Twelve months ago, a Wednesday night at the pub followed by a Thursday at the Emirates Stadium would have induced a shrug and a vague hint of disappointment that Arsenal would once again be in the Europa League.

But never before has a dead rubber group stage match in the Europa League been the hottest ticket in town. Since football returned from its three-month coronavirus hiatus, English fans have been stuck watching games at home or in pubs. We have watched in envy as crowds have returned in limited numbers in France, Germany, Belgium and even Northern Ireland wondering when we will see our teams in the flesh once more.

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Pre-match rituals, some which will be decades old, have been suspended. Trophies have been won in cavernous empty arenas and traditional open-top bus parades have been suspended. Hopes that fans could return in some capacity in October were scotched by the government after a resurgence in cases.

But just when it looked like a return to stadia was out of sight, it was announced last week that up to 2,000 would be able to return to watch their teams in Tier 2 lockdown areas. As luck would have it, the regulations would kick in the day before Arsenal hosted Rapid Vienna and, as a season ticket holder, I had an outside chance of securing the golden ticket to be among the first people to watch football in the flesh in nine months. It was well worth an early start on a Saturday morning and a Glastonbury-esque scrabble for tickets.

Arteta: It felt like more than 2,000 Arsenal fans

From a fan standpoint, things felt strangely normal, but that may be because we have become so conditioned to things like temperature checks, mask-wearing and keeping our distance from one another.

Half-time pints were off the menu and the stewards were even keener than usual to ensure fans remained seated so as not to encroach on each other's space. But old habits were easily resumed, a repertoire of chants, many of them directed at Tottenham ahead of Sunday's north London derby, rang out. And, because this is Arsenal, one fan even managed to get into a fight with those sitting around him after singling out Dani Ceballos for a four-letter word-strewn barrage of criticism. Plus ca change.

So the fans were relieved to be reunited with the players and there was more than a hint the players were happy to be reunited with the fans. After emerging from the tunnel, the starting XI all went to applaud the fans in the East Stand and substitutes waved at those gathered in the North Bank as they warmed up.

Alex Lacazette, without a goal since September and previously looking like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders since, suddenly was a player transformed and unleashed a fantastic swerving shot from well outside the area after just nine minutes. He ran to celebrate in front of the socially-distanced fans and he and his team-mates had to be called back into their own half by the referee.

Arsenal's form may have collapsed in the Premier League but in Europe their results have been excellent. But this performance felt different to their prior continental arrangements, during which they largely saw off opponents by handsome scorelines rather than blasting past them. The passing had a zip to it that had been missing from ghost games and the feeling of catharsis was only exacerbated by the successful returns of Calum Chambers, Pablo Maria and Emile Smith Rowe, all long-term absentees.

It is a cliche that football is nothing without fans - and one that has largely been debunked after six months of the game continuing with supporters at home or in pubs. The Premier League, the clubs, the players, broadcasters and UEFA all deserve considerable credit for getting the show back on the road and giving the public some entertainment as a form of escapism from the dreary reality of life in a pandemic.

But having fans back in the stadia is a welcome step in the path back to normality and something that evidently the players and the fans will be relishing in the hard winter months to come.

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15/01/2021 AT 18:59