When Vivianne Miedema was substituted to a standing ovation against West Ham in the dying minutes of last season, many of those applauding feared they were saying goodbye.
Few knew of the decision she had come to earlier the same week, one that would not be made public for another 12 days: that after holding talks with most of Europe’s leading clubs, Arsenal’s superstar was staying put.
“It kind of still felt a wee bit strange,” she tells Standard Sport. “Obviously, at that point I still wasn’t sure whether I’d made the right choice either.
“Even my teammates expected me to leave - and I really was close to leaving. When I told them one morning that I was staying, they were like: ‘Nah, you’re taking the p***. Just shut up and leave’.”
Needless to say that, without exception, they are pleased Miedema gave little regard to their advice, particularly so heading into a grand occasion like Saturday’s north London derby against Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium, for which more than 51,000 tickets have so far been sold.
Days like these, Miedema says, are part of the reason she stayed.
“I’ve always said the English league is the best, so that really helped in my decision,” she says. “In the end, you play for the big games and big moments so if 50,000 people are at the game against Spurs, that’s one of them.”
Arsenal’s women played at the Emirates several times last season, including a showpiece Champions League group stage game against Barcelona, the giants Miedema might have joined, but never in front of a crowd on this scale. The atmosphere, Miedema says, was often better at tiny Borehamwood, where the Gunners play most home games, and she has set a target of seeing at least 20,000 fans at each of what will hopefully be six Emirates matches this term.
“You want to play in the big stadiums but you only want to play there if it’s actually full or there’s a lot of people,” she says. “When you play in the stadium when there are 4,000 or 5,000 people there it feels really empty. I do think Borehamwood is too small, to be honest, but when you play in smaller stadiums and it’s sold out you get that full energetic feeling.”
Saturday promises to deliver just that, not least because Arsenal as a club is infused with an infectious current of optimism at present. Miedema says the upturn in performances of Mikel Arteta’s men’s side has delivered “a massive lift for the whole club - not just for them but also for us” and her own commitment to stay in north London is another aspect within a broader feeling of collective progress.
“At Arsenal, you have to be the best or to want to be the best,” she says. “I still don’t think we are there and I’m the first one to say that to the club as well but I do think we’re heading in the right direction and I’ve not always felt that over the last couple of years.
“Over the last 12 months, I’ve definitely felt like the people above are really supportive of women’s football and do want to do things.”
Such was the calibre of club in for Miedema at the end of her contract that “there was no wrong decision”, but if coming around to the idea of signing a new deal was a gradual process, then there was a one moment over the summer when Miedema knew for certain she had done the right thing.
“When you spend 10 days in your room with Covid at the Euros and you still don’t hate England, after that, you realise…” she laughs, though her tussle with the virus was no joke.
After feeling ill during the Netherlands’ opening game against Sweden, the 26-year-old tested positive and was left bed-bound, though in a strange way that actually offered some consolation for missing the two remaining group games.
When I told my Arsenal team-mates I was staying, they were like: ‘Nah, you’re taking the p***. Just shut up and leave.’
“The first couple of days I was too sick to do anything, I felt really bad. If you had Covid and didn’t have any symptoms it’s probably more frustrating but I actually wasn’t capable of leaving my bed.”
The forward only returned in time for the quarter-final defeat to France, which she played in unfit having been out of training for almost two weeks. A Euros Miedema had hoped to make her own was over before it had really begun.
“You go into that tournament and, especially at my age, you kind of feel that it’s meant to be your tournament,” she says. “Not to be arrogant, but I know I’ve got the qualities to have made it my tournament. It was really frustrating, just stuck in my hotel room watching games on the telly.”
After the Dutch exit, Miedema, somewhat reluctantly, turned England fan, in support of partner Beth Mead, Arsenal teammate Leah Williamson and coach Sarina Wiegman, under whom she had enjoyed her own Euros triumph on home soil five years earlier.
“I wasn’t really that chuffed about wearing an England top!” she says. “After a couple of beers after the final I was fine.
“I’ve played at the Euros myself, the exact same Euros [in the Netherlands] in 2017. At one point, you just know, you just feel that it’s going to be England and the girls must have felt that within their camp.”
England’s triumph has elevated the profile of the likes of Williamson and Mead, and Miedema is no longer the only superstar in town.
“Before, you would go into London and I would get recognised but the girls would be walking with me and they wouldn’t, which is weird because you’re in England,” she says. “We’ll see how the girls cope with it in a couple of months’ time!”
Already, Europe’s biggest clubs are taking a more prominent interest in English talent, headlined by Keira Walsh’s move to Barcelona from Manchester City in a world-record deal worth a reported £350,000.
“I’m the last one to shout for it being the same game as the men’s game because I think the money in the men’s game is absolutely ridiculous and I don’t think we should ever want to get there” Miedema says. “But I do think we need to improve and that’s one of the moves that’s showing that.”
Miedema, who this week graduated from the Open University with a Masters in business and marketing, believes the first million-pound women’s player is “not that far away”, though she quickly dismisses the obvious next question: “It won’t be me - I’ll be too old by then!”
Only months ago, Arsenal were on the verge of losing her for nothing. How glad they are she stayed.
Tickets remain on sale for Saturday’s north London derby. For more information click here.