BY MICKEY DENNIS / @mickeyhorton
I’ve been an Arsenal fan for seven years now, finally taking an interest in international soccer following the 2006 World Cup in Germany. For one reason or another it took 15 years to start properly following the sport which I’d played since I was just 5-years-old, but despite being slow on the uptake I was eager to make up for lost time.
I wanted to pick an English club to follow and knowing that my grandfather had been born in London I wanted it to be a team from the capital. At the time I was certain he’d grown up in Hampstead so I started doing some research and found that Arsenal and Tottenham were the two closest clubs to the area. I vaguely recalled that Arsenal had recently gone unbeaten for an entire season, so I figured they’d be a decent side to follow and began watching videos of games and reading about the history of the club. I was instantly a fan and there was no turning back when I found out I’d got my grandfather’s birthplace wrong and he was actually from Hanwell!
Over the coming years me devotion to Arsenal steadily grew. I watched almost every game and celebrated as much as fan in the United States could, but I knew I needed to visit the Emirates and experience a matchday in the flesh. Having committed to studying in London, my first thought on arrival was to buy a ticket to the first game I could.
It turned out that the FA Cup clash with Aston Villa, earlier this year, was to be my debut. It was only my second weekend in London and I was going to an Arsenal game, I could scarcely believe it. Staying in Regent’s Park, it was very easy to make the journey to the stadium. A couple of short tube rides and I was exiting the tube on Gillespie Road and in seconds could see the top of the Emirates. I don’t think I stopped smiling as I walked following the other fans, I was giddy in fact. Arriving early to ensure I enveloped myself in the experience, I treated myself to a jacket from the club store (I couldn’t resist), before finally entering the stadium to be greeted by the absolutely gorgeous turf.
I was pretty far up, but I had a great view of the field. The Emirates is a really impressive stadium, not just massive, but awesome in its scope and architecture; you can tell every detail has been expertly scrutinised and made perfect. Of course, it may not have the history of Highbury, or other old stadiums, but in time it will start to feel more like home for the supporters. The 60,000 who filed in for the Villa game are proof of the club’s appeal, but on the day I bet I was the most excited around.
As you might remember, January represented something of a sticky patch for the Gunners. The tough period was obviously taking its toll on the supporters, most of whom were grumbling their dissatisfaction before the game. When the starting lineups were announced, it got worse and then worse still after the game got going.
The guy sitting next to me was (correctly as it happened) unhappy with Fabianski and said he’d rather have a Szczesny in goal playing with a broken leg. I couldn’t disagree with him, I felt a tightening in my chest whenever the ball entered our final third! My neighbour soon began to moan about Theo Walcott. “He can’t dribble, can’t shoot, can’t take people on, can’t defend. The only thing he does well is run.”
As Arsenal struggled to get to grips with the game, the home fans grew quieter and quieter while the Aston Villa fans became louder and louder. It was humiliating. We half-heartedly sang chants trying to show support, but it was hard. It was an uncomfortable silence that came down upon the stadium at half-time with the scoreboard showing Villa two-nil up.
Thankfully the second half was a completely different story. From the first kick, it was obvious Arsenal meant business and there was a noticeable buzz on the terraces. Each chant was more full bodied and there was a strong belief we could get a result. Then Arsenal were awarded a penalty kick. “Off, off, off,” chanted the fans at Villa’s guilty man Richard Dunne. He was already on a booking, but was reprieved by the referee. I was nervous when Van Persie stepped up to take the kick, but it wasn’t long before the, “He scores when he wants” chant was being heartily sung for the captain.
Two minutes later, Walcott made a great run towards goal. Just as it looked like he’d messed it all up, his toe poke towards goal was cleared against his chest and dribbled over the line. The guy next to me was about to complain about another wasted chance by Walcott, but stopped short and jumped up with the rest of us to celebrate the equaliser. “Theo, Theo, Theo” echoed around the stadium, followed quickly by “You’re not singing anymore” firmly directed at the visiting fans.
Not long after, another penalty kick was awarded to Arsene Wenger’s men and van Persie stepped up and put it away without hesitation. Our comeback was complete and the noise was deafening. The place went absolutely nuts with everyone jumping and screaming with an exuberance that was nowhere to be found in the first half.
Naturally choice words were aimed at the Villa fans after their collapse screaming “Who are ya, who are ya, who are ya,” was screamed by everyone, before a guy behind me added, “c***s from the Midlands and their stupid f***ing Northern accents.” Further fun came when our fans played ‘keepsies’ with the ball after it had gone out of play. Several times it got close to the pitch, only for it to be again hurled back into the crowd; boos jokingly rang out when play was finally able to re-start, but they were soon replaced by more singing.
The chanting absolutely made my day and being part of a noisy crowd for the first time made me feel like a proper fan. I got chills taking it all in. Heading home, I felt a tremendous amount of pride knowing I’d played my part while watching my team win a superb game. I can’t wait to go back.