Boreham Wood a fitting place for the start of Unai Emery era at Arsenal
The setting for Unai Emery's first game in charge of Arsenal could hardly have been more modest, but the 8-0 win at Boreham Wood, in front of 3,500 or so fans at a packed Meadow Park, was a fitting way of showing that even at a time of great change at the club, Arsenal have their feet firmly rooted in tradition.
The relationship between Arsenal and the National League club goes back nearly 20 years, and a summer fixture between the sides became an annual event under former manager Arsene Wenger. The partnership also sees Arsenal's women's and youth teams play their home games at Meadow Park, where the Premier League club helped finance a new £1 million pitch last year.
To Boreham Wood chairman Danny Hunter, it's an example of how the rich Premier League giants can find synergy in cooperating with a grassroots club, while helping the smaller team along at the same time.
"It's just a fantastic relationship built on trust and old-school values," Hunter told ESPN FC. "Whenever Arsenal can help us, they do. It's a very good fit, and there's no reason why anything should change in our relationship because Arsene Wenger has left and Unai Emery has come in."
Hunter has been the chairman at Boreham Wood for nearly as long as Wenger was at Arsenal, taking the job in 1999. He said the partnership between the clubs was already in place when he arrived -- after Arsenal had just opened their new training ground at nearby London Colney -- and they agreed in 2017 to extend it for another 10 years. While Wenger has gone, the relationship continues to be nurtured by Gunners chief executive Ivan Gazidis and club secretary David Miles.
So there was no better place to welcome Emery to his new job.
The Spaniard was greeted with applause as he walked out on the flawless Desso pitch, where he then watched Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang net a hat trick in the opening 16 minutes. Emery brought every first-team player he had available for the game -- a nice treat for the home fans after Wenger mainly played his under-23 team in the fixture in recent years, although Hunter still remembers the likes of Dennis Bergkamp taking part in the fixture in the past.
"We've had six or seven World Cup winners play here. There's a lot of history between the clubs, and a lot of memories," Hunter said. "It's great for the fans to get up close to their heroes."
It's not so bad for the Boreham Wood players, either. Forward Morgan Ferrier, a former Arsenal academy product, said the game serves as inspiration for those who want to follow the likes of Jamie Vardy in going from non-league football to the Premier League.
"Obviously it's an unreal spectacle, playing against players who have played in a World Cup, testing yourself against players who have been bought for 20, 30 million pounds," Ferrier told ESPN FC. "When you play against that kind of opposition, you see what you need to do to get to that level. Because you see that it's not impossible, with the likes of Andre Gray and Jamie Vardy. It can happen if you work hard and dedicate yourself. Anything can happen."
While Boreham Wood were thoroughly outplayed, Ferrier was the main dangerman for the hosts, and his pace made life difficult at times for new Arsenal signing Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
"At the start I felt we were a bit in awe of them," Ferrier said. "Playing against Aubameyang, he's my idol, so you don't even want to tackle him. But when you get that out of your mind and realise it's just a match, then you give it your all and you realise they're only human. You can run at them, you can get past them."
Boreham Wood get other benefits from this relationship, too. Arsenal also supply one groundsman to look after the new pitch, while the club's head groundsman Paul Ashcroft makes regular visits. And on a couple of occasions, Arsenal have marked Non-League Day by letting Boreham Wood use their luxurious first-team coach for an away game.
"That was hugely appreciated," Hunter said. "It was a fantastic coach, to be fair."