Friday, 14 December 2007

An evening at the Emirates

My old man used to say, "if that's your Nan at the door, tell her I'm out".

There are some things in life you cannot avoid, and one of them is the lure of the big games. A diversion from the FA Cup saw me down at the Emirates to take in the Champions League fixture between Arsenal and FC Steaua Bucureşti on Wednesday evening.

One of the joys of this FA Cup journey has been experiencing football at all levels and all standards, and turning up at games in the lower echelons has been most rewarding. But always one to go to any sort of game, I could not spurn the opportunity to go to a big game; a big club, big stars, big crowd, big occasion. Most of my football as a youth was watching games in the top flight of English football, and I have never lost that thrill or the excitement of being part of a big match atmosphere. Old Trafford, Anfield, Elland Road, Maine Road, Goodison Park. Those were the theatres of my formative years.

The adrenalin rush experienced from the power and noise of a huge crowd is one of life's greatest feelings. Now and then I need a fix.

I had been looking forward to this trip for quite some time. It isn't easy getting tickets for a match at Arsenal's new ground. It nearly always sells out. There is a seriously long waiting list for season tickets, and if you are not a season ticket holder you need to be a club member before you can buy entrance. A friend holds club membership and he very kindly purchased a ticket for me courtesy of his wife's membership card. From now on you can call me Diana.

I knew this game was going to be all about contrasts in comparison to my FA Cup games this season, and it certainly goes without saying that this would be a totally different experience. Alwyns Lane, Bourne Park, Krooner Park. Now for the Emirates Stadium. But the most striking contrast hit me within a few minutes of stepping out of Arsenal tube station.

It was the old and the new.

Turn left out of the tube and you are in amongst the terraced streets close to the old Highbury stadium. The facade of the old stadium remains, visible down a side street, in all its glory. Flats are being built where the turf used to be. But all down here, along Gillespie Road, it was a hive of activity. The street was flanked with small stalls and wooden huts, almost like an old evening market. The goods on sale included Arsenal memorabilia (shirts, scarves, badges), old programmes, refreshments (hot dogs, burgers, etc.) and even a sweet stall. Further down the street and the corner chippy was doing a roaring trade; an delicious bag of chips for a quid (plenty of salt). The lights from all the stalls illuminated the street and the house gardens, and the place was all steam and smells. And this match day scene has been repeated for decades. This was the old.

And then back down Gillespie Road and around the corner and there was the new. Wallop, it knocked your senses for six. The contrast could not have been more striking. The Emirates is a huge, spaceship like structure, all silver and neon and shiny. Immense, it dominates it's surroundings. It is an impressive sight.

The stadium has been designed well, and it is evident that this is a ground built as much for the comfort of the fans as anything else. Huge, open concourses; plenty of facilities (toilets, food and drink points). No queues. Great views with no obstructions from any part of the ground. And the seats. I loved the seats. Majestically large, acres of leg room and all with soft padding - certainly a football first for me. And every single seat in the stadium is the same - we were not located in a particularly ostentatious part of the ground which provided extra comfy specially padded seats. This was the norm.

But you pay for the privilege. If you want to watch Arsenal at home, be prepared to shell out anything upward of £45. Over £60 for the bigger games.

(I was quite taken by the seats at the Emirates. The following day, I found myself telling a few friends about the quality seating and I was marvelling at how comfortable it all was. I didn't realise that my wife was stood behind me whilst I was in full flow. I ended by saying that "it was more comfortable than watching a game in our front room", at which point my wife made her presence known. Oops. My wife is now wondering if we ought to buy a new sofa. I can tell her now: it won't be delivered before Christmas).

The match itself however was a tad lame. Played out on an impressively velvety turf, Arsenal cruised their way to half-time, scoring two goals and deserving more. They fielded a youthful team - no Fabregas, Gallas, Hleb or Adebayor. But a well received return for Van Persie and a start for Theo Walcott. Arsenal had already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. They were playing for top spot in the group (and, arguably, a more favourable draw) but that outcome relied on Sevilla failing to win at Sparta Prague.

In the second half, Arsenal took their foot off the gas. They squandered midfield superiority to a Steaua team that seemed to want it more. The Romanian side pulled one back and looked increasingly likely to grab a draw. Arsenal however hung on to win 2-1. Sevilla got the result they needed and so Arsenal finished in the runners-up spot.

I must admit that I was disappointed with the atmosphere inside the Emirates Stadium. It did not live up to expectations. Partly, I guess, to do with the opposition and the sense of inevitability surrounding the game. The 59,786 crowd were rather subdued. However, when Chelsea and Manchester United visit, I'm sure the atmosphere would crank up.

I couldn't help thinking of the bigger stadiums I used to go to with their packed terraces. The thrill of being part of a huge, standing crowd swaying and singing on mass, the rush as a goal went in. It was exhilarating. Those days are now firmly in the past. The old has been replaced by the new, and the experience that is watching football continues to change. It saddens me a little.

But boy, I did like those seats.

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