After five minutes of silent chomping, the silence is broken.
Colleague: So, big match tonight eh? Arsenal have to win to go forwards in the Champions League but only if Bayern win and then we win by two clear goals in the last match, a draw isn't good enough, then Bayern and Olympiakos both go through and then it might be better if we lost tonight otherwise we might end up in the Europa League... DG: Uh huh. Colleague: But if we win tonight at home and then again next time we can still go through, we always go through it's been 15 years maybe 16, but it can't ultimately be a tie, in the end it all comes down to them beating us last time even if we get a really good goal difference, so tonight is crucial... DG (thinks): If only he knew I was actually going to the match tonight, he'd be really jealous, but I shall say nothing otherwise I'll never hear the last of it. Colleague: I think Ramsey might even play...
Act I, Scene I: The pub on the Holloway Road
An hour and a half until kickoff. The pub's not busy, but isn't quiet, with groups of drinkers dotted around at the bar and tables elsewhere. A few are wearing obvious Arsenal attire, but most are merely drinking and/or talking about the evening's football. Sky Sports News is churning out a diet of pre-match updates and speculation in the corner, along with transfer news from Bishops Stortford and regular promos for a boxing match later in the week. Many eyes are intermittently glued.
There is much to discuss. Arsenal have to win to go forwards in the Champions League but only if Bayern win and then we win by two clear goals in the last match, a draw isn't good enough, as per. Several of those in attendance will be attending the match later - there are season tickets in attendance - while others are staying put. The pub doesn't have BT Sport, which is a pain these days, but the game's on RTE the landlady reassures, so there's no need to shift.
An informed air exists, based on shared collective experience and speculation, sometimes gabbled ten to the dozen, at other times more restrained, even slurred, depending on how many pints have been consumed since entering. Several genuine Highbury characters are in attendance, including devoted disciples who go to every match and have for years, be that Norwich away or a tour of the Far East, and with anecdotes from each. Friendly to a fault, even to an obvious newcomer, a shared footballing history keeps the discourse flowing.
Top of the specials board by the bar is the culinary classic "Steak done in the oven", and for less than a tenner, but thus far the kitchen is quiet. For most a tall chilled lager is the drink of choice, again very reasonably priced, and we're outside the exclusion zone so it's served in glass rather than nasty plastic. A young man from the Far East sits alone at a neighbouring table, pristine red and white scarf around his neck, tapping furiously into his phone and (very) occasionally sipping his Stella.
The team news, when it comes, is greeted with shrugs. Best Arsene could have done in the circumstances, what with all the injuries, is the general consensus. Intelligence beamed from contacts at the ground suggests that security has been ramped up, what with you know what recently, so there are police everywhere and more checks than is usual. We might need to leave early so as not to get stuck in a queue, but there are still beers to finish off, and best visit the Gents before walking to the stadium. Is he still in there, come on, the time's ticking by.
Act I, Scene II: Outside the Stadium
With kick off imminent, the streets outside the Emirates are still teeming with fans. The locals always delay arriving until the last minute, because getting in's usually easy, except not tonight. An extra ring of police surrounds the stadium, roughly where the bollards are, and the team's stewards are out in great number. Those with bags are checked, which surprises many, then surprises nobody when they stop to think.
There are long queues at the gates. I am reliably informed that there are never queues at the gates, but tonight there are. Strings of fans billow out from the rim of the stadium, while police stand around in static supervisory mode. There's no sense of danger, nor even of frustration, merely resignation as the matchtime whistle sounds from inside the sporting garrison.
As is always the way, we find ourselves in the most persistent line. When nobody's come to stand behind you for a good five minutes, you know you've played the queueing game wrong. The Gunners'd better not have scored already, although the crowd noise from within suggests as yet not. At least we're moving.
My patdown, when it comes, is a token gesture designed to look as if something is being done. Directed forwards I attempt to work out how my ticket works, waving it ineffectively across a panel beside the turnstile. The turnstile refuses to move so I try again, and still nothing, and again... and this time I push with such force that the gate spins round and thwacks me in the head. Welcome to the Arsenal. Game on.