Sunday, June 28, 2015

Living for the Weekend: Arsenal

Match programme from Arsenal.
It’s been a while since I’d really taken much interest in football – at least enough interest to start watching matches at the grounds themselves. Ireland don’t really get up to much these days and my childhood team linger aimlessly in mid-table, or, in a good year, might become embroiled in a relegation dogfight.

After dragging Jonesy along to watch Leyton Orient whilst I was still living in Walthamstow, he decided to more than repay the favour by offering to take me along to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday 1st February 2015; there to watch Arsenal (his team) play against Aston Villa (my team). This all coincided, in a timely fashion, with moving house to Islington. 

Most of the build-up to the match, for us at least, revolved around Jonesy’s anxiety about the distance between my new flat and the stadium itself; he simply wouldn’t believe me that it was a ten-minute walk.

As it was, we managed to get from his place in Leigh-on-Sea to Islington in such a small amount of time that, before long, we were sat in Bedford Tavern on Seven Sisters Road enjoying a drink.

After a quick stroll down Berriman Road, Tollington Road and Hornsey Road, which is always closed to traffic on a match-day, we arrived at a great bowl of steel and glass nestled in between the East Coast Mainline and the residential streets of Islington; the appearance of the Emirates is a lot cleaner and more majestic than many other Premier League stadia.

Arsenal’s decision to move, at the height of their most recent period of success (the "Invincibles" season of 2003/04, most notably), wasn’t unanimously  popular amongst all fans. There was no doubt that the lovely old Art Deco Highbury stadium, just around the corner, was a firm favourite with many of the Arsenal fans I seem to have for friends. Built in 1913 the club stayed at Highbury until 2006 and their move to the Emirates, a stadium, somewhat unglamorously, built on an old waste disposal site.

There was a bit of bumbling around with the credit card-style tickets where the seat numbers aren’t readily apparent, before we finally found the way into the club level seating, scanning our cards on the way, getting handed our complimentary match programme and ascending on an escalator to the middle tier of the stadium.

It really couldn’t be any further from little old Brisbane Road.
An Aston Villa corner; a rare moment of attack in the match.
The ‘club level’ of the ground had a warm bar area, completely enclosed, keeping out both the cold and presumably the riff-raff. Looking down from the large glass wall was an expansive view of the other spectators filtering their way slowly in.

We resisted the temptation of anything more to drink and headed straight to our seats in amongst quite a diverse crowd: a Chinese father and his little boy, a pair of elderly women and four burly Turkish men. Still, these weren’t my Aston Villa comrades, all of whom where sat on the lower tier to my immediate left – a noisy minority in this giant 60,000-seater stadium.

For Villa the match didn’t really get started. By half-time they had already fallen behind to a goal scored by Olivier Giroud and Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, was clearly out of ideas already. To add insult to this, Mesut Özil, who’s never really hit top form at Arsenal, seemed to be everywhere.

At half-time there was the consolation of a complimentary bar and, in lieu of any cider, I started the sorrow-drowning with some decent white wine.

The second half brought about more misery as four more goals found their way into the Villa net; one each for Özil, Walcott, Cazorla and Bellerin. At least there were two shots on target for the away team during this half. For the visitors, of particular note was the performance of Carlos Sánchez who, without exception, seemed to lose possession everytime an Arsenal player came within five metres of him.

Villa were looking ropey and the signs weren’t good for either Lambert’s job prospects or the team’s Premiership status.

The one moment of hope for Villa nearly resulted in me outing myself as an away supporter in the home section. After what seemed like an entire match without a shot on target, out of nowhere a shot actually challenged the Arsenal 'keeper. From the pit of all my frustrations came the utterance, “So you remembered how to shoot then?”

Jonesy looked at me with shock, presumably fearing a mini-riot, but, to our relief, another Arsenal fan turned and said, “Yeah, they’re rubbish aren’t they mate?”

Once the final whistle was blown and the 5-0 rout complete, we headed out of the stadium and back onto the chilly streets of Islington once more. There is no doubt that for everything that Brisbane Road offers in terms of heritage and a vibe reminiscent of how football used to be, the Emirates offers sleek, brutal modernity in return. It is Harrods to Orient’s corner shop, but this should not detract from either ground.

I criticised modern stadiums after my visit to the retro Brisbane Road, but the Emirates is proof that it is possible to blend the modern game of football with some soul.

The afternoon ended with a return fixture of our own; a trip back to the Bedford Tavern. The consequences of this visit are recorded, I am told, on a mobile phone belonging to my girlfriend’s sister.

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