Wednesday 24 February 2016

Why Fly When You Can Walk On Water - Arsenal FC Vs Hull City A.F.C., FA Cup 5th Round, Emirates Stadium (20/02/16)

Sitting having my haircut this morning, in the few moments I can hear myself think over the brash man talking loudly about the tires on his Rolls-Royce, his Russian wife, or white water rafting with his Mother-in-Law, who he talked about in the manner akin to that of Alf Garnett, I consider my approach to today's game.

I respect the etiquette of the hairdressers perfectly, not saying a word except for the garbled instructions of what I would like done, and then keeping schtum, smiling occasionally when I make eye contact in the mirror with the barber. Admiring the picture covered walls help the time go by, the likes of Maradona and Gazza look down on me, underneath a mural of a black and white football on the ceiling, I consider the counsel of the football greats, hoping for some help with my predicament.  Every so often I catch a glimpse of Pierluigi Collina over my shoulder, like Jiminy Cricket he helps me decide if today is about football rivalry or friendship?

Within moments of getting on the bus to the match, hoping my new ‘do’ will cut the mustard with my professional hair sculpting blogging comrade, I'm quickly reminded by the hats a group of children are wearing and the yellow and blue shirt poking out from underneath one mans jacket, of exactly where I'm going.

It's hard not to be wracked with a slight amount of trepidation and a hint of guilt, although this will not be the first time I have ventured ‘behind enemy lines’, in fact I think it might be about the sixth: A couple of visits with friends or visiting relatives from abroad to Highbury, the Emirates Cup with my Gooner younger brother, as well as a trip to Holland for the Amsterdam Tournament with him, a game during the Champions League experiment at Wembley, but most recently and by far the most memorable in 2010 when Spurs were 2 - 0 down at halftime and went on to win 3 -2, and I'm still in one piece, so I must be doing something right.

Some familiar smells, but unfamiliar sounds welcome me to the closed road on approach to the ground. The distinctive stink of cooking onions is accompanied in these parts by music of a Latin American persuasion, wafting out from behind the hot plate.

I hope that my red jumper, which is the same shade as the Arsenal FC (AFC) Highbury commemorative home shirt, will help me blend in, although I’m sure the home fans I pass can tell I'm not one of them, they can sense I'm an invader from up the Seven Sisters road.

Thankfully my dear friend, fluent in the customs of this part of North London, meets me by a flag topped stall, stopping to get himself a pin. A brief visit to the club shop was unsuccessful as he had not wanted a “fucking keyring” which came with the official option. Feeling very much under his wing, and comfortable to continue, we get ever closer.

The cannon synonymous with the club, which must have taken one hell of an effort to pull all the way from South London, sits proudly outside what is now AFC’s third home, only a stone's throw from the Art Deco masterpiece of Archibald Leitch. The Emirates is a giant football stadium of the future, what it lacks in character, despite the best efforts of its designers, homages to old players line the outer wall, it makes up with its sheer size. On the bus here, it was visible far in the distance, looking like something from Independence Day.

“Never seen it like this” says Tom, as we approach the steward lined steps, leading up to the main concourse around the ground. Security is high, even for an FA Cup game against Hull City A.F.C. (HC), as AFC and us continue along the road to Wembley, with this now our eleventh game in this years competition. AFC perhaps have a little more at stake, the chance of a hat trick if they bag this years trophy, a feat not performed since Blackburn Rovers in 1886.

Successfully past the first line of defence, bags searched and each with a scalding cup of tea in hand, we find a place to briefly sit, not far from the the statue of “Bergkamp with a pole up his arse” as Tom describe it, people flocking around the bronze Dutchman to take a picture. This is something a Spurs fan should not readily admit, but he is one of my all time favourite players. I could wax lyrical about that goal against Argentina during World Cup ‘98, but keep that to yourself, my well earned Tottenham points are already going to be taking a bit of a kicking by the end of the day.

Tom talks fondly about touching the number 10’s shoes at a Summer football camp, and less so about Ray Parlour chatting up his Mum. He is however, not his usual font of quotes and profound questions, I'm sure many will remember the walnut debate, because today is tinged with a profound sadness, despite our best efforts to lighten the mood it is one year exactly since Tom suddenly lost his Dad.

For Tom football and his Dad are two things that would normally be said in the same breath, he has Steve to blame for his near lifelong addiction to all things red and white. Since his first game at the age of nine they celebrated, commiserated, lived and breathed all things AFC, they were season tickets holders for the first three seasons at The Emirates. I once had the very strange experience of watching the North London derby on a big screen at Highbury with them both, having to firmly sit on my hands when we scored a last minute equalizer, totally delighted whilst others around me seethed with anger.

On a lap of the ground, we take in more statues, something I hope Spurs will adopt for the new stadium, I think a large golden David Ginola would look smashing. Tom’s opinion is they don't bear much resemblance to their subject, particularly the Thierry Henry one, which one young fan is convinced is Theo Walcott, his Dad having to explain how someone much more worthy of a statue wore the number 14 before him.

Looking on contentedly with his hands behind his back is a statute I can certainly get interested in, the once Tottenham player, (42 appearances 16 goals) previous Arsenal Manager and football revolutionary Herbert Chapman, who we all have plenty to be thankful for, not just AFC supporters. Tom also informs me the artwork has its own ‘pigeon patrol’ to ensure any unbecoming droppings are swiftly removed from the club's legends heads.

Tom is far from a fan of the early kickoff, all for the convenience of BT Sport, and no one else. I’m sure they are hoping for some of the drama of last years encounter. The chance of HC going two ahead, and AFC clawing back a 3 - 2 win, is minimal, but I guess they have to speculate. A pre match pint is part of the ritual for a lot of people, but it is a bit of a chore this early in the day. I do though kindly except the one Tom hands me, but maybe wish I hadn't when he tells me “it's fucking horrible”, and he's not wrong: fizzy, weak and in a plastic cup. If Carlsberg did make nice beer, it would be a bloody miracle! The bad beer, is also compounded by the fact that it's started to rain.

Tom knows I have seen him, and he knows what I’m thinking, his reply to my inevitable comment is well prepared, in fact I don't say anything in the end about the Guardian reader with bright orange cagoule and red can headphones, posing next to us, “he’s got an avocado sandwich in his pocket”.

“Come on you Gunners” shouts a fan a little bit more up for the game, than everyone else around us seems to be.

Getting tickets for today, has been the toughest so far on our FA Cup quest, neither of us being members meant it was only down to the fact my boss is the red way inclined, that she was able to snag us a couple, but I did have my concerns: I don't look like a Felicity! Thankfully a faceless scanner, much like a self service till in the supermarket has replaced a person, it thankfully didn't notice Tom is not a Christine either, and we are in, just, and I mean just, my diet has a little further to go.

The first way to shed some pounds is to climb the red railed stairs to the upper tier of the east stand. As we make the way round to our block, the walls are smeared with bragging quotes, the majority a poke in the chest at Spurs, firstly about the 5 - 4 win at White Hart Lane, and the second about winning the league there. If only I had known, I'm sure I could have fitted a tin of paint in my bag, but I'm not sure it would've all fitted through the turnstile.

Regardless of this being the ground it is, it is still impressive to walk out into a stadium of this size, the emerald green pitch surrounded by a sea of red seats. A band around the middle displays various dates of note in the club’s history as well as the flags of numerous supporters clubs from around the world, Japan, America, Australia, and further nods to past great players. Tom points out his favourite “why fly, when you can walk on water” in reference to Bergkamp's well documented fear of flying.

Behind us is a climb of ‘Hillary Step’ proportions, oxygen and crampons are a must as we make our way a few rows shy of the very top. Once we get our breath back, and take a seat the effort is proved to be worth it, almost bang on halfway we have a wonderful view.

“They got a fucking pizza!” says Tom, a mixture of envy and amazement can be heard in his voice. Some have traded their climbing gear at base camp for a thin crust, and make the trek up the red mountain, much more concerned with food than their own safety.

Music it seems has become a lot more intrusive at football than I ever remember, I vaguely recall it always playing in the background, but not to the volume of a night at Camden Palace. We have certainly noticed in our non league travels some very dubious song choices, and the top flight is no different as shocking song after shocking sound is forced down our ear holes “what is this music?” asks a tortured looking Tom.

After the stadium announcer explain there will be a penalty shootout at half time between children and an interesting foe, which I have got to see and the HC players approach their fans and get a round of applause, the crowd's attention is pointed in the direction of the big screens, for segment named ‘a word with the boss’. Mr Wenger appears, the opening statement from the interviewer although managing to include an interesting fact, he then ruins with a ridiculous follow up, that gets the kind of response, not words, just a look, that any normal person would be entitled to give an idiot, “it’s your 100th FA Cup match, the FA should've sent you a cake”.

A camera in the ground pans around the crowd while ‘London Calling’ by the Clash plays, the attentions of the camera, breaks people from their ‘12:45 is such a daft time to start a game’ funk and turns them into something from the audience of a children's game show. When the line “lives by the river” plays I can't help myself whisper to Tom “should be wrong side of the river”.

People continue to pant past us on the way to their seats, even ones in good shape, which makes me feel slightly better. Some consider the distance so considerable they have even gone as far as breaking out a pair of binoculars.

“Emirates stadium are you ready?” asks the stadium announcer, as the red hat wearing Emirates air line stewardesses appear at the mouth of the tunnel. A montage plays out on the big screen, followed by a countdown, “8, 7, 6”. Most people are on their feet, large flags behind each goal are lifted and swayed, and over the heads of the people in the lower tier to our right a huge red banner appears with an equally huge white cannon on it. Tom is briefly distracted and goes as high pitched as a choir boy “Ohh there's Gunnersaurus”.

“Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal”.

Danny Welbeck gets the biggest cheer as the teams are read out, after his recent heroics from the bench against Leicester, and as the first whistle goes Tom joins in with his fellow fans “COME ON ARSENAL!”

Not long into the game the home fans are quick to remind the traveling supporters of their team's efforts in the 2015 FA Cup final “and you fucked it up 2 - 0, and you fucked it up 2 - 0” football fans are well known for their sympathy. When the home fans announce that they “are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” the away fans reply with the same song.

From the start, AFC have HC pinned back in their half, and it feels simply like a matter of when, not if AFC will score. For the time being though the shots on target are straight at the keeper, or are comfortably saved. The HC fans are in good voice, despite the feeling of an imminent goal “we are Hull, we are hull” they even take the customary jab at Arsenal for their perceived lack of atmosphere “is this a library?”

In front of us, it has been brought to our attention by his incessant stream of consciousness that we are in the presence of what you might call a bit of a “character”. Every club has them, every club I’m sure has more than one, it's all relative to their size. Sitting in his red and white bobble hat he subjects the people around him to a non stop tirade of opinion, geed on by his two immediate neighbours who laugh at everything he says, encouraging him to go on, while everyone else in earshot just wants him to shut up.

With quarter of an hour of the half left, the game has gone a little flat which inspires one particular chant. The same one bubbles up at similar times at White Hart Lane when not a lot is going on, obviously with an alternative target “we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham”.

“La, la, la, la Giroud” sings a small section of the crowd as the Frenchman warms up, but quickly dies out as he returns to the bench and out of the pissing rain.

AFC are guilty time and time again of overplaying the ball, making things over complicated. They dissect the HC team with ease, all the slick passing and movement their followers have become accustomed to, getting to within shooting distance time and time again, but then always choosing to make one more pass instead of just letting fly a shot fly. When they do, they are scuppered by the man between the sticks for HC, who is in fine form and pulls off some quality saves.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot” plead the AFC fans, whenever they are anywhere near the goal, regardless of the angle, they just want them to have a go. When they choose to cross into the box, the burly Championship topping defence gobble it up, especially when Theo Walcott is your target man. When the referee waves away an AFC appeal for a penalty, the fans around us are on their feet, arms out wide, much like the statue of Tony Adams outside.

With seven minutes of the half left the “beer exodus” begins as Tom described is it, which he joins and the half finally ends with a chorus of mumbling.

The break on our row at least is lacking in ‘Hawaiians’ or ‘Mighty Meatys’, as people tuck into little packed lunches in Tupperware. “Oh my God” pants a semi exhausted Tom, after his second climb of the day, I stayed put on the top of ‘East Stand Mountain’. He is back just in time, to bare witness to a form of entertainment I thought had died out in the middle ages: people Vs animals. This is not any old animal however, but a dinosaur, a red flat cap wearing dinosaur, it's time for the shoot out.

“Have you got a plan against Gunnersaurus?” asks the microphone shover to the ever so slightly quacking child, whose own image on the big screen, combined with hearing their voice reverberate around the massive arena has ever so slightly freaked them out. Will they hold their nerve, will they do enough to get a goodie bag of average stuff with a cannon on from China? I personally would opt for a Panenka, give old Gunner the eyes and chip it down the middle, I'm one for a bit of theatrics. Tom considers the ‘Cruyff” penalty, but perhaps not, they don't have a great track record of them around here, and you don't want to go and upset Danny Mills again. Most of the little people go for a standard smack down the middle, the apex predator displays the same goal keeping skills as Łukasz Fabiański so they never should've worried.

The start of the second half is a carbon copy of the first, as AFC create a chance in the opening minutes only to be thwarted again.

Seeing pizza has got Tom’s food at football juices flowing, and when a late returner for the concessions is clutching a sausage roll, Tom says to me “I would give him a fiver for that” I have to remind him though, it probably cost him £8. When he gets the briefest of glimpses of what someone else passing has, he asks me drooling “has he got the foot-long?”

There are a fair few ex Spurs players at HC, but due to injury and squad rotation, none are in the starting line up. When it's announced that Tom Huddlestone is coming on, he gets a warm welcome “booooooooooooo” , one fan even going as far as calling him “scum”. I day dream, imagining one of his low, hard shots all Spurs fans know he is more than capable of, with 93 minutes on the clock, clinching the victory.

The amount of chances AFC are creating is verging on the embarrassing, it has the air of will this come round and bite them on the arse. When they hit the the foot of the post with a free kick, the replay shows it's a save once again, the keeper is having a good day at the office.

“Come on Arsenal, come on Arsenal”

Patience is wearing thin amongst the masses, and maybe the manager as well. The “juggling” of players with the visit of some little team from Spain in the coming days, which had been the main topic of conversation in the press this morning, has not brought the required results, so on come the big boys, Giroud and Sanchez. The “Chilean pitbull” as Tom has dubbed him, gets a massive cheer. On the ball he is a class act, slaloming past the opposition like they are not even there, Tom looks at me proudly, “that's what you pay your £40 for”, moments later he plays a ball so bad, the whole place is left scratching their heads.

Our local commentator, who so far has kept up a furious pace, is suddenly knocked down a peg or two, after the arrival of a humble pigeon. The look on his face is of pure horror, he squirms in his seat, tracking it with his eyes, twisting his head almost 360 degrees until it flies off.

With AFC camped out in the HC half, they are susceptible to a counter attack, which start to present themselves more and more as the game goes on. One such chance is very close, leaving Tom only able to say “ohhhhhhh” and look at me with concerned eyes.

“Come on” says an ever growing frustrated fan, this game should be well out of sight by now, but with ten minutes to go it feels like either side could snatch it. Tom maybe hits the nail on the head, “I think we thought this was going to be easier than it was”.

HC get one last chance, before AFC batter at their door for the final moments. A square ball from Huddlestone is tamely shot into the keeper's arms, hearts are in mouths, Tom wonders if the early start means the players “haven't woken up yet”.

“Is this a fire drill?” sing the away fans, one that is leaving is not best pleased “this is ridiculous, struggling against Hull”

“Fucking shoot”, “fucking keeper” sums up the game perfectly as the chance’s keep on coming, but still can't be put away, people are pulling their hair out.

The half time grumbling, has on a few cases been replaced with boos, but not what you would call an epidemic. “Next game Barcelona” says an obviously downbeat announcer, quite a shift from his high octane pre game style, his announcement of the next visitors is met with ironic cheers. One child is hushed by his Dad, when he makes his predictions for the game against the Catalans “5 or 6 - 0”.

Outside the rain has eased, and the crowds have dissipated quickly in that way they do after a game. With food now very much on both our minds we make the short walk to a local pie shop that Tom highly recommends. A long queue of HC coaches has formed, waiting to make the long trip back to Yorkshire. One in particular, much smaller than the rest a mini bus rather than a coach is rocking, it jumps up and down like a creation from ‘Pimp My Ride’. Heads and arms are sticking out of every available window, Black Betty plays inside and the fans sing along “ohhhhhh Hull City”.

“Wish I had the Patrick Vieira sausage roll” is a sentence I never thought I would hear a person say, but considering I'm eating a Dennis Bergkamp pie, I should not be surprised. Maybe it's the beer or the early start, but both of us sit mesmerized, you might even go as far as to say hypnotised, by the two women in AFC shirts dancing badly in the first floor window of a bar opposite us on the Holloway Road. We both wonder what exactly are the “matchday specials” they are advertising.

Having lost my own Dad not so long ago, I understand the anguish Tom must have felt today. Not that my Dad was anywhere near as football mad as Tom’s, but it's something we enjoyed together. He would pretend he knew what he was talking about, like most Dads do, and I will always be grateful to him for driving me all the way to Bradford in a transit van to watch Spurs play, that is a memory I would not trade for ten Champions League trophies, or all the tea in China.

I’m sure some Spurs and Arsenal fans would find it hard to do what I did, the great football rivalry is so strong that it would be unthinkable, some would be mortified at the mere notion of having to spend two hours of their time on ‘enemy soil’, amongst the ‘scum, but let's be honest with ourselves it's not one born of religious or political tensions, the fact is a small team from South London decided to move north and set up home.

The bigger picture though, what really matters in life became crystal clear when Tom told me how grateful he was I had come, how hard he knew it would be for me, but it's not like I performed some great Herculean task, or feat of heroism, I watched a game of football.

I will never be able to replace Tom’s Dad, or he mine, but I hope we can go some way to being suitable substitutes for each other on match day, minus the repeated bad jokes and temper tantrums of course. Today was not about rivalries, it wasn't even about football it was about helping a friend, it was about the Dads, it was about Steve.



For all our photographs from the match, click HERE

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