him and made him believe he could genuinely win the title again.
But Arsenal’s wait to be champions has now been extended to 12 years, and there are no real signs this will end soon.
After that opening 4-3 defeat to the Merseysiders, vociferous boos greeted the final whistle, an almost unprecedented noise after just 90 minutes of the season. At the King Power Stadium on Saturday, one fan held up a professionally produced sign with the message, "Enough is enough, time to go," when the Arsenal players went to applaud the away fans.
There is a staleness about Arsenal, and so players with real ambition—those who want to collect medals—are no longer drawn to play for them as they were in the early part of Wenger’s reign.
On Saturday, Jamie Vardy was still wearing the blue of Leicester, even though Arsenal had offered him a place at the Emirates, per BBC Sport. But the England international surprisingly decided to reject them, which would have been inconceivable just a year ago.
Vardy’s former team-mate, N’Golo Kante, seemed to be another obvious signing for Wenger, but Arsenal stood by and watched him go to Chelsea instead.
The Arsenal squad clearly needs to be improved, but the club have been slow and inactive over the summer, and it might be too late to change that now.
Pride is forcing Wenger to carry on and endure the ridicule, for he has nothing left to prove.
Whenever he does leave Arsenal, he will do so as one of the greatest managers football has seen. His stature and reputation within the game is guaranteed for his thrilling attacking football, his league titles and the Invincibles of 2004.
Ferguson's departure offers false hope because it is the exception to the rule, for some of the greatest managers have had to accept the inevitable and leave without a trophy
Brian Clough always believed he could turn Nottingham Forest around no matter how far they slumped, but ultimately he couldn’t, and instead he had to suffer the indignity of leading them to relegation in 1993 in his final season in management.
Even Sir Matt Busby had to walk away from Manchester United after 24 years in the wake of a disappointing season in which they had finished a lowly 11th in the First Division and having failed to defend the European Cup they had won the previous season.
However, there is a statue of Busby outside Old Trafford and one of Clough in the city centre of Nottingham, their disappointing endings long forgotten and overshadowed by all their glory.
One day soon Arsenal will unveil a statue of Wenger outside the Emirates and place it alongside some of his former players, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry.
In the modern era, it is incredible that the Gunners boss has been given 13 seasons in which to try to win the title again, but it simply doesn’t appear as though it will happen.
A stubborn Wenger should stop chasing his happy ending and—no matter what transpires in the next nine months—make this his final season at the Emirates.