It’s 5pm in the Gunners and the low hum of chatter is already rumbling away. It’s quiet now as the rain hits the concrete behind the glass, but give it a few hours and you won’t be able to go into this famous old pub for Arsenal shirts, songs and stories.
For the time being, the early starters are chewing the fat.
How could Mikel Arteta do that to Aaron Ramsdale? Our hearts certainly don’t skip a beat when David Raya touches the ball. Arsenal need to sign Ivan Toney in January, we can’t rely on Eddie Nketiah to take charge. What can Kai Havertz do that Emile Smith-Rowe can’t? What position does Havertz play in? We knew exactly what we were getting when we signed Declan Rice. If Bukayo Saka had an injury, why didn’t Arteta rest him at the end of last season after the Premier League was over?
Hot shots fly back and forth, but all with a hint of excitement. Nothing can dampen the mood on a night like this, not even the relentless downpours that accompany the Arsenal fans on their tempestuous pilgrimage to the Emirates Stadium. They have waited a long time for such an evening.
Six seasons even. Six seasons since Arsenal’s last foray into the Champions League. Six seasons since an uninterrupted run of almost twenty years in Europe’s elite competition.
Bukayo Saka scored Arsenal’s first goal as the club returned to the Champions League in style
The Gunners recorded a 4-0 victory over PSV in their opening match in Group B
Arsenal supporters had traveled to the group match in the Emirates in anticipation
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“It was hard,” said lifelong supporter Valentine Sokoli. “But you don’t have a God-given right to play in the league every year. It’s for the best. It’s great to be back, it feels good. I can’t wait to feel that atmosphere again, to hear the national anthem. It just feels good. It’s where we belong.’
Sokoli is now 40. He has supported Arsenal since he was six, when he first saw them play Liverpool at Anfield on his family’s black-and-white television in Albania in 1989. When he was 14, he left his family to fly to England to watch Arsenal play Newcastle at Highbury in 1998. He was addicted. He has been in this country ever since.
“If you had offered me a million pounds or the feeling I had that day, I would tell you to keep your money,” he says.
His 12-year-old son Leo is having none of it. ‘Not really! It’s a MILLION pounds! You can buy as many Arsenal tickets as you want!’
He couldn’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 is just a few minutes’ walk from old Highbury. Arsenal shirts of yesteryear hang on the walls, others surround the base of the bar and display the names of club legends in numerical order. Rocastle 7, Ljundberg 8, Eduardo 9, Merson 10, George 11.
The clients have seen it all and, surrounded by their peers, they share the memories again. The years of Arsène Wenger, the years of George Graham – “who is that?” asks twelve-year-old Leo.
Arsenal fans were eagerly awaiting the match after a six-year absence from the Champions League
The club is reaping the benefits of the long-term plan led by Mikel Arteta
The result gave Arsenal the perfect return to Europe’s elite club competition in the Emirates
And they come from all over to see it. A man in an Emile Smith-Rowe shirt flew from Sweden to the match. 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 can’t wait to see the stadium, I can’t wait to walk in, the lights, the flags. I can not wait.’
A man mingles with the growing crowd selling pin badges, two for £6. A man squeezes over to the table next to him and says he used to play football but is now a heart surgeon. “Arsenal fans have needed it over the years,” he says.
They needed it at the end of Wenger’s reign. They needed it under Unai Emery as the club squandered its chance to return to the Champions League by dropping out of the top four and then embarrassing themselves in the Europa League final against Chelsea.
They needed it when they saw Tottenham reach the final of the Champions League. They also needed it in Arteta’s early days, as they trusted the process and were knocked out of Europe by Emery himself.
Finally they enjoy the ride. It has taken time under Arteta, but now we are reaping the rewards of patience and a plan. And now, after six years of absence, they are back.
The buzz surrounds the sea of fans lining Arsenal station, past the police horses, civilian vans and program stands. It follows them through the turnstiles and follows them to their seats.
This week there was Champions League music in the Arsenal gym. The players have prepared themselves. Tony Britton’s score was played over the PA system at the Emirates before the players came out, as if they couldn’t wait any longer.
They played it with the players also running out the second half, and again at full time. The fans have been yearning to hear it from within these walls for six seasons.
When they did, the roar that followed told you that the wait, however painful, was worth it.