Arsenal’s coach arrived at Wembley for the Heads Up FA Cup final to be greeted by a small group of observers and one middle-aged supporter waving a large flag.
The Gunners’ match-winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang concluded the victory celebrations by stepping down alone from the winners’ podium, scrambling his way through gold streamers scattered on the turf before taking polite applause from those left inside a virtually deserted national stadium.
In between, Arsenal’s world-class striker delivered a match-winning virtuoso display against Chelsea to settle a final that deserved to be played out in front of a full house in the famous arena – not a select few on the first occasion the great domestic showpiece has been played behind closed doors.
Many games have been accompanied by a surreal air since “Project Restart” took the sport out of its hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic – none more so than this final, the game that traditionally provides the grand conclusion to the domestic season.
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‘Wembley ghost town’
In the hours before the kick-off, it was almost like a ghost town – as far away from the usual pomp and excitement and buzzing FA Cup final atmosphere as it is possible to get.
There were touches of the old ceremonials, such as the rendition of the FA Cup final anthem ‘Abide With Me’ delivered in pre-recorded fashion by Emeli Sande with dramatic pictures of her standing on the roof beamed into the stadium via the giant screens.
No pre-match presentations to members of the Royal Family. No smart suits for players or managers.
It is not sour or unromantic but simple reality to record that this did not feel like the normal FA Cup final.
‘A final fit for 90,000 fans’
This was a game that deserved to be played out before a full house not 90,000 empty red seats. It had a winning goal that deserved the glorious roar of appreciation reserved for such match-winning moments.
And Arsenal’s players deserved to walk up Wembley’s steps to receive the trophy, rather than having to receive their medals on the pitch.
Aubameyang deserved that small ovation as he made his way back to the dressing room because he was the focal point of an Arsenal performance and success that makes it a superb start for manager Arteta, who only succeeded Unai Emery in December and had to deal with a three-month break in the season.
What they must do now is put together a package attractive enough to make sure Aubameyang is also part of future successes.
‘A day of huge significance for Arteta’
Arsenal will want to do business this summer to shape the new era under Arteta – but the most crucial business above all is keeping Aubameyang.
The wins over Premier League champions Liverpool and against last season’s FA Cup winners Manchester City in the semi-final showed previously well-hidden reserves of steel and character from this Arsenal side.
They were on show here as they took the early blow of Christian Pulisic’s goal on the chin and pieced together a display that allowed them to recover and deservedly just edge this game.
It was a day of huge significance for Arteta.
He has tangible reward for his work early in his reign, during which Arsenal’s players have bought into his methods and he has demonstrated ruthlessly that it is his way or no way by the manner in which Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi have been exiled. The pair were nowhere near this occasion or celebrations and appear to have no part to play under the new regime.
It should also be said that much of the things that could go wrong for Chelsea did go wrong, from injuries to captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Pulisic to a second yellow card for Mateo Kovacic that looked to be a totally mystifying decision from referee Anthony Taylor.
Yes, this was a surreal day – but set that aside and Arsenal and their young manager, crowning his first season with the perfect conclusion, will start the new campaign with optimism renewed and a trophy to parade after this landmark triumph.