Arsenal welcome fans back after nine months apart

LONDON — Never has a dead Europa League game felt so alive. Arsenal had already qualified for the competition’s round of 32 prior to kickoff, prompting manager Mikel Arteta to make 11 changes to his starting lineup. But try telling the 2,000 fans in attendance that this match didn’t matter.

After nine months locked out because of COVID-19, supporters were finally allowed inside Emirates Stadium, socially distanced at neat intervals throughout the lower two tiers of the east and north stands. The Gunners usually loathe playing on Thursday nights, a European afterthought contested in the shadow of the Champions League fixtures staged earlier in the week, but this was a night to revel in the mundane, to grasp a glimpse of normality.

With that in mind, a smattering of supporters braved a bitterly cold night in north London to take their seats well over an hour before kickoff. The chosen 2,000, selected on a first-come, first-served basis among gold and premium members, were applauded by stewards as they came through the turnstiles, creaking into action again for the first time since March.

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UEFA regulations dictated that supporters had to socially distance when sitting, even families arriving together, and so perfect rows of people with two seats and one row between them gradually formed as a message from club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was relayed over the big screens.

“Football is all about you, we’ve missed you,” he began. “Some of us are still apart, but we remain together.”

There was the triumphant return of Gunnersaurus after a public backlash to the news the man who has played the club’s mascot for 27 years, Jerry Quy, was a victim of the club’s off-field redundancy measures.

The 2,000 made their voices heard, louder than you might expect but inevitably only an imitation of when 60,000 packed out this arena. They aren’t always the most vocal in these parts, but nobody was missing this opportunity.

Arsenal’s players embraced the noise, like the first birdsong the morning after the harshest of storms. In their previous two Europa League home games, the Gunners were 1-0 down after 22 minutes against Molde and needed 42 stodgy minutes to break down Dundalk. Here, palpably enthused by the unbridled joy around them and free of expectation with nothing to play for, they were 2-0 up in 18 minutes.

Alexandre Lacazette’s swerving 30-yard shot opened the scoring, a footballing metaphor for the physical release of those in the stands. Romanian referee Radu Marian Petrescu had to remind the Gunners there was a game to complete after several players spent so long celebrating with a section of the east stand. Pablo Mari, marking his first appearance since June 17, headed home his first Arsenal goal five minutes later as the home side cruised into a comfortable lead.

“There’s only one Gunnersaurus,” the home fans sang. “What do we think of Tottenham?”

Arteta eventually acknowledged them with a round of applause after a lengthy chant of “Mikel, Mikel give us a wave” as he stood in discussion with two backroom staff members during a break in play five minutes before half-time.

Eddie Nketiah added a third with the last meaningful act of the first half. Rapid Vienna could hardly have been as bad as they were in the first half thereafter, rallying to score a consolation two minutes after the restart, but Arsenal continued to assert their dominance and substitute Emile Smith Rowe added a deserved fourth after good work from Nicolas Pepe and Ainsley Maitland-Niles to complete the 4-1 victory.

Ten Premier League clubs can have fans in their stadiums under the United Kingdom’s coronavirus tiering system (Arsenal, Brighton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Southampton, Tottenham and West Ham). When asked if that could give those teams an advantage, Arteta said: “Probably, because this sport without fans is completely different. Everything is flatter, the players lose a little bit of purpose and emotion.

“It is something that you want to share. At the end of the day, we are here to entertain, we are here to make the fans enjoy. They have a huge passion for our football club and when they are able to transmit that, it gets directly into the players. For me, to have them here home or away, it is always different because of them.”

This was, frankly, one of the most enjoyable Arsenal performances of the season. Arteta has spoken about the need for fans to invest in the culture change he is trying to engender, but they need something tangible to believe in after years of false dawns.

The team’s relationship with its supporters has consequently been fractious at times, something Arteta acknowledged had arguably reached a nadir following Unai Emery’s sacking last November. There was one small reminder of the civil war that sometimes rages — one fan opted to mark the occasion by bringing a banner which read “Bring Back Mesut,” in reference to the exiled Mesut Ozil, whose omission exemplifies the internal divisions that permeate the fan base.

Yet complaints were the last thing on everyone else’s mind.

“It’s great to be back. It may only be 2,000, but it’s a start,” said Gunners fan and Arsenal Supporters’ Trust board member Akhil Vyas. “The feeling of happiness returned and nice to feel part of the community again.”

The overwhelming warmth will need to continue when the novelty wears off and the tougher challenges arrive. But if the process of building a connection begins again after such a long time apart, this was a positive way to start.

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