My first match in England was Arsenal against Manchester United at Highbury 35 years ago, so it is fitting that I end this 17-match trip around English grounds with the same fixture at Arsenal’s new ground, the Emirates. Coaches for the match having sold out by the time I get hold of a ticket, I take the train to London, and I arrive at Arsenal tube station. Perhaps because my first memories of going to a match in the UK are from here, seeing the narrow terraced streets with stalls selling souvenirs and food makes me think that this is more “authentic” than the impressive “City Square” at the Etihad after all.
There is the Arsenal supporters club, with ageing women selling tickets for the coach to Newcastle next week, and people walking in and out for a drink. There is a pie stall at “Piebury Corner”, with a selection of pies named after Arsenal players. I opt for a “Tony Adams” – fitting name for a steak and ale pie! And it is quite good as well! And, of course, plenty of stalls selling old programmes or souvenirs.
Strikingly though, half the people at this time of the day (3 hours before kick-off) are Scandinavians and Asian tourists. Like me, they walk to Highbury to see the former ground turned into apartments. Having just seen the sorry state of Filbert Street in Leicester two days earlier, this is really THE way to preserve the important cultural heritage that football grounds embody. Of course, the art deco façade of Highbury is more appealing than some of the other grounds, but still, they could have tried to maintain some sort of resemblance to the shape of the ground when building new houses at Filbert Street. For this reason alone, Arsenal is definitely worth a visit when in London.
I move on to the new stadium, the Emirates, just down the road. It is nice that they haven’t moved it to a space far from the old ground. But having just visited the Etihad in Manchester the previous day, I am not too impressed. There is not the same integration of the different facilities around the ground; and it does not have the same finishing touch as the Etihad. A friend who is an architect as well as an Arsenal fan has called it “car park architecture”, and apart from the shiny glass facade, I can see what he means. The entrance to their museum in the neibhbouring building also looks rather uappealing. But they have a “Guide dog toilet”, something I haven’t come across at a football ground before.
It is not better when you go inside. Maybe because it is the away section, the room is not particularly big; the walls undecorated concrete, and the catering facilities not very inspiring. Compared to the two other modern stadiums visited the previous two days, the Emirates cannot really compare. But gradually the place is filled with United supporters in party mood, and there is singing and dancing to liven up the place. I enter the stands 25 minutes before kick-off, so I just escape a smoke bomb dropped in the midst of the celebrations.
In the stands, the Emirates looks very much like the Etihad. Only red rather than blue – and bigger with a capacity of 60.000 compared to 48.000. On the one hand, light, open and spacious. And on the other hand atmosphere tend to vanish in the air, although the 3.000 strong United contingent try to keep the party going with “Twenty times, twenty times Man United, twenty times twenty times I say, twenty times twenty times Man United, playing football the Busby way”. I am seated right next to a tunnel in the corner, and compared to my view from at similar position at West Ham, this is so much better, the seats are better (although they are not used in this section), and there is plenty of space between them, so the crowd move around fairly freely. The very vocal and spirited youngsters next to me move over to some friends during the first half. And I see them turning up in several different parts of the section.
Still, I prefer the atmosphere generated at the old ground. You can always see the goals on television the next day. The atmosphere, you can’t get anywhere else.
After plenty of media speculation, Arsenal do give United a guard of honor as newly crowned champions as they enter the pitch. But the crowd is not pleased, and although the volume never reaches a high level because of the stadium design, you can hear the Arsenal fans seizing every opportunity to boo and jeer their former hero, Robin van Persie. And Rooney and Rio for that matter. Not that it seemed to affect them, though.
Having already won the title, United are not really up for it in the opening 15 minutes. And after two minutes, Walcott scores for Arsenal, although televion pictures later reveals that he was well off-side when played through. The goal doesn’t spoil the party mood in the United section, though. Lots of fans turn to the Arsenal fans sitting above us, mockingly cheering, gesturing, before immersing themselves in a several minutes long “twenty times” rant.
I recognize at least half a dozen faces from the coach load I went with to the West Ham match. Some of them are busy walking around shaking hands with other fans; some leave almost 10 minutes before halftime to get to the beer downstairs. They miss van Persie first winning and then converting a penalty, giving the celebrations and chanting at Arsenal fans new energy.
In the second half, United continue to carve out some good openings, without playing particularly well, but they lack the final cutting edge, and the match finishes 1-1. As we leave the ground, celebration songs are mixed with mocking of Arsenal supporters. It does not seem malicious, but some have definetely had a lot to drink and their joy tends to spill over. A guy next to me has his hat ripped off and thrown away, much to his annoyance – but others help him recover it. The smokebomb inside is much worse, as it may lead to a cut-down in the already sparse ticket allocation for United fans. The mounted police outside seem alert to intervene, if things should get out of hand.
Most United supporters go to London by coach or car, train tickets being fairly expensive. So I feel rather lonely as I turn towards the tube to get me to London Euston. The queue seems massive, and I wonder how many hours it will take to get the thousands of fans away from the small tube station. But surprisingly, their is a slow but steady flow, and I even manage to get a train earlier than planned.