It’s 5pm inside The Gunners and, already, the low hum of chatter rumbles away. It’s quiet now as the rain beats the concrete beyond the glass but give it a few hours and you won’t be able to move inside this famous old pub for Arsenal shirts, songs and stories.
For now, the early starters sit and chew the fat.
How could Mikel Arteta do that to Aaron Ramsdale? At least our hearts don’t skip a beat when David Raya touches the ball. Arsenal must sign Ivan Toney in January, we can’t rely on Eddie Nketiah to lead the line. What can Kai Havertz do that Emile Smith-Rowe can’t? What position does Havertz play? We knew exactly what we were going to get when we signed Declan Rice. If Bukayo Saka was carrying an injury, why didn’t Arteta rest him at the end of last season once the Premier League was done and dusted?
Hot takes fly back and forth but all with the buzz of excitement. Nothing can dampen the spirits on a night like this, not even the relentless showers that accompany the Arsenal fans on their heady pilgrimage to the Emirates Stadium. They’ve waited a long time for a night like this.
Six seasons, in fact. Six seasons since Arsenal’s last foray into the Champions League. Six seasons since an unbroken run of nearly two decades in Europe’s elite competition.
Bukayo Saka scored Arsenal’s first goal as the club returned to the Champions League in style
The Gunners cruised to a 4-0 win over Dutch opponents PSV in their opening Group B match
Arsenal supporters had travelled to the group match at the Emirates in expectation
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‘It’s been hard,’ says life-long supporter Valentine Sokoli. ‘But you don’t have a God-given right to play in the competition every year. It’s for the best. It’s great to be back, it feels good. I can’t wait, just to feel that atmosphere again, hear the anthem. It just feels right. It’s where we belong.’
Sokoli is 40 now. He’s supported Arsenal since he was six, when he first watched them play against Liverpool at Anfield in 1989 on his family’s black-and-white television in Albania. When he was 14 he left his family behind to fly to England to watch Arsenal take on Newcastle at Highbury in 1998. He was hooked. He’s been in this country ever since.
‘If you’d offered me a million pounds or the experience the feeling I did on that day, I’d tell you to keep your money,’ he says.
His 12-year-old son Leo is having none of it. ‘No way! It’s a MILLION pounds! You could buy all the Arsenal tickets you want!’
He can’t have seen the price of Arsenal tickets these days.
It’s an exaggeration, of course, but you understand the feeling on nights like this, in places like this.
The Gunners sits just a few minute’s walk from the old Highbury. Arsenal shirts of yesteryear hang on the walls, others surround the base of the bar showcasing the names of club legends in numerical order. Rocastle 7, Ljundberg 8, Eduardo 9, Merson 10, George 11.
Its patrons have seen it all and, surrounded by their peers, they share the memories all over again. The Arsene Wenger years, the George Graham years — ‘who’s that,’ asks 12-year-old Leo.
Arsenal fans been eagerly awaiting the match after a six-year Champions League absence
The club are reaping the rewards of having a long-term plan under manager Mikel Arteta
The result gave Arsenal the perfect return to Europe’s elite club competition at the Emirates
And they’ve come from all over to see it. A man in an Emile Smith-Rowe shirt flew in from Sweden to watch the game. Martin Lynch lives in Nottingham, has supported Arsenal all his life but has never been able to see them play — until last night.
‘I’m buzzing,’ he says. ‘I just can’t wait to see the stadium, I can’t wait to walk in, the lights, the flags. I cannot wait.’
A man mingles through the growing crowd selling pin badges, two for £6. A man squeezes on to the next table and says he used to play football but is now a heart surgeon. ‘Arsenal fans needed one of those over the years,’ he says.
They needed it at the end of Wenger’s reign. They needed it under Unai Emery when the club blew its chance to return to the Champions League by flunking the top four and then embarrassing themselves in the Europa League final defeat by Chelsea.
They needed it as they watched Tottenham reach the Champions League final. They needed it, too, in the early days of Arteta, trusting the process and being knocked out of Europe by Emery himself.
At last, they are enjoying the ride. It’s taken time under Arteta but are now reaping the rewards of patience and a plan. And now, after six years away, are back.
The buzz surrounds the sea of fans past Arsenal station, past the police horses and burger vans and programme stands. It follows them through the turnstiles and it follows them to their seats.
The Champions League music has been on in the Arsenal gym this week. The players have prepared themselves. Tony Britton’s score played over the PA system inside the Emirates even before the players came out, as if they couldn’t wait any longer.
They played it as the players walked out for the second half too, and again at full time. The fans have longed for six seasons to hear it inside these walls.
When they did, the roar that followed told you the wait, however painful, was worth it.
Source From: Football | Mail Online