*Three more of these, and we can buy Declan Rice in the summer*
I was rather looking forward to Saturday. Some work to do in London which would take a morning, and then off to the Emirates to watch Arsenal extend their lead at the top of the table. Alas, like so much in life, the day didn’t work out quite as expected.
Everything began well enough. A smooth drive down the M1, and my parking spot reserved through Just Park was perhaps the best one I’ve ever used. A bit tricky to find – they often are – but in a nice little residential street only ten minutes from the ground, and on the quieter, central London, side as well. In fact, when I came back after the game, the small car park which serviced the flats was enjoying at least three visitors bedecked in red and white, clearly a nice little match day business for the residents. But at under a tenner for the day, who can complain?
First, though, it was into London for my work. The perfect location proved even more perfect. I was expecting a fifteen-minute march into the nearest tube station, but low and behold within five there was the red tiled frontage of Caledonian Road, looking for all the world like an ornate but slightly run down public toilet. (My google maps had tripled the time it estimated for the short walk because it tried to take me half a mile up the busy artery to cross at a crossing. I just nipped over when there was a break in traffic. That’s the sort of man I am, daredevil, risk taker, the Bear Grylls of the unpedestrianised highway. I understand not everybody can be this way. We are what we are.)
It was once in the tube station that things started to go wrong. I only needed to travel one stop, but my sat nav was telling me it was a long one, too far too walk each way and still get my job done. I was a tad apprehensive, being less confident in the Underground than I am on the open road, so to speak. I used to live in London, firstly in Mill Hill (when young, single and much braver) and later in Pinner, but it did hit me that I had probably not purchased a tube ticket since about 1997. In my head, allowing for inflation, I reckoned on a pound, or one fifty, remembering that a travel pass used to cost £2.70. So once I finally found a machine that didn’t require an Oyster card, or a phone to operate it, imagine my horror when the bill came up for £12.60. £12.60. I’ll say it again. £12.60. For two, three-minute tube rides. That’s more than £2 a minute. £120 an hour. My old accountants charged less than that. (Actually, they didn’t, which is why I’m in dispute with them, but that’s another story.)
Still, I can say that every penny was worth it. I even got a seat on the inward journey.
I had a wander through Kings Cross, looking for a loo, and it really is a very nice station. They’ve even got a Fortnum and Mason’s, just in case tourists want to perform their grockle duties without leaving the concourse. There are a surprising number of families in King’s Cross, mid-sized kids pulling small cases on wheels, and slightly harrassed-looking parents. I know it will probably anger Mr Khan (the mayor, for real strangers to the capital) but I’d say drive if you’re coming up. Despite the outrageous congestion charge, which seems to do nothing to reduce congestion but clearly fills the coffers of TfL, it’s probably easier.
It was only a short walk to the British Library, where I needed to be in order to carry out my research. (A freelance writer truly lives life on the edge.) It’s a great institution the BL, housed in a splendid building to boot (I’m also very fond of the Boston Spa outpost, which carries an ambience of code-breaking at Bletchley Park, or designing mini bombs to attach to pigeons). Best of all, it’s free. I did my work, everybody was lovely and friendly as always, and even navigated one of their lockers at only the fourth attempt. (The lady next to me had to give up, despite help from me and most of the room. I hope she hadn’t travelled far.) You see, you have to leave everything except a pencil and, a notebook and a laptop in the dungeons before entering the austere reading rooms, where no more than these items in a clear plastic bag is allowed. Along with clothes. The BL hasn’t instituted a work-naked policy yet. Give it time.
I left three hours later, research done, phone filled with photographed pages of old books and that feeling of being suddenly youthful which comes from spending time in close proximity to clever young people.
So far, on balance, I reckoned I was ahead. A decent journey in, a short walk and a successful British Library experience more than compensating for a bit of a struggle to find my parking spot and the dip into my savings I’d needed to do to pay for the tube ticket.
Now the best bit of the day. Off to the Emirates. Off to cheer and thrill at my team. Top of the league and about to go eight points clear.
Let me explain a bit about my relationship with Arsenal. I love the club, and like love in different guises, the adoration is unconditional and automatic. If you are a football fan, or indeed fan of any sporting team, the adulation is both illogical and unplanned. It just gets you. It’s not explicable, it’s not reasoned. It just is. My, do Arsenal push this worship to the limits. Not the team, so much, as the hierarchy behind it.
Let me give you an example. The programme for this game contains an article explaining how, for the benefit of fans, next season’s season tickets will cover fewer games. This will apparently offer a better experience for fans, because, if Arsenal get knocked out early in a cup competition, no longer will season ticket holders hold a wasted ticket on their cheap-looking ‘Rewards’ card. Instead, they’ll have to buy a ticket to the game, if they want to go. A quick bit of maths (admittedly not my strongest point) suggests that if Arsenal, one of the best teams in the country, proceed through more than two home cup games, season ticket holders will be out of pocket, and the club in the money. (The card is misleading as well. They’re not ‘rewards’, either, just points which allow you to enter competitions to win prizes you wouldn’t want in the first place.)
I’m not a season ticket holder, I’m a red member, because I can’t get to many games a season and there are years-long waiting lists to get a season ticket. The club truly has its faithful fan base in a decisive half Sammy Nelson (Arsenal fans will get the reference). This means that by the time tickets become available, they’ve all gone, bar (for the first round of the Carabou Cup, maybe a seat in the gods at the farthest corner of the away end.) However, it’s not too bad, because my annual fee not only buys me the cheap card and maybe a free badge but gives me access to try for a ‘ticket exchange’ seat, which means if a season ticket holder can’t go, I might be able to purchase their spot off them. Provided I can spend a week constantly refreshing the App, and waiting for such a gem to become available. (I could, of course, just buy one from the hundreds or thousands the club seemingly happily allow to fall in the hands of agencies, but I’m quite fond of my organs, and have no wish to sell one just yet.)
The only ticket I could find for Brentford was in the corner of ‘Club Level’, which is where the fairly posh people sit. (The very posh people have a box, of course.) The tickets come at a premium price, but you are allowed to sit down while watching TV pre match, the club allows you in thirty minutes before the oiks, and at the end there’s none of the half-hour queue to get down the steps and out the stadium. So it’s worth it.
A Club Level ticket also gives you access to various eateries and, I think, a free beer. I could be wrong there, since I don’t drink at matches as I want to watch the football, not spend the game visiting the rather smelly toilets. (In club level, they include some rather nice hand soap, whilst in the pleb seats you just dip your hand in the urine channel if you want to wash it afterwards.)
I was starving, having eaten breakfast at 6.00 am which, being 6.00 am is too early for breakfast, so I’d not had any. The eatery was pretty empty, as it was still a couple of hours to kick off, and suddenly a cheeseburger and coke really appealed. How foolish can I be?
Almost £23. That’s more than my local gastropub. For a cardboard tray of pre-cooked burger – lukewarm – with a square of cheese on top – unmelted, although the poor guy in charge did try – and a scoop or two of barely warm, over-salted chips. And they don’t even serve coke, but the over-sweet Pepsi Max. At least that bit of the meal is meant to be cold. Still, there were two mini rashers of bacon, pulled out of a drawer, on top. So that’s OK.
Except it’s not. Not at all. I’ve complained about the food at Arsenal before. It did improve a bit, but this is a joke. A not very funny one. The presumption seems to be that since we can afford a Club Level ticket, we can afford to waste money on a rubbish lunch.
As for the game. Well, what can you say? This is not a football blog, really, so I’ll skip over the finer points. But:
· Teams seemed to have worked Arsenal out a little. Pack the defence and be very physical up front.
· When your team scores, for a few minutes anything seems worth these moments of joy.
· VAR is run by the same people who are in charge of Arsenal’s catering, because the customer is absolutely the last person they consider. (We waited four minutes for a decision on Brentford’s goal, clueless as to what was going on, before the goal is awarded. Later, on Match of the Day, it is painfully transparent that on two occasions, including the pass for the goal, Brentford players are clearly offside. Later it transpires that the ‘VAR’, one Lee Mason, had forgotten to order the lines to be drawn which would have shown him the goal should be disallowed.)
· We are told that the officials want to eliminate time wasting, but there is a gaping void between their words and their actions.
· Players exploit that referees must stop the game, halting an attack, for a suspected head injury. I reckon there used to be a head injury about once every six games, now there are five in every match.
I’ve got an answer for the last two, but they are easy and sensible solutions, so no chance of them ever seeing the light of day. For time wasting, allow only fifteen seconds for a throw-in, or it goes the other way. Fifteen seconds for a goal kick, twenty for a free kick in your own half. The goalie has only ten seconds to release the ball. (I’m sure there used to be a rule to this effect, but it seems to have dissipated over time.)
As for head injuries, take the lead from rugby. They are serious matters, and an unqualified (medically speaking) referee should not be deciding whether a player could have concussion. So, employ a neutral doctor who instructs the game to be halted if he or she suspects a potential concussion. Then, whatever, a compulsory ten minute off pitch head injury assessment. Allow a temporary substitute which the player is examined. That way, players are protected because they will be properly checked, but they won’t fake an injury to stop an attack because they won’t want to be sidelined for ten minutes.
Then, an organisation that allows its leading proponents to ‘forget’ to draw lines to check an offside (and bear in mind, that is pretty much their sole job) is not going to show an interest in a common sense idea.
Not that I can talk. To think that driving up to London for a day out was going to be rewarding was as devoid as common sense as a VAR with a slow-motion replay from multiple angles. It took me hours to get home, too.
Aah well. There’s always next time. If I start on the Ticket Exchange App tomorrow, I might get a ticket for a game in April.
But I’m going to end on an up note. The best moment of the whole day came as Arsenal are striving to score the winner. The crowd were up and everybody uptight and anxious. The ball went out for a throw-in just in front of us. The ball boy or girl (hard to tell, because they were really very small and seemed dressed in oversized ball boy/girl garb – probably the club didn’t have it in their size) threw a spare ball straight onto the pitch. It was a mammoth effort because the ball was nearly as big as them. As it was about to leave the child’s hand, he/she paused, having spotted that Arsenal had already taken the throw in with the original ball (it had bounced off a hoarding, straight into the Arsenal full back’s hands.) But it was too late, the ball slipped out of their grasp and dribbled into play.
Non-footballing readers might be unaware that with two balls on the pitch, the game must be stopped, the erroneous sphere cleared and play restarted with a dropped ball, thus ending Arsenal’s rapid attack. Simply, the crowd would be furious. But nothing could be done. The ball child, you could tell, was devastated. They were trying to do their job and through no fault of their own, they had messed up, big time. Twenty-two players, a referee and 60000 fans were about to turn the best day of their life into the worst. You could see the poor child brace for the furious ire to break over them.
Except, it didn’t.
The wonderful Bukayo Saka simply stood on the ball, and waited for the spare to be cleared off the pitch. How quick is that thinking? The referee was unofficious, realised it didn’t really matter that two balls were on at once, and allowed the spare to be kicked off. No Brentford player attempted to tackle Saka while he stood on the ball, or screamed for the game to be stopped and the attack ended. In fact, every player stopped and waited for the moment to pass, bar the one who kicked the spare ball off.
It was a beautiful couple of seconds, and demonstrated for all of us, especially myopic fans like myself, that even professional footballers can recognise a moment, and not exploit it for their own ends.
So thank you, Arsenal, thank you Brentford, thank you Mr Saka and thank you Mr Banks, our referee.
That’s something I don’t very often say.
February, 2023