A season that burned so bright for Robin van Persie came to an end not so much a bang but a clap, aimed not once, twice but thrice at the travelling Arsenal support at the Hawthorns who offered themselves up at the feet of a man who could soon desert them.
Three goals hit the back of the West Brom net to secure Arsenal’s 15th straight season rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite at the expense of rivals Tottenham on Sunday.
None came from the famed left boot of Van Perise that helped him secure the golden one he clutched after the game; his last offering to Arsenal’s travelling support came with three trips to their corner of the ground to offer up his gratitude for their support.
Why three times? Was he basking in the adulation accumulated earned over a season in which he has at times dragged his team-mates along single-handedly? Or was it a tacit acceptance that this will be the last time he will be able to command such respect from this group of fans made weary by deserting mercenaries and those yearning to answer the call to go home?
His comments after the game over his future were as equally difficult to interpret. He talked of an eternal love for Arsenal but couldn’t offer the mollification which Arsenal and their supporters pine for.
“We will have a chat next week somewhere with the boss and Ivan Gazidis,” he said.
“You never know but Arsenal is a massive club, a great club. I have been playing here for eight years and I love this club. Whatever happens that will never change.”
Van Persie has enjoyed life in the bright sun at Arsenal this season without the shadow of Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas to take away from his status as number one.
But now he’s finding out what happens to a man who stands alone at a club with realigned ambitions; when you rise above the rest it is easier to see how green the grass looks elsewhere.
His 30 league goals this season have put him squarely in the sights of those who can offer him things his eight years to date with Arsenal have been unable to.
Van Persie will join up with the Netherlands squad for the upcoming European Championships ahead of their first fixture on June 9 and few could blame him for looking around at his decorated team-mates and wondering what might have been had he dropped anchor at another port earlier in his career.
He joined Arsenal in the summer of 2004 as part of a team of reigning champions – yet so far his time in north London has yielded an FA Cup winners medal in 2005 (the last time the club won anything of note) and not much else aside from a smattering of runners up medals.
He’ll line up against Denmark next month alongside Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Ibrahim Afellay, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong next month – all league or European champions at some point in their careers.
At 28 he’ll also know that his last big pay-off will come with the next contract he pens – both in terms of financial gain and self-advancement, and the big question remains if Arsenal can offer either of these two things.
For Arsenal, Van Persie’s predicament reflects a wider malaise at the club – 14 years on from first emerging as United’s challengers they have watched first Chelsea and now Manchester City leap over them as the chief challenger to Manchester United’s hegemony, to the point where Wenger has described securing third this season as ‘the most satisfying’ achievement of his time with the club.
This is not the first time a player has been handed all the bargaining chips and been told to do their worst at Arsenal – it’s not even the first time in the last 12 months.
The bitter taste of Samir Nasri’s and to a lesser extent Cesc Fabregas’s departure last summer drives Wenger on to avoid a repeat of that scenario this time round – the Frenchman is keen to thrash out a deal that would make Van Persie the club’s biggest earner before the European Championships commence.
Just why Van Persie, along with Alex Song and Theo Walcott - three cornerstones of Wenger’s side - have been allowed to near the final year of their contracts without committing their future is baffling; if this was the season in which the Frenchman’s crown slipped a little on the pitch, then it lays on the floor away from it as the players who idolise him consider walking towards the door.
There are plenty of reasons for Van Persie to stay with the club that has nurtured him from a tempestuous teen who Wenger once described as the most left-footed player he had ever seen to the leading marksman in the Premier League – from angry adolescent to mature family man.
“We have been in London for eight years now,” his wife Bouchra told a Dutch magazine over the weekend. “As a family, we love it here.
“Arsenal believed in Robin when he was young and when he was considered as a bit of a rebel.
"We don’t want to upset things at home either. Our kids, Shaqueel and Dina, go to school here in London. And they are just as happy as we are.”
Van Persie is Arsenal’s captain, a leader on and off the pitch; he is revered as one of thier finest for some time and as the man to lead the third generation of great Arsenal teams under Wenger who has challenged his squad to replicate the feats of ‘the Invincibles’. Lukas Podolski is already on board, a question mark still looms over Van Persie.
Is the possibility of future glory with the Gunners enough to make him shun the bright lights of abroad and potentially miss the last boat heading towards domestic and European glory? Arsenal finished 19 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League this season, the greatest margin between them and the eventual league winners since 2007.
The damage done in last summer’s transfer window has been keenly avoided this time round if Wenger’s early dealings are anything to go by but their ability to pay the highest wages, win the most trophies and attract the biggest signings is in doubt, as is Wenger’s stewardship of the club.
After thier final home game of the season, a disappointing 3-3 draw against Norwich that briefly put their place in the Champions League in jeopardy, Arsenal embarked on a lap of honour.
Acknowledging the fans for their support throughout the season, Van Persie hoisted his daughter onto his shoulders with his future at the club surely on his mind. He has carried Arsenal in a similar position all season – now he can add the club’s expectation for the future to his burgeoning load when it comes to deciding which way to turn next.
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