BY KIN FAI / @aeroberg
January 5th, 2012 will be a date I remember forever. It was the day I decided to part company with the bonus I’d earned the previous year so I could pay for my debut visit to the Arsenal.
It would be easy to run through all the things I did from that point to the moment I arrived on the doorstep at the Emirates Stadium (it always leaves a bitter taste acknowledging my club’s home by a corportate sponsors name), but instead I’ll focus on how I went about selecting the games I wanted to watch. My preference was to watch a Champions League tie and a Premier League match during my stay in London, with both games at home as I didn’t fancy trekking around England.
In many ways, the AC Milan and Newcastle games fit the bill. They constituted a European and domestic double with the first scheduled for the evening and the second orginally supposed to be a 3pm Saturday kickoff. Alas, ESPN’s decision to broadcast the match with Alan Pardew’s side meant the match was subsequently moved to a Monday evening, but it didn’t matter too much. Excitement was still very much bursting through my veins - not even an additional fee to delay my flight to fit the rescheduled match could quell that excitement.
The next small matter was actually acquiring the match tickets. I sourced numerous possible outlets, but in the end it was, as expected, Twitter where I found my answer. Armed with my red membership and a high level of patience, I finally secured everything that was needed for my dream trip.
Four paragraphs in and still I’ve not even broached the actual trip yet. Those who are thinking about clicking on the ‘X’ to close the page, will be rewarded eventually…
I stayed in London for six nights and on only one of those days did I not visit the stadium. When I arrived on Monday, March 5th, it was still only 3pm. Once I’d checked in at the hostel it was still light, so I headed for Finsbury Park. Seeing as it was pretty cold my first port of call was the club shop next to the tube where I purchased a red and white scarf and warm hat. After asking for directions from the assistant, I skipped past traffic onto St. Thomas’ Road.
As I walked passed house after house along one of the many routes you can take to get to the ground a calm descended upon me. I walked down Gillespie Road and caught sight of the tube station bearing the 'Arsenal' name pushed for by Herbert Chapman before reaching Drayton Park where I finally got my first glimpse of Arsenal’s magnificent new home.
A rush of blood to my head took over. My feet moved faster with each step. In the blink of an eye I was at the steps beside Highbury House. People say that the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is beautiful, but I can tell you that the Ken Friar Bridge is something else! Decorated with flags of Arsenal legends from years past, I had a personal moment with each of them testing my memory to remember the first time I watched them. I was exhausted mentally by the time I got to the other side.
People often say things are different in real life compared to the way they are on television and they’re right. The stadium looked as I expected, but I was overcome with emotion. I’m not ashamed to say that there were tears flowing that day. I’d never been before, but it felt like home.
There were probably no more than five other tourists walking around and taking pictures that day and a few joggers making their way around the perimeter, but I could start to imagine the match-day atmosphere enveloping me. It was the day before Milan’s visit.
Having whetted my appetite, I decided it was time to head back to my hostel. I walked back down Gillespie Road. My stomach was growling, but luckily the famous Golden Fish Bar was standing right in front of me. I was still in a daze when I realised that I was at the junction of Avenell Road and therefore right next to the East Stand façade of Highbury.
With goosebumps all over I began reminisicing of all the amazing games that had taken place in the grand old stadium. I don’t really like what they’ve done with the place. To have flats and apartments on what feels like holy ground, just doesn’t seem right. It was such a special place, steeped in history and class. Given a lick of paint it’s Art Deco design has stood the test of time – it’s as beautiful as the first time I saw it in print and on television. I’d planned to visit, but hadn’t imagined I’d stumble across it in the way I did.
The next day, I was ready for my first match experience. In fact, several Italians even asked me the route to the Arsenal Tavern; luckily, I was staying in the area and could point them on their way. All around, there were groups of people gathering. It was as if the streets suddenly came alive overnight. Where the day before it had been quiet, on game day there was food and drink stalls everywhere. So too places to buy souvenirs, memorabilia and matchday programmes. Even the touts were out in force asking if I was buying or selling tickets.
I was at the Emirates two hours early and watched as people streamed in from all sides. The majority of people were local, but there were a fair few familiar faces too. When I say familiar, I don’t mean people whom I actually know but rather faces, who at least from my perspective, come from the same continent as me. It’s a global game and Arsenal is a global brand after all.
All over the place people were posing for photographs, reading the programme or chatting away about the team. On that particular day Tomas Rosicky’s new contract was the talking point of the day, while others discussed whether the match was a dead rubber after the 4-0 drubbing in Milan. In truth, nobody gave us a ghost of a chance to get back into the tie, but the crowd was still very healthy in numbers.
We were all about to be rewarded for our attendance. Even though we didn’t get through to the Champions League quarter-finals that night, there was plenty to be proud about. I’m not just talking about pride in the team’s performance, but pride in the reaction of the crowd. The Emirates was no library! Buoyed by three first half goals there was constant singing and chanting reverberating around the stadium. It was the soundtrack to what was nearly the greatest ever Champions League comeback.
The pre-game routine was repeated for the Newcastle game except this time, there were no Italians marching through the streets of Drayton Park chanting their way to the gates of the stadium. It was another incredible match and it’s not unfair to say that the encouragement and support from the home fans helped dragged the team across the finish line. Newcastle came to frustrate and to a degree they did. But when Thomas Vermaelen scored late in injury-time to seal the points there was no doubting that the Gunners were deserving winners. I’d been to two games and experienced two great wins. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my maiden trip to Arsenal.
But something more did happen. The club were generous enough to invite a travelling band of Malaysians to be present at the underground entrance where the team buses are supposed to come through. It was an experience to behold, not least because Gunnersaurus was there and he/she ruffled my hair. The b*st*rd. There was hardly any interaction with the fans from the players – they all seemed very focused on the game at hand, offering only a few smiles. I did manage to catch Andre Santos doing an impromptu dance with our dinosaur mascot though.
Over the course of my trip I also continued my Arsenal education by undertaking tours of both the stadium and museum. Each was special in their respective ways. The former allowing me to get a feel for what it must be like as a player before a game, the latter transporting me back to the humble origins of the club. It was a crash course in being part of The Arsenal, but at the same time so much more than that. The quotes I saw from former players and managers really stood out.
Last but not least, I have to pay a special tribute to the people - the everyday fans who supports the club. I saw passion, I saw love and I’ll be forever grateful that everyone treated me like one of their own. The security guy at The Tollington gave me exact instructions as to how to meet the players as they passed by in their cars after the game. I didn’t even have to ask him! There’s also all the wonderful friends whom I’ve met via Twitter who I got to meet in person. You make Arsenal a very special club.
I’d never suggest that anyone who doesn’t attend matches at the stadium is not an actual fan. It’s just that you really have to make a trip, at least once, to complete the holistic journey as a Gooner. The feeling of actually cheering your team on and singing their names and seeing them responding to your support is more than words can describe. Personally for me, even though it was my first time there, the experience alone would not have atoned for any negative results that the team endures. Luckily for me, both games turned out really well. I can safely say that I’ve got a 100% record at the Emirates Stadium.
It was an amazing trip.