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Up the Arse

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Hands up those who remember those trips in ye olden days to Highbury? Anyone? Come on, they were in the Premiership days, when the nearest you got to French influence was the type of mustard for your hotdog. And back then, if you mentioned kids to Arsene Wenger, he’d slung a lawsuit at you quicker than an Anders Limpar dive.

Well, for now, those days are a distant memory. As we settle (?) into life in the backwaters of Southern England, the times of us going into massive stadia to watch our heroes have long gone. With the changes in football since we left the big stage, I would never think that I would step into a Premiership ground again.

Until I found out that Arsenal were playing Man United in the FA Youth cup, semi final first leg at Cashburden Grove. Not only that, but if I got off my arse, and travelled up there in person, I could nab a ticket for £3. Yes, £3. I ummed and ahhed for the grand total of two seconds, dashed up to Norf Lahndun and nabbed myself a nice stub. Arsenal vs United – the new breed. Nice.

The reason I went really was down to me never visiting the Emirates before. Actually, I tell a lie – I have, but I’ve never been inside it. I can’t imagine the London Senior Cup final being played there (mind you, I can’t imagine us being in the final full stop), and AFC vs AFCW might not be a fixture anytime soon. So up until this price offer I thought I would always be on the outside looking in…

It was quite strange travelling on the tube to the game. Even the early spring sunlight at Morden station had a familiar feel about it – it was just like those mid-90s Prem games when we had games at Highbury in April. Usually in an evening as well, where there was virtually nothing to play for and a good time was had by all. Almost.

I do know some Wombles occasionally pay shitloads to watch the Arse. In a way, I can understand it – deep down, I think we collectively miss these sorts of visits. We can pretend to ourselves that watching Tonbridge or Chelmsford away is better than Spurz and West Ham. Wallet wise and stench wise, what we have now is better. But when you get off a platform and you see loads of people heading towards the same place you are, you do miss it. Even if you can’t bring yourself to admit it. And it makes you realise just how much was taken away from us – not to mention why we should never, ever accept the crap from other Ryman/non league sides….

Back to the action. Some things are reassuringly familiar. Arsenal station is still recognisable from the first time you walked it. OK, it’s a bit brighter these days, the manky looking railings in the tunnel are now nice and new stainless steel. But it’s still about 3 miles walk to the exit. You still get the big Gillespie Road fascia on the platform. And I still think it’s too small for the amount of people it takes. The main difference is that when you exit, you now you turn right instead of left..

At least, that’s what most people did. Me, I stuck two fingers up to conformity and turned left. Why? Because I just wanted to have a butchers at what remains of Highbury. And it’s, well, sad. The pictures tell their own story, although it struck me how small it appeared. It does seem to be a pilgrimage whenever you go there – it’ll be nice when it’s a block of flats, and thank god for the Listed Building law. But even so, you look at the lorries pull in and out, and you realise that Arsenal Football Club has lost something it’ll never get back.

Put it this way : three middle aged Mancs were near me and started to reminisce about games in the 60s, before deciding to have a look around themselves for one more time. Says it all really.

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Anyway, the brave new world of football at the Emirate…… sorry, Ashburton Grove. Calling it the Emirates is wrong. While I would have preferred to call it New Highbury, there’s nothing wrong with the Ashburton Grove name. Yes, I know it’s down to funding issues, but it sets the whole experience on the wrong foot. It’s a rebrand that Franchise would willingly embrace. So for the purposes of this article, I shall refer to Arsenal’s new stadium as Cashburden. A label that strangely becomes more apt the more you use it.

There’s no getting away from it though – Cashburden is a fine stadium. It puts the building of Wembley to shame (mind you, even the WankieDome is slightly better managed than Wembley), and in a highly built-up area of London as well. It has clearly taken its financial toll on the club though, and an interesting flick through the Gooner fanzine suggests that wages have been cut and new owners might be on their way at some point. Wenger is contracted through to 2008, and apparently half the reason he’s stayed in North London is because of his relationship with the present owners. Hmm……..

Not that people milling around me were bothered. Plenty of photos taken (and yes, I suppose I was part of that crowd. I’ll get my Arse shirt tomorrow), bags from the various megastores a plenty. Daytrippers, I believe the expression is. I didn’t go in the shop, but I bet those in there were waking up in their new Arsenal duvet, putting on their Arsenal dressing gown, to eat their Coco Pops (doubt if there are Arsenal branded Coco Pops, but if there are I bet they’d fly off the shelves). I’ve no idea whether they take a shower with Arsenal toiletries, and whether they put on Thierry Henry underpants. I wasn’t going to find out.

What I was trying to find out was where the Highbury clock was. You know, the one where the Clock End was (though originally it was in the old North Bank). I eventually found it – it’s positioned so it’s facing its old home for the last 70 odd years. Yes, it overlooks the old Clock End, though personally I would have preferred it inside the stadium. Got a photo of it, despite the fact it was fast turning pitch black. A nice welcome site for the older ones amongst us. There was an ironic bit of symbolism though – it wasn’t working……..

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Come to think of it, the queuing system wasn’t working too well either. It was about 50 minutes before kickoff and the turnstiles still weren’t open. Finding a short(ish) queue, I waited for 10 minutes and was prepared to hand over my stub to the nice turnstile operator.

Except there wasn’t one. Welcome to Premiership Football, 2007. Instead of giving away a stub, you now have to scan in your ticket (bit like the self-service checkout at Tescos, minus the loyalty card scheme). Assuming you haven’t got a duff ticket, you get a green light, the turnstile clicks and in you walk. Imagine the fun at KM if it ever got introduced at our games? At least the turnstile operators can’t moan about missing the action….

The concourses are as you expect, packed full of those in Arsenal garb with £3 ticket stub in hands. I had a cursory glance at the busy refreshment kiosks. What I saw shocked me : a pie – £4. Pint of Fosters – £3.20. Cup of tea – £1.50. I didn’t bother taking any more notes down, it said it all. Are Arsenal that hard up? Do they need to screw every single penny out of people that much? Trouble is, the club knows they’ve got the captive market, and there were plenty laping up the fayre on offer.

OK, I’m holier-than-thou, but I shouldn’t be : I remember paying $17 for a beer and a Philly Cheesesteak at an ice hockey game I went to once. Thing was, there were no other food outlets nearby so I didn’t really have much choice. The chippies, kebab shops etc etc at Highbury are still there at Cashburden. Are people so lazy that they have to eat inside the ground? And punters wonder why they get charged the earth…..

While the masses consumed a pie dearer than their ticket, I wandered in to nab an unreserved seat. My first glimpse in the flesh of Cashburden. I will sum it up in one word :

Yoikes.

It’s big. But it’s imposingly big, at least the first time you see it. The only other time I’ve been taken away with the size of a ground is the San Siro. Even OT, Anfield, Soldier Field and Wembley didn’t make me gulp. Granted, once you settle down (in a nice cushioned seat) it’s no different to any other big arena. As expected, the views are good, and even the pitch doesn’t seem so far away as it does on telly.

There’s another strange feature in the ground. Around one of the rings of advertising space (above the Club Level section) there’s a montage of previous cups won. The list of cup glories in the 30s spin round nicely to successes in 2004 and beyond. Now, there’s a snag. What happens to the mosaic if Arse win more stuff? Will it run out of room? Or is it Arsenal subconciously admitting that with the dough paid into the new stadium, there’s no way they’ll win any trophies for the next twenty years?

My own seat was (after I’d moved to avoid the annoying kids) in what would be the designated away end for a normal game. In the eventual crowd of 38k, there were probably no more than about 50-100 exiled Mancs, dotted about the place. I saw a couple of MUFC flags on the upper tier. There was a little group behind me, and if there’d been more of them they could have given the home side a bit of a verbal warfare. In a way, it was a shame that Arsenal were at Villa, because them against the Mancs could have been well worth £3…

Anyway, the teams came out, and the constant stream of Megastore bag wielding, confused groups of people continued. Talk about kids in a candy store. They looked quite excited to be in there, and it’s a shame that those occasions will be few and far between. With recent surveys about how Prem crowds are getting older, I do wonder how teams like Arsenal will ever hope to get the new support in if/when they fail to win trophies yearly. Games like this just highlight that problem further – there is fan support for football, but is there football support for the fans?

I suppose I ought to mention a little bit about the game. There are more English players in the Arse youth side than the main team. Then again, there are more English players in the Scottish national team than Arsenal’s starting eleven. A player called Traore started in this game (he played in the Carling Cup final) while captain Jay Stewart was very popular. Even so, there were still a couple of foreign players even at this level. Everyone knows that Wenger doesn’t rate English players that well, but when the youth are being frozen out by imported talent, that’s when it’s gone too far. No wonder Arsenal don’t want the new UEFA rules on home grown talent, that would totally destroy their 10 year plan.

United? Well, I have to be honest and admit that I hadn’t heard of any of them. Not that it’s a bad thing, but when we played United all them years ago in the FA Youth Cup, you were aware of at least a couple

What also struck me was the different styles of the two sides. Arsenal, as you would expect, showed a lot of finesse. United were a bit more, basically, English. They used pace a lot, and at times it was a bit like watching us. Christ, their #9 reminded me of Rosco Dsane…

The most notable thing in the first half? The fact that there must have been a good six or seven calls over the PA for lost children. Seriously, there were four such announcements in one minute. Just what is it about Arsenal that makes young kids go missing so easily? On second thoughts, with Mr Wenger’s lawyers reading, I ought not to answer that….

OK, the game was enjoyable, and if I’m being honest a draw would have been a fair result. Not that Kieran Gibbs was playing along – he got the ball and unleashed one helluva shot to break the deadlock. And boy, was he happy.

In fact, we should all be happy. Why? Because Gibbs, along with James Dunne, Abu Agogo and Rhys Murphy were Wimbledon academy lads. Four players who left the club because they refused to go up to Frenzyville. And what a massive, glorious slap in the face that is. And further proof that moving to Milton Keynes was the worst thing to ever happen to WFC. The guys mentioned above will have a good chance to make an impression in the Premiership (even more than ever right now). One other ex-Franchise academy played for the NI under-20s that week (hello Robin). I hope Wankie realises just what he’s thrown away…

The game progressed, and though United made plenty of running, they didn’t really have a goalscorer. Somehow, the first team will be made to spend god knows how many millions to eventually replace Rooney.

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While I was watching yet another attempt to break through the Arse defence, I heard that rising drone of excitement, the sort of noise that should strike fear into all self-respecting sports fans. Yes, somebody had started a Mexican wave. Basically, somebody thought that the game wasn’t really interesting enough, so they did the thing all disinterested, dispassionate spectators do.

“Oh come on”, they’ll cry, “It’s just a bit of fun”. No it sodding isn’t. I’ll tell you what is far more fun. Tying up people who start Mexican waves and hammering picture frame nails into their heads. The pain these “fun” loving twats will suffer is nothing compared to anyone with dignity having to suffer watching these in the flesh. At least the United bloke behind me had the right idea, by faking a moon whenever the show of hands came to my section….

As time was about to run out, one of the other most stupid things I’ve seen for a while happened. As Utd went to take a corner, somebody threw something onto the pitch. That’s right – somebody decided to throw an object in an FA Youth cup game. Is this sort of thing making a comeback? Having been hit with a can once, and had coins thrown at me at Grimsby, I can tell you what a shit thing it is to do.

About a minute or two later, I saw three youths being escorted out. One must have been about 16, the others looked about 10. So basically, they’ve now got themselves a lifetime ban from Cashburden, and for what? Somebody living out a fantasy they saw on Football Factory? Or maybe they were trying to be clever. My experience with the local youth that evening told me one thing – there ain’t going to be many brain surgeons from that part of North London from this generation….

Eventually, Arse won 1-0, in a pretty close game. Perhaps United just shaded it, though it took a good goal to separate the sides. The second leg should be a goodun (at time of writing, it hadn’t happened). What was telling was how many people were leaving before the end. Apparently, it’s because the local transport can’t cope with 20k extra people all of a sudden. God knows how they coped in the days when Arsenal station was merely called Gillespie Road.

Not that I disbelieve that theory, but I wonder if it’s partly hiding that the new breed of Gooner wants to go early to go into their Megastore for their remaining bargain? Certainly the amount of fans with their carrier bags said something. OK, I’m probably being harsh – for many (most?) of them in there, it’ll be the one and only time they’ll get into Cashburden for a while. The hardcore Gooner would have been up Villa Park that evening. But if other top venues are anything to go by, even a league game will have a fair few “organised” visits, shall we say…..

As for the new home of Arsenal, I dunno. As stadia go, it’s impressive. The views aren’t bad, the facilities are better, it’s doubtlessly been well designed/engineered, and it will probably keep the club going for another 70 odd years. But somehow, it feels, well, unArsenal. It’s lost a lot of its soul. If you ever go to Surrey cricket at the Oval, you’ll know what “soul” is in that context, even with a refurbished venue. Even now, when you go there, there’s something magical. Arsenal used to have that, or more accurately Highbury did. Now? It could be any stadium anywhere on an industrial estate (which Cashburden literally is). Just put the Arsenal brand logo for it’s identity.

At least places like Old Trafford still have some tangible link with history. It’s ironic that the club accused most of all of selling out to economic interests is the one most likely to remain at its historic home.

Moving from Highbury to Ashburton is just about acceptable, but even then it’s now a different club. It’s not the Arsenal my dad watched, or indeed most Gooners I’ve ever met. It’s not the Arsenal of which I have Evening Substandard clippings way back from 1971 proclaiming the double. It’s a new Arsenal, a different Arsenal. An Arsenal not of Liam Brady or Niall Quinn, but one of Thierry Henry, of Baptista, of Traore. An Arsenal with a logo redesigned purely because of copyright issues, of £4 pies, of £1.50 cups of tea. In short, a corporate Arsenal.

Would I go back? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t rush to watch a league game there, unless it was against Spurz, and if truth be told unless I get another £3 ticket or AFCW ever play there somebody else will be in my seat the next game.

And by the time I return there, I bet the pies will be more than £4……

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