LONDON • At Arsenal's London Colney training base yesterday morning, manager Arsene Wenger began by telling his players: "I have bad news."
That was, according to the Daily Mail, how the Frenchman informed his men that he would be stepping down at the end of the season, before his decision was made public in a statement on Arsenal's website.
His departure will bring to an end a trophy-laden but also increasingly fractious 22-year association between him and the Premier League club.
"After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season," said Wenger, the longest-serving manager in any of the four professional divisions in English football.
"I managed the club with full commitment and integrity... I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever."
While there has been speculation the 68-year-old would leave halfway though the two-year extension he signed last summer, few thought confirmation of that would arrive before the end of this season.
It comes just six days before what could be the Gunners' biggest game of the season, with Arsenal due to face Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final first leg.
A MAJOR CONTRIBUTION
This is one of the most difficult days... Everyone who loves Arsenal and everyone who loves football owes him a debt of gratitude.
STAN KROENKE, Arsenal's majority shareholder, on Wenger's departure.
With Arsenal on course to miss out on the top four for the second straight season - falling 14 points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with 15 points left to play for - winning the Europa League looks to be their only hope of qualifying for next season's Champions League.
Yet the importance of this fixture could also explain the timing of the announcement, with Wenger keen to try and end the fan protests against him and the players and unify the club in the hope of a successful end to his tenure, reported the British media.
Empty seats have been a regular sight at the Emirates Stadium in recent weeks as fans have become increasingly frustrated by the club's inability to challenge the likes of Manchester City for the Premier League title. The Gunners are 33 points behind champions City, who have 87 points.
Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Newcastle was their 11th in the league this campaign, equalling their worst tally in a season under Wenger.
"This is one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport," said Arsenal's majority shareholder Stan Kroenke ahead of the Gunners' league game against West Ham tomorrow.
"Everyone who loves Arsenal and everyone who loves football owes him a debt of gratitude."
Wenger was a relative unknown in England when he was appointed Arsenal's manager in 1996.
But, having led the club to the double in his first full season in charge, he became viewed as a revolutionary figure, introducing sophisticated methods to the preparation of players as well as tapping into the overseas market to sign unheralded players such as Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who turned out to be world-class talents.
Another double followed in 2002 before the Invincibles campaign, when Arsenal won the 2003-04 title without losing a single game.
But, since 2006, the only trophy Arsenal have won has been the FA Cup, albeit on three occasions.
Arsenal said they will appoint a successor as soon as possible but will not make any further comment until then.
Former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel is the favourite, while New York City coach Vieira, Germany boss Joachim Low and former Real Madrid, AC Milan and Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti have all been linked to the job.
THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON