diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 26, 2015

Act II, Scene I: Inside the Stadium (North Bank)

It is a very long way up to our seats. First a seventy-five step ascent inside a bleak concrete shell, because that's how the external interior of a modern football stadium looks. Then a short stride across the services ring, where queues for pies and burgers will erupt later. And then out into the arena itself, backs to the action, for a further sixty steps climbing steeply up the bowl. The top of the North Bank is not for the faint hearted.

Checking the small clock on the big screen, the game has now been underway for just over ten minutes. No goals have been scored. This is both good news because we didn't miss any, and bad news because Arsenal really need to win. A fair number of other seats scattered all around the stadium remain empty, I'd say about 10%. Initially I wonder if the occupants are still outside, delayed by security, but eventually it transpires they simply haven't bothered turning up. A midweek Champions League tie isn't the draw every season ticket holder craves.

Wow the view is good. It's not the best in the stadium, for sure - most are considerably closer to the pitch. But from way up here behind the goal the view is end-on, perpendicular to what's normally shown on the telly, and the vast green rectangle glows bright beneath the floodlights. Unfortunately Arsenal are attacking the far goal, and attacking well, so all the action is down the other end. The thrust of passing play is crystal clear, but the red and black players are tiny and hard to identify, particularly for those of us unable to translate shirt numbers into a face. No problem, in the second half they'll all be up our half, for sure.

The crowd is mostly male, and unexpectedly mixed. Some are here because they love the game and can afford to come, others rather more for love than for money. Their clobber suggests that attendance does not equate to dressing up. A few have red and white shirts under their jackets, or badges on their lapel, but if anyone's wearing a scarf it's more likely a response to the weather than a need to indicate allegiance.

The first goal comes fairly quickly, at least for those of us who turned up late. Ozil's header thrills the crowd, the icing on a set piece manoeuvre from one end to the other which might (or might not) have ended in glory. A roar erupts, and when the club's announcer chips in with the scorer's name I suddenly realise that's the first time he's had cause to speak. Meanwhile at each end of the pitch two official flagwavers stand up and wave giant official club flags behind the touchline, because who needs poncey cheerleaders?

A second goal follows soon after, to general delight, the desired result now almost in the bag. This cushion adjusts the atmosphere in the stadium, the tension released, at least until Arsenal maybe do that usual thing where they throw it all away. The subsequent restart is the cue for some amongst us to head to the urinals, there being little chance of missing something game-changing, and to be sure of splashing the porcelain before the half time rush.

Act II, Scene II: Interval

The half time rush is underway, and the lure of pie is strong. Rows of spectators flood slowly down the steps and inch through the portal at amenity level. Current in-house catering rates are £4.80 for a burger or hot dog, but only £3.70 for a pie, in a range of none too shabby flavours (including a Guinness-based option). Others plump for lager, but I have been warned off this by an experienced fan, partly because of the taste but mostly to avoid spiking one's bladder for the second half. When you're sitting an assault course away from the facilities, this is wise advice.

Looking around the arena during the break one particular ring has completely emptied out. Those in the premium and sponsors' seats have all scarpered to their private bars, almost to a man, as if the half time hospitality were the key feature of their attendance. For those of us still present a previous player has been brought back onto the pitch to be inducted into The 100 Club, the equivalent of the freedom of the Arsenal, but in a lacklustre way which ensures that absent spectators haven't missed much.

Act II, Scene I: Inside the Stadium (North Bank)

The second half begins with no fanfare, indeed no announcement whatsoever. This time Arsenal are attacking towards us, and yet somehow they appear to be no nearer than before. Players perform their passing game across the pitch, losing and gaining possession in ways that make us yell, and occasionally making a stab on goal. Some shots are clearly going wide, though other sections of the crowd seem more excited, while others appear really close, until the replay reveals our angle of sight was mere illusion.

Throughout the match the supporters' role is very much to support. They gasp when required, they cheer on cue and they offer copious amounts of inaudible advice to the players. And of course they sing to demonstrate their camaraderie, selecting from a songbook of a dozen or so firmly entrenched chants. Sometimes a player's actions set them off - a particular favourite of the guy to my left was praising Alexis Sanchez to the tune of Don't You Want Me Baby. But more often a single firestarter or small group kicks things off ("Red Army!"), with others joining in ("Red Army!!"), and suddenly another semi-tuneful mantra is echoing around the ground.

The hardcore up the North End are especially fond of "We're the North Bank", a rabble-rousing hymn sung alternately in battle with another section of the ground. This tends to go on a bit, stopping only when the action on the field requires alternative noises to be made, or when the massed choirs finally tire and the singing peters out. Meanwhile somebody nearby has brought a drum into the ground and is repeatedly striking it for up to a minute at a time. I thought the security tonight was supposed to be tight, but presumably the stewards overlooked the concealment of this oversized percussion.

A third goal for the Gunners brings the crowd to its feet, but it turns out there's a practical reason for this. Whenever it looks imminent that a goal might be scored somebody somewhere in front of you always stands to try to get a better look. Unless the person behind them stands almost immediately their line of sight of a potentially crucial event will be blocked, and so a reverse domino effect of rising fans ripples backwards through the stand.

Despite their drubbing, a small group of Dinamo Zagreb fans maintains a noisy presence from a triangle of seats located near the far post. Most of these will be Croatians living in London or nearby, rather than those who've travelled halfway across Europe to be here, but they're no less excitable in their response. Arsenal's army ignores them as if swatting away a fly, with the announcement of each away team substitution greeted by a mass (and slightly camp) exclamation of "Who?!"

With the clock ticking down, and the result no longer in doubt, a minor exodus begins. The first to leave are quietly tutted by more devoted fans, but the drip becomes a trickle becomes a stream, especially for those with long journeys home and/or a train to catch. Despite the price of a ticket, some it seems are more than happy to miss ten percent of the match if this avoids getting stuck in the post-match pile-up. Striding past the shuttered pie stalls and down the echoing concrete stairwell, it's possible to be out and through the hi-vis ring before the final whistle blows.

Act III, Scene I: The pub on the Holloway Road

A three-nil victory sealed, it's time for actual and armchair spectators to rendezvous once more over beer. The team's finest manoeuvres are reviewed, and the most likely candidates for Man of the Match debated. Thoughts turn to the final group match upon which Arsenal's European fortunes now hinge, and to domestic challenges closer ahead. Eyes turn upwards briefly when Sky Sports News reports from the game, then back to earnest argument and extended chatter. Even when I'm no longer here to see it, I'm sure this final scene will be played out over and over, season by season, in perpetuity.

Epilogue: The works canteen

After five minutes of silent chomping, the silence is broken.

Colleague: A good result last night, eh? It's entirely what I expected, of course, and at the Bayern game too, so the whole Europe thing's back in our own hands again. All we need is two clear goals, or to score three, and we're through.
DG: Uh huh.
Colleague: I particularly liked our first goal on the long corner run, I think half a dozen players were involved, and that's only the second time Ozil's scored from a header, it must have been amazing.
DG (thinks): If only he knew I actually went to the match last night, he'd be really jealous, but best I say nothing otherwise I'll never hear the last of it.
Colleague: I see even Ramsey played...

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