Robert Pires has expressed his dismay at the “unfair” treatment Arsene Wenger received from some Arsenal fans in the final stages of his 22-year reign at the club.
Wenger took charge of the Gunners for the last time in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield, bidding an emotional farewell after 1,235 games at the helm, winning three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups along the way.
Pires was one of several members of the legendary ‘Invincibles’ team that went through the entire 2003/04 Premier League campaign unbeaten who attended Wenger’s final home game against Burnley earlier this month.
It was a hugely poignant afternoon at the Emirates as the Arsenal fanbase – so divided by the issue of their most successful manager’s future in recent years – finally united to celebrate his achievements.
The occasion was played out in glorious sunshine against the backdrop of a vintage 5-0 drubbing of the Clarets that bore many of the hallmarks of Wenger’s finest teams.
Yet Pires, who scored 83 goals during a glittering six-year stint in north London, admits he found it a “difficult day”.
“I am a privileged man because I am still training with the first team and I could speak with Arsene every morning,” he says in an exclusive interview with BTSport.com.
“The last home against Burnley, it was an emotional day for him, the players and even for the fans.
“I think when the fans started saying ‘Wenger Out’, I felt it was unfair.
“So it was an important day for him to say thank you very much for everything. His speech was very good. For me, it was a difficult day.
“And for Arsenal, now it’s a new page for the future. The board have a lot of work in the summer.”
That work has begun in earnest with a major clear-out of Wenger’s backroom staff, with long-serving physio Colin Lewin the latest stalwart to be relieved of his duties.
Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri remains most fans’ first choice to replace Wenger, despite appearing to indicate his desire to honour the final year of his contract after securing a fourth straight league and cup double last weekend.
Former Gunners midfielder Mikel Arteta - thought to be admired by chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who is leading the recruitment drive - now appears to be the current front-runner.
The Spaniard has been working for the past two years as a coach at Manchester City but boss Pep Guardiola has insisted that he would not stand in Arteta’s way if he is offered a top job elsewhere.
Pires believes either Allegri or Arteta - despite his lack of experience - would be the right fit for the role, but his preferred choice is former Arsenal team-mate Patrick Vieira, who is currently managing New York City in the MLS.
“Yes, of course Allegri could be a success,” he says.
“I have seen the shortlist: Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti, Mikel Arteta – why not? I think all of them could manage Arsenal.
“There’s maybe a small advantage for Allegri and Ancelotti as they both have a lot of experience in Italy, Germany and England.
“With Vieira - and this is only my opinion - yes. Not just because he’s my friend. Forget this.
“He’s doing very well with New York City, and he told me the job is very hard and difficult.
“However, he has a very good profile to replace Arsene Wenger, because he knows football, he knows the Premier League and of course, he knows Arsenal.
“So that’s why I say yes, Patrick Vieira is ready to manage Arsenal.”
Regardless of who eventually gets the nod to replace Wenger, Pires believes the tributes that have been flowing for the 68-year-old in the past few days are richly deserved.
In particular, he casts his mind back to how Wenger helped him navigate some tricky early days at Arsenal following his move from Marseille in 2000.
“Some people say if you can play in France, you can play in the UK, for example,” Pires adds.
“But I would say no, because everything at the beginning is different.
“The fight, commitment, the spirit and physically, it’s not really the same. It was very difficult for me, but Arsene Wenger helped me a lot.
“You had to work hard during the sessions but when you speak with him it’s very important and he’s very calm.
“For me, he was like a mentor or professor.
“In six seasons, I worked with him every morning and learnt a lot about the high level.
“That’s why I think my best moment and time is when I played for Arsenal.”
As the curtain finally comes down on Wenger's remarkable reign, Pires' insight into his fellow Frenchman's inspirational qualities is a fitting one.
It’s a sentiment that is no doubt shared by many of the 222 players to have pulled on the red and white shirt since those famous "Arsene Who?" headlines that greeted his arrival in October 1996.
As Arsenal now embark on their brave new dawn, they can only hope their 'chosen one' is capable of delivering the kind of transcendence that will forever mark Wenger out as a totemic figure in English football history.
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