Our forward can't wait to play in front of a packed Emirates again
It's been more than 500 days since Emirates Stadium has welcomed fans without restrictions, and Nicolas Pepe can't wait to see the place full again.
The Ivorian winger enjoyed a fine campaign last season, scoring 16 in all competitions and adding a further six assists, but he admits he won't be sad to see the end of behind-closed-doors matches, and will never enjoy the 'dead' atmosphere at those games.
In an exclusive, in-depth interview in Sunday's matchday programme, Nico spoke about his early days playing in 'the hood' in France, and about the hostile atmosphere at Marseille's infamous Stad Velodrome, that he felt the full force of for Lille. All of that though, he says, is preferable to empty stadiums.
"Frankly, the difference with an empty stadium is that the match feels a bit dead. You can hear each other on the pitch but it's the fans that really bring that 12th man. That’s what everyone misses," he said.
"To be honest I played in a lot of empty stadiums before I turned pro, so it didn't surprise me that much - but there isn't anything that's better about playing in an empty stadium than a full one. For me an empty stadium doesn’t have any positives.
"I tried to play the same in an empty stadium as I do when there are fans, but for me when you hear the crowd sing - especially if they call your name - it’s really emotional.
"It shows you the fans really care about you and it makes you really feel part of the club. It pushes you and when you hear them singing your name, it gives you an extra push. It really makes you want to score a goal and return the favour."
Speaking on the eve of the Chelsea game - the first at the Emirates without attendance limits since we beat West Ham 1-0 back in March 2020 - Nico also recalled the very early days playing in front of a crowd, and says the joy that fans bring has never left him.
"As a kid I played mostly in and around Paris," he said. "We had trips to the 93rd department (an area to the northeast of Paris with a reputation for violence and drug trafficking) and everywhere.
"The first time I played in front of fans was really early. I was 12 years old. We went to play against Clichy-sous-Bois (in the eastern suburbs of Paris). The stadium was in the middle of the hood so the pitch was surrounded by guys from the estates.
"It was a great atmosphere because when you’re young you don’t realise that there were so many people there for a regional match. It was good though, I enjoyed it."
It helped prepare him for a particularly stormy game in Ligue 1 for Lille, away to Marseille, in January 2019. The scenes that day were such that the referee took the players off the pitch for more than half an hour.
"That was the best atmosphere I've played in. We won the game 2-1 and I scored our first goal from a penalty just before half-time. That was the first time I had a laser shone directly in my face, as I was taking the penalty, which wasn’t great! Then the moment I scored they threw bottles and there was beer landing on us and stuff like that. I just thought it was funny!"
You can read the full interview with Nico in the Sunday's matchday programme, which is available to buy at club stores from Saturday, and of course from the stadium on matchday. You can also buy the 'welcome home' issue online, priced at £4.99 (including postage).
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