WHEN Arsenal tumbled out of the Champions League after 19 successive seasons among the European elite, they thought the Europa League was the competition nobody wanted to be in.
Well nobody told supporters of FC Cologne – and on a night of chaos and confusion, Arsenal, the Metropolitan Police and UEFA contrived to serve up a potential public order nightmare.
A match delayed by an hour, with segregation non-existent and the authorities simply overwhelmed by a mass invasion of fans from the Rhineland.
It was largely peaceful but will lead to a major probe from European football’s governing body.
For Cologne this was a first fixture in European competition for 25 years – so in stark contrast to the attitude of Gunners supporters, this became a must-see fixture.
This unique set of circumstances is believed to have caused bedlam on secondary-ticketing websites, with thousands of German fans clearly gaining entry by purchasing seats designated for home fans.
The official away allocation was just 3,000 – or a mere five per cent of the Emirates’ capacity.
But there had been predictions of between 15,000 and 20,000 Cologne fans travelling to England – and there were Germans marching through in London’s West End in high spirits during the afternoon.
Yet still the ground authorities were caught on the hop and failed to pre-empt the situation – despite talks between the two clubs about this potential problem.
Kick-off was delayed by an hour until 9.05pm, as club staff and police held tense negotiations over whether the match should go ahead despite the knowledge that normal crowd segregation measures would be seriously compromised.
Despite thousands of German fans, many of them drinking heavily for much of the day – there were not widespread scenes of violence outside the ground.
Skirmishes were reported and some German supporters knocked down barricades when they were allowed towards the ground, having been held back on the Danny Fiszman Bridge close to the ground.
But this did not feel like the bad of days of hooliganism.
It did not even feel like the last night at Upton Park in May 2016, when West Ham fans caused a similar delay to kick-off by bottling the Manchester United team coach on a congested Green Street, with the visiting team unable to gain entry to the ground on time.
A walk around the outside of the Emirates shortly before the original kick-off time, before the turnstiles finally opened, simply showed thousands of English and German supporters shrugging their shoulders and asking each other politely what the hell was going on.
Some German fans were said to have stormed turnstiles before they were officially allowed to open at 7.45pm.
Once supporters were admitted, hundreds of supporters outside the away section were joining in with the German chants – including many in the corporate hospitality boxes.
Some turned their backs and bounced up and down in a massed rendition of the Manchester City ‘Poznan’ routine.
The atmosphere was feverish – nothing like the funereal air most Arsenal fans would have expected for the advent of the Thursday night football which they had finally been sentenced to last May, when Arsenal failed to finish in the Premier League’s top four for the first time in almost two decades.
It is believed many senior stewards did not want the fixture to go ahead but it was decided that it would be safer than postponing the match and disperse the crowd.
By 9.05pm, as the match finally kicked off, there were still thousands of empty seats in the home area – although Arsenal fans with tickets in the Clock End, which had been almost entirely taken over by Cologne supporters, were told by stewards to find places elsewhere.
Nine minutes into the match came an acid test, when Cologne’s Jhon Cordoba opened the scoring.
Hundreds of supporters began celebrating outside of the German-dominated areas but despite some isolated outbursts of anger from home supporters, any violence appeared very limited.
One bearded middle-aged man with librarian looks, sporting a Cologne staff, was frogmarched out of the stadium by seven stewards after being discovered among the Arsenal fans – hardly Harry the Dog of the Millwall Bushwhackers.
And even as their side capsized to defeat, the Cologne supporters never stopped singing.
Far from animosity, there was admiration from the Gooners.
One stood by the press box, marvelling at the away end, and told us: “I remember when we had support like that.”