Dear Mikel Arteta,
I remember the day you switched Merseyside for North London. It was late August. We were still winless in the league, had conceded eight goals in our previous game and had sold two of our best players.
There was absolutely no reason to be hopeful in such dire times, yet your signing gave me faith. After years of buying unproven French teens, you were the first quality Premier League player to join us.
There was just something so distinctly Arsenal about you – with your perennially well cropped hair and clean cut features - you oozed class. From the minute you put on that red top, it felt like you’d been with us for years. During such a turbulent period, you brought much needed calm to the Arsenal midfield and the club. You’d only played a handful of games when I went out and bought your jersey on a whim. I just had 'that' feeling about you.
I remember 'that' goal against Manchester City. I must have watched it a couple of hundred times, and each time it gets my nerves tingling. It was just four touches – one to dispossess Pizarro, another to get the ball out of your feet, one to get your body shape right and the last one to send the ball crashing into the bottom corner.
It was a watershed moment. In a season where our reputation had taken such a drubbing, beating the soon-to be champions was a crucial step to restoring our pride. You ran to us with your arms wide open, passion and ecstasy written all over your face. It was the day you became one of our own.
I remember when you captained us to the FA Cup in 2014. I cried that day. Nine years of pain, hurt and longing finally had its catharsis that evening at Wembley.
With the headlines dominated by Ramsey, Cazorla and Wenger, your role in taking us to Wembley is often forgotten. With the quarterfinal against Everton finely poised at 1-1, we were awarded a penalty late in the second half. The nerves were palpable at the Emirates, but you stepped up and cooly dispatched your penalty. Our relief was fleeting as the penalty was disallowed for encroachment, and you were forced to re-take it.
The tension was too much for me. I watched with my hands covering my face. But on that sunny afternoon in London, you were the coolest man at the Emirates. You scored the retaken penalty with aplomb, pointing towards the badge on your chest as you celebrated. My captain.
I remember reading the news about you becoming Guardiola’s assistant at City but being surprised about that. I always knew you had an analytical brain, but I never imagined that it would be spotted and fast tracked so quickly. There was a certain level of bemusement I felt seeing you in a City tracksuit, possibly fuelled by the fact that you’d deleted all the Arsenal pictures on your Instagram page after signing for them. That stung.
I remember waking up to the news of Emery being fired, and shouting out in delight. The past couple of years hadn’t been easy and had left the fanbase divided and at loggerheads with the Arsenal owners. When the rumours of your return started to filter in, I was excited. I never saw you as Arsene Wenger’s successor, but two years on, the timing felt right. Both of us were taking a chance on each other, and that’s what made our tryst so tantalising.
I remember seeing your first pictures after the announcement and feeling hopeful. It was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. You’d left four years ago, but hearing you talk about commitment and the standard you demanded from the players showed how you still understood what it meant to play for Arsenal.
I remember your first home game as the Arsenal manager against Chelsea. While we did capitulate in the last ten minutes, I’d seen enough to know we were on the right track. The players ran and challenged for every ball, and for the first time all season, they showed they cared. After months of eerie silence and catcalling, even the Emirates looked like it was returning to its raucous best. A long LONG journey lay ahead, but I felt assured that we had the right man to lead us there.
I remember when you were diagnosed with COVID-19. A fittingly outlandish occurence in a season that had already defied belief. The outpouring of support was telling, and more importantly your diagnosis was what convinced the Premier League to put the season on halt. Unknowingly, you ended up saving thousands of lives.
I remember the pain after losing to Jose Mourinho’s Spurs after the lockdown. Losing to that lot always hurts, but I couldn’t understand why this one felt like such a sucker punch. Throwing away the lead in such a cataclysmic way once again reminded us all of the job you had on your hands, and how much work is still to be done. But it also hurt more because the indifference that had festered during the late Wenger years and Emery era had been eroded after your arrival. The pain was sharper because I cared more now. You made me feel again.
I remember the hug you gave Ainsley Maitland – Niles after the FA Cup semifinal against City. Every single Arsenal fan sitting in front of their televisions felt the warmth of that hug.
We have all heard and read about how you have brought the team together, but in the aftermath of that game, we saw it with our own eyes. After years of having un-emotional and mechanical managers, having someone who had such a strong connection with the players was such a unique sight. My manager. What is it with you and watershed moments against City?
I remember that broad smile on your face after we beat Chelsea yesterday. It’s something I’ll never forget. I couldn’t think of a man who deserved this more. Tierney seemed close to tears as he shut his eyes and embraced you. Not for the first time this season, he embodied the emotion of us - Arsenal fans. The confidence with which you spoke of Aubameyang signing a new contract was telling – it makes it hard not to believe anything you say now.
I will always remember when in the bleakest of times, you gave us a half-season that we’ll never forget. For the second time in your career, you joined an Arsenal squad at its nadir and breathed life back into it. As a player, you never quite got the plaudits you deserved for your efforts, but as a manager it’s impossible to imagine this without you. Arsenal is your club. And you are ours.