A day at the Emirates Stadium of Arsenal
People all over the world support their club teams from thousands of miles away. Often at home, or sometimes in a pub or theater screening. But what is it like to actually experience a match-day at the stadium itself? As one of the fortunate few to have experienced that, I wish to share it with everyone.
The game was the last one of the 2008-09 campaign for Arsenal. It was a disappointing season for the Gunners – they lost out in the Champions League semi-final and were never in the Premier League title race. So nothing was at stake at this home game against Stoke, which gave the match a festive feel. Right, so on to the experience itself.
A unique thing about the Emirates, as opposed to other big stadiums, is its location. It is right in the middle of a residential area and until you actually see it, you cant believe that a huge stadium exists in that sleepy residential area of North London.
The experience started in the tube itself. The metro was jam packed on a Saturday afternoon with fans sporting the red and white jerseys. People of all shapes and sizes were proudly showing off Van Persie, Fabregas, Adams, etc. on their backs. I was myself in casual attire under strict instructions from home not to wear the Arsenal shirt, such is the image of English hooligans abroad.
I didn’t need maps to know where to get off or where to go – I just followed the hoards of Gooners making their way through the narrow and winding streets of Islington, North London. Just when I was wondering how long a walk this would be, the houses cleared and I came face to face with my personal Mecca/Vatican.
The stadium is truly magnificent. It looks much bigger than pictures suggest. The wavy glass structure gives the appearance of an alien space ship. The surrounding architecture has done justice to the Arsenal history. Two cannons guard the entrance to the ‘Armoury’, which is the official fan shop. The massive Arsenal crest hangs on the grey walls of this sparkling new arena.
I couldn’t wait to get inside and after one round around the outside, I walked through the turnstiles and into the stands. My ticket was for the upper stand, but I sneaked in the lower ones just to have a look. It was astounding. I had never seen such a huge and lush green surface before. The Emirates is a model of perfection. It seemed that they had manually trimmed each blade of grass accurate up to the millimeter.
Not wanting to annoy the stewards, I headed for my allocated seat in the upper stands. The view from here wasn’t as great, but still excellent. There were just 15 minutes left for the game and the stadium was not even half full. It has to be said that the Premier League crowd management is excellent – I never felt any sense of rush or chaos while getting into the stadium packed with 60,000 fans.
And then I saw them for the first time. Arsenal players walked out in training gear for their warm-up to big cheers from the still half-full stadium. My heart skipped a beat each time I recognized a familiar face – Walcott, Arshavin, Fabregas, Toure, Van Persie….was I dreaming? They kicked the ball around for a while and left. 5 minutes to go, and the stadium had gradually become full and noisy. As expected, the away fans from Stoke were making the most noise – but they would be silenced soon.
The players walked out for the Premier League
Anthem Jingle and we were ready to kick off. I did a quick survey of the home dug out and found some more familiar faces. The injured Samir Nasri and Adebayor, along with Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and someone I was glad was on the bench – Almunia. Vito Mannone was making his debut for the Gunners. Also I could make out a distinctly tall and lanky figure in a suit sitting in the home dugout – no prizes for guessing who that is.
Then the referee blew his whistle and the one of the best 90 minutes of my life began. To be honest, it didn’t feel to different from TV. I could see the ball clearly and the pace is about the same as you see on the tele. Even so, the pace was too much for Stoke to handle. The ball went around like a pinball on the lush surface. This was Arsenal at their best – toying with the opposition. Credit to the Stoke fans – they were making most of the noise and being right below me, I witnessed some awesome banter from both sides.
The first goal came from a Fabregas cross. It happened so quickly, I couldn’t make out who had scored. It didn’t matter – we were all on our feet shouting and singing – “One Nil, to the Arsenal!” followed by a magnanimous “You only have one more year (in the top division)” to the silenced Stoke fans. Turns out that it had gone in from a Stoke defender. Just a few minutes later, Van Persie was brought down in the penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot. Van Persie made it 2-0.
It seemed that Arsenal never got out of 3rd gear in the whole match, their goals were so effortless. Abou Diaby headed the ball in for a third Arsenal goal. Just when it seemed things couldnt get worse for Stoke – Rory Delap headed the ball back in ‘Nani‘esque style and gave it to a grateful Van Persie who volleyed it home to make it 4-0 to the Arsenal. Stoke fans found their voices after they were awarded a penalty towards the end of the first half. At the end of 45 minutes the score was an incredible 4-1.
The second half was not as exciting though. Both teams were looking forward to the summer break and were just kicking it around aimlessly. The fans noticed this and started to focus more on singing songs and Mexican waves. There had been rumours of Arsene Wenger leaving for Real Madrid over the weeks leading up to the match. As a result – for most of the 2nd half fans sung – “There is only one Arsene Wenger!” and he responded with a smile and a wave.
And then it was over – the game, the season and my (atleast) once in a lifetime pilgrimage. I felt lucky this was the last game, because the entire squad and Wenger took a round of the pitch to thank us for the support. The most significant thing was – not a single boo, despite a 4th trophy-less season. I am sure the spirit still holds today. Not that there were no trophies on show. The Arsenal women team who went 108 games unbeaten showed off their Premier League and FA Cup double. I wonder if we can borrow their defenders and goalie.