As soon as my girlfriend Anne and I decided that we were going to London in Sept. 2011, I knew I had to work a live football match into the trip somehow.
I’m a Manchester City supporter (don’t hate me for glory chasing – I came aboard during the days of Giorgio Samaras and Bernardo Corradi), but a trip to Manchester was not part of the plan. So I checked the Premiership schedule for the days we’d be in London, and that narrowed our choices down. As much as I would have liked to have visited Loftus Road or White Hart Lane, the choice was obvious: a Saturday afternoon at Emirates was in the cards. Arsenal vs. Bolton Wanderers, Sept. 24.
Luckily for us, Arsenal was in the midst of early-season struggles, so I was able to grab tickets through their website. I was thrilled. The only professional matches I’d seen were of my hometown and hapless Toronto FC, playing out of a roofless park, built on the cheap, right by chilly Lake Ontario. It’s always a great time, but not exactly a world-class footballing experience.
While in Paris prior to London, some of Anne’s friends said that going to a match in England can be dangerous. I doubted that – at least at the top level – but made sure to wear red just in case. For today, at least, I’d be an Arsenal supporter through and through.
Travelling on the tube toward Arsenal station, with my “fellow” supporters, the excitement in the pit of my stomach grew. I’m not a religious man, but I imagine that if I was, this is what it would feel like to walk toward the Vatican, or Mecca.
The feeling intensified as we began to walk toward Emirates. Opened in 2006 to replace beloved but outdated Highbury, the Emirates is truly a sight to behold, particularly set amongst the old mid-century brown brick buildings it shares its neighbourhood with. The park is massive and modern, yet looks like it belongs right where it is.
Our trip to our seats didn’t start well. First we were yelled at by a staff member at the gate for trying to scan both our tickets at once. To be fair, self-scanning gate entry? Unheard of in North America. Then Anne comically got her purse caught in the revolving entry gate. The usher was not too happy with us, but we were in.
Finally, we arrived in our seats in the upper deck behind the Arsenal goal. As kickoff drew near, the atmosphere was breathtaking. Given that Arsenal had picked up just four points through their first five league matches, I expected the crowd to be a bit subdued. Those expectations subsided as the spectators sang their prematch song and shouted out the last name of every starter with a joyous intensity I’d never quite witnessed in person.
We were sitting about halfway up in the stadium’s upper deck, and the view was magnificent. Opening kickoff brought the crowd, already raring to go, to life. When I go to games in Toronto, I usually sit in the upper deck. TFC has a wonderful supporter’s culture, but if you sing at full voice when you’re not in their sections, you’re bound to get a few funny looks from the casual fans around you. Not here. It felt closer to sitting in the 500 level at a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game, except the fans were actually engaged with what was going on in the match. Particularly of note was the gentleman in the row in front of us – he was absolutely amped, screaming his lungs out. Every shout was “The referee’s a wanker!” or “F**k off, ref!” Robin Van Persie could have hit Martin Petrov with a Stone Cold Stunner, been shown red, and this guy’s reaction would have been, “Awww, f**k off ref!”
The Bolton supporters’ section was below us, and was fairly amusing as well, singing songs like “We hate Jack Wilshere,” and “That’s why you lost Samir Nasri,” when Arsenal gave the ball away cheaply. Needless to say, they were not well liked by the Arsenal supporters. The Bolton fans’ exuberance was repaid in spades though, as the match went on.
Heading into the half, the score was knotted at 0-0. I’d hoped to see some goals, but whatever came of the match, it would be fun anyway. At that point, I was more pleasantly surprised that they sold beer in the stadium, as I hadn’t realized that you’re only not allowed to bring drinks into the seating bowl. To the stadium’s credit, the beer line moved roughly 100 times faster than I’m accustomed to in North America, and in no time, I was gleefully ingesting Carlsberg from a plastic bottle. And then, a roar.
Robin Van Persie had broken down the wing and slid a shot short-side, making it 1-0 to the good in the 46th minute. Sh*t. I legitimately hadn’t even realized the match was back on. I downed the Carlsberg and we hustled back to our seats.
In the 55th minute, Bolton’s David Wheater was red carded for a rash challenge on Theo Walcott. Less than 20 minutes later, Van Persie struck again, his 100th goal in an Arsenal shirt. The crowd serenaded him with a song. And then another song came to the forefront.
Alex Song added a beautiful strike late, making it 3-0 Arsenal. The mood of ourselves and 59,000 others in the stadium was palpably ecstatic, and lent credence to the fan that dangled a banner reading “Keep the Faith.”
As we filtered out of the park after full-time, I was simply giddy. A long tube ride back to Wembley awaited us, but it didn’t matter. I’d popped my EPL cherry, seen the home team win, and had a fabulous day in a world-class facility. Though they’d drop their next result against hated Tottenham, Arsenal would go on a torrid run in the coming months, ending up third in the league.
If you have the time and the money but are on the fence about attending a Premiership match, my advice is simple: do it. There’s not a chance that you’ll regret it. For this Canadian guy, it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a sporting event.
The match still fresh in my mind nearly a year later, only one question remains: how soon can I get back to England?