Sunday, March 23, 2014

Arsenal, Highbury and me

I’m not a football (soccer) fan as such, but I was brought up to support the great London club, Arsenal. My stepfather, Sasha, would take me - this was when I was a teenager - to games at Highbury fairly regularly, and my enthusiasm for ‘the beautiful game’ lasted into my early 20s, and even today, though professing no real interest, I still check Arsenal’s results, and a win adds sparkle to the rest of the day. The result from yesterday’s game (22 March 2014) - the 1,000th with Arsene Wenger as manager - was about as bad as it can get, a 6-0 loss to London rivals Chelsea.

Wenger’s 1,000th game seems as good a moment as any to trawl my diaries for some Arsenal flavour, as it were. My earliest diary entry dates from 1 January 1963, and my first mention of Arsenal is a few weeks later, in February. Most of the mentions of Arsenal in my diaries are a simple scoreline, but a few come with more colour (sometimes a bit too much - see 11 November 1967).

After decades of dwindling interest in football (apart from World Cups which I’ve always loved to watch on TV), I found myself invited to Highbury in 2004, a year or two before Arsenal’s move to the Emirates, and the visit inspired a lengthy diary entry.

23 February 1963
‘Went to the football match - Arsenal v Spurs. Spurs won 3-2. It was a very exciting game.’

17 April 1964
‘Got my Arsenal photograph from Typhoo Tea.’

22 January 1966
‘Arsenal were knocked out of the cup today. They’re useless.’

3 October 1967
‘Defended Arsenal with Mob.’

28 October 1967
‘Arsenal-Fulham. Pouring down with rain, horrible and cold. Exciting match 5-3.’

11 November 1967
‘Lunch of steak then rushed off to Arsenal along A10. Driver would not let Father pass so he said he would carve him up. Mother said don’t, then started shrieking, opened car door. At Arsenal said she couldn’t come. I rushed off [to stands, my parents had season tickets], got a good view point, great match. Mother still there. Arsenal 2 Everton 2.’

20 January 1973
‘Arsenal fluked a noble victory against Chelsea.’

12 March 1974
‘About 6:30 tubed up to Arsenal v Barcelona, 35,000, 1-3, Georgie’s testimonial, fair old game basically. Johan Cruyff really fabulous.’

7 December 2004
‘I reckon that I’ve not been to the Arsenal in 30 years, not since I was a teenager. It was busy on the train and at Highbury & Islington station but not football crowd busy. There were, though, enough supporters heading for Arsenal for us to be able to follow them. We ended up arriving on the east side of the stadium, which meant we had to walk all the way round, and through the throngs, to the other side - to Highbury Hill in fact (where the entrance to the West side is right next door to where my old friend, Angela used to live).

What’s the point of football? It’s surprising to experience how many people come to watch football. Passing through the crowds, I couldn’t help thinking again about how few people, by comparison, go to watch live theatre or music. There can be a bit of a crush outside a theatre, before and after, but it’s a miniature crowd compared to that of a football match. It’s mostly men, of course, but there are still plenty of women, often not very visible because they are togged up in warm jackets and hats similar to those worn by their men.

The Arsenal stadium, which is only a season or two from being pulled down, looks much the same as it did in the 60s I suspect. I don’t actually remember it, but it did look very familiar. There are more commercial outlets on the external facade of the stadium and around it’s perimeter, but no doubt the programme sellers and touts are similar to the ones that were there in my day. And inside, it was quite pleasing to find that much was the same: the turnstiles, the cream and red decor, the signage. It all had a 50s feel about it, and even the glitzy flat screens high up on the walls showing glimpses of other matches or interviews alongside adverts somehow only served to emphasise the period nature of the rest of the furbishings.

As my companion Carla said, one of the best moments, is when you walk up the steps into the stadium proper, and emerge at the high point to see, for the first time, the whole stadium beneath you, the gloriously green rectangular pitch, lit up brightly by the floodlights (disguising the greyness of the day) already busy with players warming up, the huge stands on all four sides, filling up quickly with supporters, the huge screens (which definitely weren’t there in the past) in the corners, showing the team line-ups and interviews. Carla’s dad’s seats are fantastic. They are fairly close to the centre of the stand, they are at the aisle end of a row (my stepfather’s seats, I seem to remember, were at the furthest end from an aisle, and were right at one edge of the stand, i.e. with a great view of corner-takers), and they are only three rows up from the front of the lowest balcony. They must be the most expensive ordinary seats in the stadium. (Later, my brother Julian said he’d heard that a season ticket for the new Arsenal stadium, entitling a holder to attend some 25 home matches, would cost in the region of £4,000 - that’s ridiculous.)

We arrived about 20 minutes early, which was fine, because I could stand at the front of the stand, watch all the activity (the women’s team came on briefly to receive an award), the action on the screens, and the stadium filling up. Meanwhile, Carla called her father, I think, and talked to some other regulars nearby. The thick glossy programme (£3) carried an article by Thierry Henry about how he was actually looking forward to the new stadium because the Highbury pitch is a small one. I never knew this, or that pitches could vary in size. For a forward, he said in the article, it’s much better to have a bigger space to move around in. The programme also contained some nostalgic photos and stories from the 1955-56 season. I noticed the programme looked just like the ones I used to collect. And then I wondered what had happened to my old Arsenal programmes (and, I found out on Sunday, that Julian still has them!).

The football was mediocre, but the experience of being there was not. I was surprised at how close we were to the action, and how live and vital it felt (as compared to television), and how good it was to be able to look at the whole pitch, and all the players, rather than just at one camera view. Also - and this is odd I suppose - I noticed how human the players were, how small and ordinary; and how prone they were to making mistakes; and how big a role chance plays in the many clashes that take place for disputed balls (whether on the ground or in the air). Arsenal, of course, were facing a team, Birmingham City, that had come looking for a tight and closed game, looking to restrict Arsenal’s movement in the hope of a goal-less draw, perhaps. For much of the first half it worked, and there was barely a shot at goal at either end. But then a fortunate, hefty punt by Pieres in the Birmingham penalty area, managed to slip by a host of legs and slide into the right hand corner of the goal. This gave Arsenal more confidence and meant Birmingham had to start looking for a goal, so the play freed up considerably.

In the second half, Henry (not playing his best because of an Achilles injury) scored two clever goals. One came because he simply judged the flight of a cross ball so much better than the defenders. He was crouched only a few metres in front of the goal, but was in exactly the right place to receive the ball arching down from a Lundberg cross. It was a defenders’ mistake, for they should certainly have caught the ball in flight much higher up. The ball simply landed on Henry’s head and was guided into the goal. The goalkeeper had also failed to see where the ball was headed. Henry’s second goal was masterful and brilliant. He picked up the ball on the left wing, and ran it fast, past a defender, into the right side of the penalty area, at quite a narrow angle, maybe 30 degrees no more. The defender was on him from behind, the goalkeeper came out to meet Henry, and probably thought there was no way he could get the ball into the net around him. But, he did. He gently guided the ball along the ground into the far corner of the net, as if there were no obstacles to his shooting at all. Arsenal won 3-0.’

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