Arsenal

When forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the first goal for Arsenal with an effortless penalty shot in the 28th minute of Saturday’s FA Cup final, the Zoom chat erupted with a cacophony of noise that included claps, cheers and a fair bit of profanity.

The Gainesville Gooners—the smallest Arsenal supporters’ group officially sanctioned by Arsenal America—had been on the move lately. While they normally made their home at the Gainesville House of Beer on W. University Ave, the group had migrated to both Crafty Bastards and Mother’s Pub to watch Arsenal matches, among other places.

That was until the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although they were separated, Arsenal’s run through the FA Cup brought the Gooners from Gainesville pubs to an online Zoom call to cheer on their team.

Becoming Gooners

For Salil Bavdekar, the group’s current longest-standing member, Arsenal ran in the family.

“I grew up in India, but my grandfather went to school in England,” Bavdekar said. “So he grew up an Arsenal supporter, and my dad grew up an Arsenal supporter.”

For the other members, though, it wasn’t so simple. Evan Hawes’ family is from Ipswich, a small town in southeast England, and he was faced with the decision to pick a team after local club Ipswich Town was relegated from the Premier League when he was 5 years old. His father recommended he pick a new team so he can watch them on television, and so Hawes chose his method to pick a new squad.

“When you loaded up FIFA at the time, Arsenal was the first team you could pick,” he said. “And they also had a cannon, which was pretty sick.”

Hawes wasn’t the only member who picked the team due to FIFA. Ryan Burns, who hasn’t missed an Arsenal game since the 2006-07 season, also picked the team from the video game.

“Back in about ’92, I started playing FIFA,” Burns said. “I was just trying to select a team… I was different teams and whatnot, and then I finally narrowed it down to Arsenal.”

Bavdekar found out about the Gainesville Gooners through Reddit, and he began to watch games with them almost as soon as he moved into Gainesville in 2013.

“I went to check them out, and that was my first few weeks in Gainesville,” Bavdekar said. So (they) were some of the first few friends I met.”

Some of the other members—Sam Auer and Reid Adams—more recently got into Arsenal at the behest of their friends and roommates.

The supporters would travel to the bar of choice for games as early as 7:30 a.m, where they had drinks such as radlers, a lemonade-based alcoholic drink with low alcoholic content.

The Gooners would also attend UF soccer games together, as two of Florida’s players, Ava Kuyken and Georgia Eaton-Collins, played for Arsenal’s women’s club. Collins is also from Ipswich, which made him more excited to attend the games.

“Evan comes up and is like, ‘We have a player, she’s an ex-Arsenal player, she’s from my hometown. We’re going to go watch,’” Bavdekar said.

After the season had been postponed due to the pandemic, the Gooners didn’t meet up in person for months. But when Arsenal began its FA Cup run, the group decided it was time to reunite.

Victory Through Harmony

The last time the Gooners met in person was on March 7, when Arsenal faced off against West Ham in a 1-0 victory. After the restart, the group didn’t meet in person, but the idea began to float around to watch Arsenal’s FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City over Zoom once the league came back and Arsenal found themselves in a position to win it.

“I forget who proposed it originally, but it was an idea that had kind of been floating around for a little while,” Auer, who became indoctrinated into the Arsenal fandom by Hawes, said.

Hawes found that a few members were working or unable to attend a Zoom meeting for certain matches, so for the FA Cup semifinal, he spontaneously made the link and texted his fellow members to join if they were able.

Arsenal would best Manchester City 2-0 in that game to propel themselves to the final against Chelsea. The Gooners were excited to meet with each other again, especially while watching Arsenal get that result.

“It was a lot of fun,” Auer said. “I was relieved, too, especially because I actually moved away in January, so I had been the longest since seeing everyone.”

The group decided to meet again for the FA Cup final, but this time, it did something different: It invited members of the Gulf Coast Gooners, a supporters’ group based in Tampa, to join them on the Zoom call. The two members came—Tom Sabol and Mani Thagandurai—and Sabol grateful for the opportunity, as the Gulf Coast Gooners hadn’t done any Zoom meetings themselves.

“Being able to jump in here and talk with (The Gooners), banter back and forth and up the Arsenal, it’s almost like being back at the pub,” Sabol said.

When Christian Pulisic scored for Chelsea in the first five minutes of the match, the chat deflated. A few remarked that it could be a long afternoon for the Gunners, but once halftime hit, the group members found themselves in higher spirits.

And once Aubameyang scored a chip shot in the 67th minute for his second goal of the day, the cheers and fist pumps became plenty more apparent.

With seven minutes of stoppage time, the group became restless, especially when the game went over that allotted time due to another instance of injuries with Chelsea. The Gooners breathed a sigh of relief, however, when they were finally able to celebrate Arsenal winning its 14th FA Cup.

With this win, Arsenal qualifies for the Europa League, a European soccer competition for teams that cannot make the Champions League, the highest European competition in soccer. Although the Gooners consider the season a success, they have loftier expectations for the historical London club.

“We don’t deserve Champions League, but we are Arsenal, so we should be in Champions League,” Sabol said. “I think we’ve hit our low. We’ve got a lot of places to go right now.”

Follow River on Twitter @riverhwells and contact him at [email protected].

River Wells is the Sports Editor at the Independent Alligator covering football. He has previously covered numerous other sports beats and was the Engagement Managing Editor of the paper in Spring of 2020.