The Emirates has long been on my list of stadiums to visit. There’s somebody about it that just looks like plenty of thought and grace has gone into the design. And, you know me, if there’s any sort of football being kicked about, chances are I’ll watch it. Hence, my attendance at Arsenal Youth Team v Sheffield United in The Competition Formerly Known As The Milk Cup tonight.
There was no time to admire the architecture at Ashburton Grove – a mix up with food in the pub beforehand and a painfully slow Piccadilly Line meant we were running late for kick-off, and with our seats on the top tier, about twelve minutes had already elapsed by the time we parked our backsides on the padded seats.
Yes, a football stadium with padded seats for the proles. You can tell they meant business. Not mean business, but more like business class airline business.
There was still plenty of time to admire the surroundings, however, as it transpired we’d missed absolutely bugger all, and for the next 15 minutes we proceeded to watch bugger all. Arsenal’s youngsters (average age 10. Probably. A least a handful were born after Italia ’90, which is just wrong by my book) stroked the ball around nicely but failed to walk the ball into the net, while Sheffield United looked to break on the counter but, despite (or because of) the presence of James Beattie up front, had no cutting edge.
So, while both teams engaged in a cagey opening, I took time to survey the stadium and was suitably impressed. Despite being back near the top, the view was still perfect, and there was plenty of space for legs, while still maintaining an intimate feel.
The whole place positively glimmers, with a sleek cleanliness that is a perfect design complement to Arsene Wenger’s style of football. You can only really take in the surroundings with a sense of awed hush, which probably explains why the place is so bloody quiet.
Going as a neutral to football matches is always a weird experience, but the atmosphere and noise generated by the fans usually drags me into caring about the game. Not so at Arsenal. Occasional pockets of noise sprung up and once or twice a few people stood up and tried to get a chant going, before being told to sit down. And for the rest of the time, I may as well have been watching a game of tennis or a mildly exciting game of chess.
Actually, make that a game of chess where every slightly iffy move is greeted with groans or, worse still, boos or profanity. Every time Arsenal made a mistake, which wasn’t a great deal, a mixture of all three rang out from around me. I’ve been to plenty of football games, and this was a first. The singing had been dispensed with all together and the crowd had moved straight into frustration.
On the half-hour mark there was finally something to lift the crowd, when Nicklas Bendtner, who had been the Gunners best player up to that point, fired a low shot from the edge of the area that squeezed past Paddy Kenny and put Arsenal one up.
It also stirred Sheffield United a little bit and they looked to respond immediately, but Wenger is no mug. He may have picked a side mostly consisting of teenagers, but in the centre of defence were Johann Djourou and Alex Song, who’ve a good deal of senior experience under their belts, and they succeeded in comfortably repelling any attacks from the Blades.
Ten minutes later Bendtner struck again following a lovely passing move across the pitch before (I think) Ramsey backheeled the back to the Danish striker, who looked suspiciously offside but tucked the ball away nonetheless.
That finally got the crowd going and we got the first and only proper mass chant of the night – Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham – and it was midway through this that Bendtner’s strike partner, Mexican teenager Carlos Vela, slipped through for a neat third goal to put the Gunners three up ten minutes before half time.
The interval was a slightly strange and very dull affair. Adverts beamed down from the screen, interspersed with the Arsenal equivalent of the National Lottery, as if I’d stumbled onto the set of a quaint daytime gameshow. With my companions off getting programmes, I checked on the Exeter Reserves score (2-0 up against Swindon’s second string) and waited quietly in my seat for the second half, as did the rest of the crowd. Had somebody started handing out tea in bone china, it would have felt quite natural.
The second half started in much the same fashion as the first left off. Arsenal’s youngsters, knowing they had a three goal cushion, relaxed and started playing some gloriously flowing football and soon enough the crowd were treated to a spectacular fourth when Vela flicked the ball passed two defenders before excuting a perfect lob over the advancing Paddy Kenny.
Soon after 16-year-old Jack Wilshere, who probably should have been getting ready for bed on a school night, made it five with a low drive from a corner and it really was game over.
The rest of the match played somewhat like a training ground exercise, with neat passing movements between the Arsenal players, while the Blades didn’t look overly inclined to both trying to salvage anything. Soon after the fifth goal, the Sheffield United supporters started a lengthy singsong and made more noise in the stadium than the home fans did all match.
There was time for Vela to complete a well-deserved and sublime hat-trick three minutes from time when he was put through by Aaron Ramsey and slid the ball past Kenny. It was no less than he, and Arsenal, deserved.
By this stage, though, a good 50% of the fans weren’t around to see the icing on the cake. With fifteen minutes to go, people started edging towards the exit and with about 8 minutes left on the clock, about half the seats around me were empty.
Coming away from the Emirates, my thoughts were firmly divided into two categories: the football and the rest of it.
On the pitch, Arsenal were simply breathtaking, despite many of the players having little or no first team experience and not being old enough to drink. Wenger has long specialised in being able to unearth young gems and he looks as if he’s got another team of potential stars.
Vela will get the headlines, and the player has plenty of natural talent, although still lacks an awareness of his team-mates around him on occasions. That will come with time. Bendtner, on the other hand, already had that intelligence after plenty of first team games and his reading of the game was a cut above his team-mates.
In midfield, Ramsey and Wilshere – with a combined age that’s only just over 30 – looked as if they’d been playing together for ten years, so assured were their performances. There was a real understanding between them, and a calmness and maturity to their play, offset by the fearlessness of youth. They were a joy to watch.
But… but… but… regular readers know my love for non-league football – the banter on the terraces, the joys of standing up close to the pitch and singing rude little ditties to the opposition goalkeeper, the atmosphere that comes from a hardy bunch banding together to watch their little team. The exact opposite of the Emirates.
And yet on my visit to White Hart Lane about six months ago, the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. Nobody sat down (sitting is an alien concept to me at football) and everybody sang for 90 minutes. Granted, that game was against Chelsea, while this was a League Cup game against lower opposition. But my Arsenal supporting housemate later told me that tonight’s atmosphere was louder than usual.
And its easy to see why. A plush, comfy new stadium combined with aesethically pleasing football and no real sense of sound, plus branded Arsenal goods at every glance and a slightly weird screaming at weird moments made the Emirates feel more like an American sporting event rather than a blood and thunder cup game between top dogs and plucky scrappers.
I have a lot of time for Arsene Wenger. Often he seems to be a lone voice of sense in the Premiership and I admire his steadfast commitment to building the club on strong, youthful foundations. In a lot of respects Arsenal are a model for any club.
But at the same time, the non-footballing side feels like everything I don’t want a club to turn into. Logo-centric, clean, sanitised sport served with a relaxed, smiling face. Had I ventured into the toilets, Arsenal-branded loo-roll holders and a bathroom attendant would have seemed normal.
Arsenal are a great club to watch. I could happily watch Wenger’s brand of football every week, but I couldn’t watch it there. It would drive me nuts. No jumping up and screaming, no non-stop singing, no banter, no witty spur-of-the-moment chants or comments. Just overly-expectant fans and polite applause. I can understand why Mike Ashley downed his pint now – sitting in such a sanitised environment would drive me to drink (more than I currently do).
At the risk of getting lynched by every part of North London, if you could combine the electric atmosphere at White Hart Lane with the football on offer across the way, you’d have a winner. But somehow Spurs’ feverent passion would, I suspect, feel out of place with the more cerebral style of play on offer at Ashburton Grove and more fitted to the erratic, yet occasionally sublime, nature of Spurs.
But most of all, it served to remind me how much I miss Exeter City. Due to family commitments, birthdays, work, holiday and a few other bits and pieces I’ve not been able to make a single Exeter game this season, and probably won’t be able to until Barnet away at the end of October. And, God, I’ll be ready for it.
I’ve missed the ‘takeover’ of pubs on away days. I’ve missed the array of chants that I still sing at weekend mornings. Quietly. To myself. When I think nobody’s in earshot.
I miss the City club bar – the Centre Spot – which is always rammed and sweaty, but where you can’t take two steps without bumping into an old face. I miss the slightly warm Tribute served there, and the array of ciders and beers from the club’s bottle bar. I miss standing midway down the Big Bank, just to left of the goal, with the same set of people, and Scotty’s mum handing out a bag of sweets. I miss watching our centre-backs hoof the ball aimlessly up the pitch. I miss the surge forward and unadulterated joy of when we score that sees me hugging anybody within range.I even miss the anti-Argyle chants, irrelevant as they currently are.
I miss Exeter City. And no amount of breathtakingly stunning football from precocious youngsters in a sparkling new stadium will ever change that.