BY DEBORAH COLLINS
When I was asked if I'd like to contribute an anecdote to this site I said, what, like the time I used the referee's toilet at Highbury? That'll do nicely, I was told. Now, when I think about it, there isn't very much to that story. But it sparks off a chain of reminiscences connecting Arsenal with toilets. And no, I don't mean our form since we moved to the Emirates - I'm a glass half full kind of person, which is probably why I have bladder issues.
In the very early years of this century, before online booking had really caught on, I used to take the morning off (or throw a sickie) to queue up at the old box office in Avenell Road to buy tickets for certain key fixtures, instead of risking the phone. These included the last home match of each season - a trick I learned in 1998 in just our second season of attending, when we only went to the matches my young son was confident we could win.
That year, I randomly bought tickets for the match against Everton, which turned out to be the first of three times I've seen the Premier League trophy lifted in the flesh. Adams! Would you believe it! That sums it all up!
So two or three years later, there I was in a queue of hundreds of people stretching up the hill, past the poky little club shop up some steps we used to have, and the way into the sports centre round by the Clock End where my son would attend Soccer School in his new home kit every July.
I must have asked someone to hold my place as I told one of the stewards marshalling the queue I was desperate for the loo. You can use the referee's toilet, she said, and I was escorted straight into the legendary marble halls, shuffling embarrassed past the other queuers, pushing out the front of my coat with my hands in my pockets in a vague attempt to appear pregnant.
Past reception and the bust of Herbert Chapman, turn right and there it was. There was a spartan anteroom, with - I think - a teacup and saucer and a rather shrivelled orange on a small table. The loo was nothing special and no, I didn't do a Robbie Savage. (If you're unaware of this incident, Google 'Robbie Savage' and 'referee's toilet'. I accept no responsibility for your inevitable feeling of revulsion.
So much for that, but as - being a woman of a certain age with two children, an anxious disposition and a tea and coffee habit - I have a toilet dependency almost as strong as my Arsenal dependency, of course there's more to tell. To my son's despair (now mellowed to acceptance tinged with contempt) at every match I go to the loo before kick-off, at half-time and at the end.
The half-time loo break, especially, is my chance to take stock, to reflect on the performance and scoreline and assess where it could all go from here. Attending every home match already breaks the bank, so we go to very few away matches, but I remember a freezing, rainsoaked March day at the Reebok in 2008, trailing two-nil and down to 10 men at half-time, staring at the graffitied door of a scuzzy toilet and screaming silently, 'I want to go home!'
A Gallas strike (I don't mean the kind he performed sitting down on the pitch at Birmingham), a Van Persie penalty and a stoppage time own-goal later, it was Bolton 2-3 Arsenal, and one of my best-ever match experiences. That's football.
Before each game, I've always nicked a handful of bogroll and stuffed it in my handbag. In my early days at Highbury, this was because I always had a bottle of Coke with me (Diet Coke these days) and had a propensity, on unscrewing the top, to spray it all over the new home shirt of whoever was sitting in front. The tissue paper was to mop myself and (if I dared to own up) my victim.
But after a while, busy collecting a shedload of matchday superstitions, I calculated that there was a correlation between the length of loo roll I snatched from the dispenser and the eventual scoreline. A modest length might secure an equally modest two-nil, but if I wanted to stick six past Blackburn I had to tear off something more substantial without it ripping too near the end. All right, I know this is cuckoo. But no crazier, I'll wager, than thousands of other fans' superstitions. How many of us genuinely believe the outcome is dependent on our wearing our lucky pants?
I would slowly use up my collected toilet paper, of course, but on the day we left Highbury forever I still had several squares stashed in the inside pocket of my shoulder bag. A week and a half later, having been defrauded to the tune of £1,350 by an online ticket tout, my son (then 16) and I were wandering the boulevards of Paris looking in vain for a good, honest, old-fashioned street tout to get us into the Champions League final. (We later got our money back, but that's another story.)
Toilets in bars and cafes in Paris are, not to put too fine a point on it, shit, and often locked. Ending up in a pub near the Gare du Nord watching the match on a small overhead TV screen, I shared all I had left of Highbury, my loo roll, with another female Gooner as we queued for the sordid and paperless convenience.
Later that night, after meeting up with friends in a bar that stayed open till 2am, then talking to a mad Moroccan on a traffic island in French for half an hour to pass the time, and having no hotel, we trudged back to the Gare du Nord. But the station was now locked until 4.30am and hundreds of homeless Gooners were sleeping on the pavement. Having no access to toilets, they'd been pissing on the station walls (goodness knows how the women coped) and rivulets of urine were running across the paving stones.
After the station reopened, we found some café chairs stacked up inside, pulled them out and slept on them for a couple of hours. Once the departure lounge was open, we headed in there - civilised loos! - and settled down on some seats, where my friend from work Steve, a season ticket holder, came across us and gave my son the grey commemorative teeshirt that had been on his seat at the Stade de France.
And then we caught the early Eurostar and made the weary trek back to Waterloo, where my son headed home and I went straight to work, 10 minutes' walk along the South Bank. Half an hour before I was due at my desk, I was in my office building's showers, but they didn't work, so hoping nobody came in I washed myself at a hand basin with a spare teeshirt. And so, in a way, my adventures began and ended in a bathroom.
Photo courtesy of Rob Cartwright