After a five-day trip to London and a nasty bout of tonsillitis picked up on the flight home, I am finally back to blogging ways today.
I wouldn’t blame any of you for forgetting this after such a long absence, but the Blackburn game was my first ever taste of live Arsenal action.
This meant that despite the disappointment of the result — and I can’t put into words how frustrated I was with our failure to score a goal — this was still a game to remember for me.
I arrived in London on Thursday at around midday, met my brother Jon over a lovely fried tofu Vietnamese lunch. The following two nights were a blur of beer, tequila, a live UNKLE gig at the Brixton Academy and a truly bizarre night out in semi-gay club in Shoreditch.
Miraculously I dragged myself, hungover and with minimal sleep, to North London by noon for the Arseblog 6-a-side football tournament. It was a great day of football with many people I had spoken to online but never in person, including the great man himself, but ultimately my team’s title push was unhinged at the semi-final stage by a lack of fitness and an unfortunate piece of defending.
I dashed back from the fields to catch up with my brother back at his apartment before meeting up with the man/legend/god who so wonderfully provided the pair of us tickets to the game, Gary, for a couple of pints before the game.
I simply cannot thank Gary enough for hooking me up with tickets for the game, nor for telling us his fantastically hilarious story about a tribe of baboons that stole his clothes while on a trip to Kenya. The man was comedy gold and a fantastic host for the day.
I have to admit I was surprised with the energy and excitement that buzzed through the pubs and bars surrounding the stadium in the hours before the game kicked off. The spring sunshine brought a fantastic feel of warmth and celebration to the occasion, something I’ve desperately missed since relocating from Australia and suffering through a long, uncomfortable Berlin winter.
Despite Arsenal’s rather nasty reputation as a generic international club that had lost touch with its roots, I was delighted to see that everywhere we went was packed with localswho had been supporting the club for many years.
With about half an hour to go before kick-off Jon and I made the short walk from Seven Sisters Road to the stadium. We nipped through the high-security gates, raced up a few flights of stairs and took our place in the crowd. Seated towards the front of the third tier, just behind the goal, the view was fantastic.
The opening fifteen minutes of the game suggest Arsenal were desperate to put the game to bed early. They played with great energy and purpose and carved out a number of decent chances before the crowd could even settle in.
But the early momentum was literally knocked on the head as Samir Nasri, asked to play in central midfield to accommodate Theo Walcott’s return, was on the worse end of a nasty head clash. The physio was quicker to wrap up the grotesque, golf-ball sized lump on the side of his head than the rest of the team were to react to it. Indeed, from that point Nasri’s influence on the game dropped and we struggled to recreate the urgency of the early stages.
The rest of the game was hugely frustrating (see the video below, ha!). We had most of the ball yet failed to create enough clear-cut chances to demand the victory. Meanwhile two dodgy interventions from Manuel Almunia, the first a real wobbler, gave the impression that Blackburn might score at any moment the moved into our final third.
My brother cleverly observed that Blackburn had simply blocked up the middle of the pitch, urging us to move the ball wide, put crosses into the area and use their major strength — height and power in defence — to repel the danger. It thoroughly worked.
From our view it was unbelievable how much space the likes of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were given. In truth, their crossing was rather good but with Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh sitting on the bench for as long as they did, it was always going to be unlikely to see us break the stalemate playing this sort of game.
Gary mused after the game that Song’s presence was simply not required in the second half and an attacking substitution to add height and power should have come earlier, something that in hindsight was hard to disagree with.
The Emirates Stadium gets a bad rap for a lack of atmosphere at times but I have to admit being pleasantly surprised. There was discontentment and utter exasperation in the air at times, for sure, and very little choreographed singing, but the roars that went up when a meaningful Arsenal attack formed were spine-tingling. Say what you want about the corporate feel but the people in the stadium knew the importance of yesterday’s game and it was a moving experience to sit with so many others who cared just as much about the club as I did.
Cesc Fabregas’ introduction on the hour mark may have lifted the crowd, but it was Bendtner and Chamakh’s troubled Blackburn the most. All of a sudden our crosses were finding targets, the Blackburn defenders were forced out of their comfort zone and we began to carve out some decent chances. Yet there was not enough time to make it count.
Everybody left the game thoroughly downbeat. After what had happened earlier in the day with Manchester United — do you need reminding that they came from two goals down to beat West Ham? — many people, Gary included, saw this as the definitive blow to our hopes of retaining the title. Even reflecting on the game a week later it is hard to conclude otherwise.
Without given much time to process the result, I was approached by one of the lads from WinkBall outside the stadium and asked to give my thoughts on the game.
Our original plans for some celebration drinks with some of the boys from the Arseblog tournament fell by the wayside as a sense of disappointment over the result and my desperate desire to get something, anything to eat took over. Jon and I met up with another fellow Australian, Jim (who snapped that lovely panoramic shot of us posing in front of the Arsenal letters) and nipped across to local fried chicken place (don’t worry, I got myself a vege burger) to stuff our faces.
We did make it to the Tollington a little later for a couple of pints but by that time most of the crowd had cleared out. We found a couple of local lads to talk football with — one Chelsea supporter from Ireland was particularly good fun — before heading off to a party on Brick Lane to have a few more drinks and, amongst others things, discuss who would win a fight between the four Ninja Turtles (Raphael, obviously). Please don’t ask me how it started.
Sunday, inevitably, was a bit of a rest day. Breakfast at an antiques shop in Bethnal Green was followed by a lovely afternoon in Hackney, enjoying various ales whilst sitting on the pavement in the sunshine. That session went into the night before I plonked myself down on a couch at my mate’s place and caught up on some valuable hours of sleep.
I left London on Monday exhausted and just a little bit sick but with my first live Arsenal experience packed neatly away for safe-keeping. The football may not have been spectacular, the result rather frustrating, but it was an experience I will always look back on fondly.
Going to a game and feeling the vibe in and around the ground on match day has helped me to understand what Arsenal means to the people who are at the heart and soul of the club, both from an emotional and historical point, in North London. It has allowed me to understand better some of the legitimate frustrations of the local supporters in a way that will make me a more thoughtful and informed writer about Arsenal going forward.
So once again, a big thank-you to Gary for making this happen and my brother Jon for being such a excellent companion on the day.
And thank-you to everybody who has been reading the blog over the past four years: without the connections I have made through the Arsenal FC Blog this experience simply would not have been possible.
Spread the Arsenal love by leaving a comment.