Full-time whistle. The boos rang around the Emirates. Arsenal had just gone through to the next round of the Europa League but slumped to an anti-climatic defeat on the night. Normally I would have stopped streaming by now, but here I was seated in Club Level clapping the players off the pitch. The special circumstances that led me to my spiritual home were life lessons to take note of.
Sunday 18 February. I wasn’t looking forward to filing my U.S taxes, it was my first time and I’m not particularly good with numbers. In reality, the process was pretty straightforward thanks to TurboTax, a site that my brother suggested. It got even better as I found out that I would be getting reimbursed. Whoopee!
Shortly after I got a message from my cousin Freddy who wanted to know if I would join him on a midweek trip to London on Tuesday. At first I said no because of the financial load (London is expensive!) and potentially missing valuable experience at my ‘internship’. But a little voice told me to take the opportunity.
A break from Paris is always a good thing plus my newly accrued wealth from filing would help me survive the three nights in the English capital.
Tuesday 20 February ” The toilet is only for wee wee.” I snickered in my seat. To be fair, a lot of French people speak broken English and at least our bus drivers’ level was serviceable. It was a welcome distraction in a tedious bus journey with FlixBus, that took over seven hours to reach London Victoria station. A particular highlight for me was the trip on the Eurotunnel from Calais to Folkestone, I’d always wondered how vehicles cross the Channel.
The bus entered the train along with smaller passenger vehicles into what looked like a quarantine area. During the 35 minute long journey I got out of the bus to stretch, There wasn’t much to see bar the round lady wearing black tights with a huge hole on her backside. I thought better of alerting her, reasoning that her journey would be a bit less comfortable.
While eating some sushi at London Victoria I noticed a huge billboard advertising the Arsenal stadium tours, something I really wanted to do before my short stay ended.
Wednesday 21 February. The one thing I love about England is how passionate people are about football. Wearing my Arsenal scarf in public made me a walking lightning rod for people’s emotions: “You guys are so funny, I love watching ArsenalFan TV” said a Chelsea fan on the tube.
“Take off your scarf mate.” A suited man told me as he rushed out of a bar. “That’s a proper team that,” remarked a salesman at a market.
“Fuck Arsenal” said a youngster who waited while I passed by to express himself. When I found out that he was a Manutd supporter I told him that “They were going to win nothing this season” to which his friends oooooooooooh’d. “Come talk to me when you’ve won Champions League.” Which was my signal to depart as I realized I was dealing with a windup merchant.
There were more pleasant exchanges with Östersunds fans in the Oxford Circus area as we each branded our scarfs in a mock show of bravado. The Swedes were enjoying their time out in London before tomorrow’s match. Even though we were leading 3-0 from the first leg, you can never take anything for granted. How I wished to attend the match …
Thursday 22 February. Today was the day I was going to visit the Emirates Stadium with Freddy and my brother’s friend Stephen Forbes. We had been put in touch before my arrival. Coincidentally he lived just a stone throw from where we were staying in Norbury.
We met early morning at the station so that we could see as much of the stadium as possible since most areas were on “lock-down” for the match. As we were on the train Stephen gets a call from his girlfriend. He looks at me grinning, “You’re going to love me! I just managed to get two tickets for you and Freddy to watch the game tonight!
“They’re season tickets so you’ll have to give them back when you’re done.”
I was speechless. My pilgrimage to the Emirates would include participation in the evening service. If you told me a 5’7″ Manchester United fan would be the one to give me an opportunity to watch Arsenal live, I’d have told you to jump of a cliff. It was just too good to be true.
Thierry Henry’s former hunting ground had now been transformed into an apartment complex known as Highbury Square. I felt kinda bad taking photos of a residential building, but hey, when you live in a famous stadium, it comes with the territory.
The pubs and bars of Islington also evoked the great history of Arsenal. Filled with pictures of legendary players and key moments. I particularly enjoyed The Gunners pub which had a lot of relics of Henry, THE major saint in the Arsenal religion. There were also portraits commemorating the feats of “The Invincibles” and 89 team.
We killed some time in a smaller bar whose bouncer told me he was attacked by Tottenham fans two weeks ago. “You’re lucky you didn’t get shanked,” I said, knowing to well the frequency of stabbings in London. “Yeah the police came quick ain’t it”, he sighed.
“This bar is only for Arsenal. If you’re an away fan, you can’t come in here, it don’t matter if we don’t have history with you.”
When the clock struck 19:00 we started making our way to the Emirates. The moment I saw those beautiful arcs on the roof, I was in a state of subdued ecstasy. We had reached the south bank where the Östersunds fans were going through their repertoire of songs before being allowed entry. While filming the scene I had to mind horse droppings as there was a police officer on her mount close by.
Before entering “heaven”. I had to take a picture next to Henry’s statue. The legend’s likeness was captured in his 2003 knee slide celebration in front of the Spurs fans.(Tottenham) The fact that he has Guadeloupean roots just like me and Freddy, made the photo extra special.
Free programmes, beer, coffee and seats behind the goalmouth, are just some of the perks of sitting in Club Level. I immediately recognized all the players warming up. I was disappointed that we were wearing our away kit instead of our trademark red and white, but read beforehand that both clubs had agreed on the change to avoid clashing.
With one of the highest season ticket prices in the land. The fans in Club Level are well-off. I had my reservations about how enthusiastically they would support the team. The Emirates is notorious for a ‘library’ atmosphere, especially on days like this: -1˚C, modest opposition and a 3-0 lead from the first leg.
A video showcasing iconic moments accompanied by a light show heralded the imminent arrival of the starting lineups. I was on my feet, clapping and cheering each players name. I didn’t want to sit down but knew I would be rebuked for blocking someone’s view.
The pace of the match was pretty slow, especially from the hosts who looked like they would rather be anywhere else but there. Östersunds were organized and ready to take the game to Arsenal. Their Iranian striker Samman Ghoddos, who caught my eye from the first match was proving particularly difficult to track. “We need to wake up, we haven’t gotten into the game,” I told Freddy.
Then they scored. Hosam Aiesh was played into space behind Sead Kolasinac, advanced into the box and slotted the ball past David Ospina. We had it coming and I wasn’t surprised. Amazingly they scored straight after. The powerful winger Ken Sema found himself one on one with Calum Chambers in the box, out-muscled the defender and fired in from the angle.
The howls of dissatisfaction were deafening. I tried composing myself after Freddy had playfully shoved me off my seat. My first match and this is what they serve up! The only chance we had of note was when Jack Wilshere blasted his volley wide in the Swedes penalty area. Boos greeted the halftime whistle, we quickly went inside the 49ers suite for a snack.
As mentioned earlier, beers and coffee were on the house, I sipped on the latter as I observed my fellow Gooners. You had people in suits who had come here straight after work, wealthy pensioners and “hip” youngsters. Club Level was not necessarily for the general admission types who would support the team in difficult moments. This lot have been season ticket holders for years. They expect be entertained.
Then you have the rest of us who borrowed tickets and are just happy to be here.
While I was in the bathroom, I heard the stadium announcer through the mic “Reintroducing The Arsenal!” I started to speed up, then I heard him again, “Halftime substition, 30 Ainsley Maitland-Niles is being replaced by 29 Granit Xhaka.” A tall kid next to me wasn’t impressed: “Oh that’s fantastic.”
Had I lingered any longer I would have missed our goal. Hector Bellerin crossed from the right finding Kolasinac who fired home with his weaker right foot. I jumped of my seat fists pumping, I had just witnessed my first Arsenal goal!
We then fashioned ourselves decent opportunities but took none. Danny Welbeck tried to chip Östersunds keeper Aly Keita, who parried away Mohamed Elneny’s pile-driver a few moments later, collected Welbeck’s tame header and in stoppage time used his legs to save from … you guessed it Danny Welbeck. A striker low on confidence.
What I did not like was some of the abuse players like Alex Iwobi were getting. Yes, he is out of form and can be quite frustrating but some of the insults were just mean: “You’re terrible! Don’t ever play football again!” was one of the more “polite” unpleasantries.
More boos greeted the fulltime whistle, I got up and started clapping the players off. The boys hadn’t played well but saw the match out to go through. Two players: Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin stayed behind to applaud the fans, with the former giving a young fan his shirt. As Bellerin looked in my direction I gave him the thumbs up.
We asked Pascal, a stadium usher, how to get back to the tube station. He had a smart suit on and was very professional and polite. In fact all the staff we interacted with were very helpful and hospitable. Now I know why Arsenal are always referred to as a “classy club.”
I took one last look at the stadium before joining the sea of bodies en-route to the tube station. We didn’t win and the atmosphere was toxic, but I got a chance to see my team live at home, something a lot of people could only dream about.
At London Victoria on my way back to Paris, I noticed that the bag tag that I’d forgot to take off from the stadium security check had my lucky number: 25. I left it on as a reminder: This life is difficult but it can also answer your dreams if you dare to take opportunities.
Photos and videos taken with my old iPhone 5.