On this day in 2006, Arsenal played their first competitive game at the Emirates Stadium.
After 93 years at their beloved Highbury, watching their team play in this new, unfamiliar ground would have been a strange experience. But after waiting two years to set foot in the new stands, there was excitement in the air for the Gunners.
After years of success at their old home, the move away came with the promise that it would cement Arsenal among Europe’s elite. They were told that the best players from around the world would want to play in their wonderful ground. They were promised that Arsenal‘s era of European dominance was set to begin.
It would have been hard not to be excited.
The first competitive game at their new home would be against Aston Villa. As jubilant fans took to their seats for the first time there was an expectation that Arsenal would not just win, but win in style.
The impassioned optimism and dreams of success lasted precisely 53 minutes when Villa skipper Olof Mellberg leapt highest from a corner, heading the ball past an on-rushing Jens Lehmann to give Villa an unlikely lead.
For the first time, the Emirates was silent. With the silence came the realisation that even after moving into a swanky new home, Arsenal are always going to be Arsenal.
The Gunners would have a shot cleared off the line, but struggled to create in front of an impatient crowd. It wasn’t until Arsene Wenger brought on a teenage Theo Walcott (yes, it really was that long ago) that the game began to swing Arsenal’s way.
A brilliant run, so typical of Walcott’s early years, almost set up an equaliser. Driving down the left-flank, he left Villa’s defenders in his wake as he picked out Thierry Henry – the move almost resulting in an Emmanuel Eboué goal.
When the equaliser finally came, Arsenal had Walcott to thank. The young Englishman picked out Robin van Persie with a floated cross, while the Dutchman couldn’t head it goalwards, the ball fell kindly for Gilberto Silva who hammered it into the roos of the net.
With six minutes left to play Arsenal piled on the pressure but could not find a way past Villa’s defence. The game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw – the Arsenal fans leaving the stadium will have expected to see more.
It’s fitting that this match was the first competitive game to be played at their new home as it’s a game that’s typified the Emirates era. So much has been expected of the Gunners yet, more often than not, they haven’t delivered. It’s seemed at times that the ruthlessness and passion associated with old Arsenal teams somehow remained at Highbury even when the side moved away.
They came frustratingly close to victory against Villa, yet left feeling disappointed – a feeling many Arsenal fans have come accustomed to since. Capitulations in the league have become a regular occurrence at the Emirates, leading for the majority of the 2013/14 season many Arsenal fans thought they’d lift the title once more. Just months, and a string of disastrous performances later, and Arsenal were languishing in fourth.
As for the promise of European dominance, this seems nothing more than a pipe-dream. After dropping out of the Champions League and it unlikely to be returning soon, many fans are left to reminisce over their Highbury days.
Still, with Mikel Arteta now at the helm there finally seems to be signs of their Emirates fortunes turning around. How long that will last is really anyone’s guess…