Darn this new Arsenal. Or rather, this old Arsenal, reborn. Like most people, I like a good moan. Since I am also a supporter of the team, I like to keep the grumbles towards the owners. At the moment, even this is a challenge. (Although, I remain reassured that at some point they will stumble on a way of inducing fans’ ire once more.)
Take Saturday as an example of how flipping annoying the club is becoming at the moment. You see, I plan to write a little blog after any games I get to this season – which is really just an excuse to get to more games. But since everybody does an analysis of players, tactics, match reports and such like, my aim is a bit different. I have decided that I will focus on the gripes. And within minutes of arriving at the stadium I was there and ready to go.
It didn’t start well (for someone looking for faults). The security steward standing at the bottom of the steps gave me a friendly smile before I even crossed the bridge. Then, the bloke who waves that sticky thing at your groin and gets you to stand like Tony Adams after he scored the fourth against Everton in ’98 was very friendly. (Here’s hoping everyone else experiences that as well). I even got a kind tip as to which turnstile to use. The lady standing inside the door up to Block 92 (great seat, by the way) said ‘Good afternoon’ (wasn’t it about to be?) and we shared a friendly word about the heat and the endless stairs up to the top tier.
This is all very well, but if your aim is to find two and a half thousand words of whinge, it doesn’t help if everybody is smiley and friendly. You’d think the sun was shining and it was the opening home game of the season. Or something.
Does the Management Bottle It?
But soon things started to look up. Or down. Although it was only just after one, the perimeter walkways were already pretty full. As it was hot, and I’m on a diet, I decided on a hot dog and coke for lunch. Or, the Arsenal version of these dubious treats. A dry bun, a lukewarm sausage and a plastic glass of sweet fizz masquerading as Pepsi. (Never a drink of choice at the best of times, but I don’t drink beer at games, lest the need to urinate hits at an inopportune time, and they don’t serve Vimto or Fentiman’s anything.) I found a space by the window, thanks to some bloke foolishly vacating it to throw his own plastic glass away, and downed the lunch while reading the sports pages I’d bought with me. (I’m not a great fan of programmes any more either. Overpriced and sycophantic – see, I do whinge well – plus you can’t read about the local business who sponsors the ball these days. Or, this season, balls in the extreme plural. Never seen busier ball-young-people – is that the correct term? They used to offer a fascinating bit of background about the ball sponsor at Northampton in the 1970s, and once a season that was dad’s garage. If it’s good enough for the Cobblers, well you get the idea.)
It is about now that things start to get interesting. (I know, I know. You’re thinking ‘start’ to get interesting? The blog’s already more of a page turner than a John Grisham during a five hour stopover at Dubai airport). The bun is so dry that I finish my Pepsi early, and the climb up my own personal Everest to this top tier promenade has left me a tad peckish still. I decide to have some chips – I’m a glutton for punishment – and get a bottle of water to keep me fluid during the first half.
The young lads behind the counter are nice enough. We have that moderately embarrassing moment that’s a risk whenever it’s not too busy. I walk towards the kiosk, and both catch my eye. The season and the day are each young enough that they are excited to be working. Possibly it is even their first day. Maybe I am their first ever customer. In fact, they are too helpful. One of them even unscrews my precarious bottle of water.
‘Oh, I’ll keep the top on please,’ I say, ‘It’s to drink through the game.’
There is a double headed sharp intake of breath.
‘Can’t do that,’
‘Manager says no…’ they advise simultaneously, shaking their heads.
‘But it’s about 35 degrees out there,’ I argue. There is no changing their mind, and although I fight on for a bit, like Lewis Hamilton handicapped by a Mercedes, I know that however many extra miles I go, I am not going to win.
The chips, by the way, are intensely salty and covered with something vaguely red and spicy. Perfect for a scorcher. I make my way up to my seat, hot, thirsty and vaguely dissatisfied. There are only about twenty others already seated in section 92, but most have water, while none has a bottle top with it. Clearly, I am not being singled out. (I was wearing a salmon coloured T shirt, and green shorts, so to be fair, if it was just simply discrimination, that would have been reasonable enough). It’s an hour to kick off. I’m not a particularly demonstrative supporter, but I do tend to stand up when we score or if somebody wants to get past (as any regulars will know, leaving your seat at inopportune moments is an Arsenal fan’s strongest trait) so I know there isn’t a chance of the water staying in the bottle, unspilled, for the next hour and forty five. I drink it, muttering like a madman on the tube while I prepare what should have been this article.
I mean, it’s outrageous. And dangerous. You can’t take drinks into the ground. (I am guessing here, but by every turnstile I saw rapidly filling clear plastic rubbish bags each containing twenty or so drinking bottles of different types) This and extreme temperatures, combined with the close proximity of body heat and an aging cohort, could lead to trouble.
I get that a full bottle is a potentially dangerous weapon, but so is a heart attack.
Anyway, with the content of this blog neatly planned in my mind, I wander downstairs. And guess what? Everybody is carrying bottles of water with tops on. The ‘management’ have listened to fans’ moans (or maybe just mine?) and acted. Now that is impressive.
Live Football – The Best Place to Drink Expensive Beer and Miss the Game
So what to groan about? Mike Dean on VAR? I used to loathe Mike Dean. I remember looking him up on Google once, and as soon as I typed ‘Mike De…’ up popped a link headed ‘Mike Dean Arsenal’, and that wasn’t because he was a secret fan. But over time, I think he mellowed and improved. I mean, you can’t rely on the old chicken squibber (it was his job, before he became a ref, I believe) but I think he’s pretty straight up these days. Certainly, it would have been easy for him to allow Darren England’s penalty decision. It looked from the stands as though Vardy had been clipped, although Match of the Day disproved that fairly soundly.
But I soon do find something annoying to write about. There is a rail strike, and a full house, and so I can understand that some people might be held up. Not everybody can get to the ground two hours early (I’m a bit obsessive and like to make a trip to the Emirates a proper day out) so on this occasion, I could understand the lateness. But why do people have to get up within fifteen minutes of kick off? Is it to buy a pint, because they can’t go forty five minutes without a drink? Is it some illogical belief that by going to the bar while the game is on, they are getting one over their fellow fans? If so, that’s clever. ‘I know, we’ll pay fifty quid for a ticket, then pay over inflated prices for some fizzy tat that would be half the price and twice the quality in a decent pub. But…here’s the trick, mate, we’ll miss the game to get the drinks in, and that way we can avoid the queues at half time…’
Or is it that these people are so full up on Fosters or whatever that they need the loo every ten minutes? I don’t know. What I do know is that one seat along from me a couple of blokes came in fifteen minutes late, stayed to the water break, disappeared and we didn’t see them again.
But you can see I am struggling here in my search for blog-worthy whinges. My only other noteworthy complaint, in a similar vein to the one above, refers to a bloke’s actions mid-way through the second half. We’re 3-1 up at the time, and buzzing, but he still needs to go off and get his pint. (I’m assuming. Reasonableness isn’t a strong trait.) Having disturbed everybody for five rows by making them stand up (directly, or indirectly) he then spies an attack, and stops midway to the end of the row so he can watch it, blocking everybody behind him. Still, even he had a smile for us as he continued his pilgrimage.
The Real Reason We Needed a New Striker
So what about the game? What a cracker. The atmosphere rocked like I’ve never heard at the Emirates. There have been moments, of course. I remember when we went top by beating Norwich a decade back, and Jack scored the team wonder goal of all time. There were moments of serious noise then but this time it was pretty non-stop. I have to admit to being a bit of an atmosphere scrounger. I don’t sing, being a tad self-conscious, but love it when the noise bellows. You could tell when the team was read out that our new lads are already crowd favourites. Saliba – what a player he is, although I suspect he’ll get the odd red card when he mistimes a tackle and Michael Oliver or Stuart Atwell has the whistle. Never mind, even his own goal (and how precise was that header? Right in the corner) encouraged the crowd to cheer every pass he made (although, I am not sure that helps too much. There are occasions when it’s best just to have a bit of quiet time to yourself.)
Gabriel Jesus – very probably the Golden Boot winner – looks a superb buy. We’ve always created a lot of chances, just it’s been a while since we’ve had someone so adept at putting them away, (Henry, probably although he was a different type of player). So congratulations to Arteta, except, it’s not just that the lad is a brilliant young striker. How clever to get someone whose name so perfectly fits with the greatest football song ever unintentionally penned.
‘Hey Jude’ really meets all the criteria needed here. Rousing tune, ballad style, rising volume and just one word for the fans to remember, that being the name of a favourite player. Mikel could have bought Haaland, and the name even vaguely scans, but not like ‘Jesus’.
The biggest cheer, though, is reserved for Zinchenko. I’ve been a bit critical of City in the past, and why not? But to be fair, he and the latest Gabi are both terrific players, and let’s not forget, neither were regular jewels in the bling filled crown of the Etihad, or Maine Road, as we of a certain generation still like to call it.
But what is also nice is that almost equal volume was reserved for every member of the starting eleven, and it didn’t drop by many decibels when the subs were read out either. There really is a belief at Arsenal that something is going to happen this season. Of course, we all start out a new campaign full of optimism but just as last year the cheers for Xhaka sometimes sounded defiant rather than heartfelt while this year he is just another crowd favourite, so the sense remains that our optimism is well founded this time round. It is genuine, not forced. I stand by my own prediction that we will claim the league title come May (or June, or whenever it all ends next summer. See previous blog for details of each team’s season while they still have some chance of proving true).
Maybe it is psychological but just about everything seemed right on that steamy Saturday. The performance – we could have scored eight; even the goals conceded looked like they came from issues easily addressed. The team spirit. The atmosphere. The screw tops on water bottles. There was even a breeze circulating round the upper tiers and keeping us cool – or at least, at a manageable temperature. In fact the heat brought benefits. I swear I have never been for a half time widdle and not had to queue. With the heat dehydrating us all neatly, the toilets were half empty during the break. Remarkable.
Of course, we would not be Arsenal without a couple of not-really-genuine-or-original moans. I don’t like the new-look big screens. Well, I do but I don’t. Seeing the game ongoing is novel, and where else in the ground might we be able to watch action as it happens? Plus having the time remaining digitally displayed saves a bit of mental maths, but the narrow strip of action is too small to see clearly, while the font on the player numbers is hard to read. Still, that’s probably a problem for us oldies. For the iPhone generation, used to viewing video on the thin strip of their portable screen, it probably made them feel at home.
Then there is VAR. Not the interpretation. Old Deano was, as I’ve said, on top of things. But why can’t information be properly communicated to fans? When the penalty was given, and England was sent to the side to review his decision, he disappeared from West-stand view. The big screen offered no more information (that I saw) than ‘Check Complete’ which sort of suggests the original call stands. This contradicted the cheers of the fans who could see the ref, whose noise seemed to imply the penalty is disallowed. But we didn’t know for sure. So when England walks past Jamie Vardy, who appears to take his decision in his stride, and points towards the spot, confusion reigns once more. In fact, he was pointing for a free kick to Arsenal. For the dive? I’m still not sure.
Rugby does it so much better than football. There, fans can see what the referee sees, and listen to his reasoning. We might not agree with his conclusion (if it goes against our team, we probably won’t) but we can at least understand the officials’ logic and hear that their decision is collective.
Come on Premier League. Time to treat fans like proper, sensible human beings. You’ve made a start by letting them keep the bottle tops on their water, now let them know what is going on behind the ref’s decisions.
But as I say, my desire to blog-whinge has been kind of let down by the team’s performance, the fans’ support, Mike Dean’s reasonableness and the stadium manager’s common sense.
So I can do no more than end with this. Sitting behind me is a lad of about seven. On around forty-minutes, with his team 2-0 up and in absolute control he says to his dad, ‘All we need is to hang on till half time, and then we’ve got a chance.’
That’s what we want to hear. A young fan who knows what it is to be Arsenal.
Unless, of course, we keep on winning…