I could complain, my flight in to London was bumpy. I have a Bergkampesque fear of flying and this ride was all the things I hate about flying: the plane was delayed for an hour and a half while they fixed the engine and once in the air it was non-stop turbulence for 8 hours. But I took a little shelter from the blogger’s little helper and mostly slept through what otherwise would have been a real white-knuckle flight. And besides, who complains about flying when the destination is a place that you really love? Bumpy ride or not, London’s worth it. And now that I’m here everything has been so brilliant that all complaints have washed away.
I left Seattle Thursday night, landed here Friday afternoon, checked in to my hotel, and met up with Les (Rogues Gallery) for drinks and conversation. We started out at the Shakespeare Head, right off the Holborn tube station and the first drink of the night was a shot of fireball. Dee, a brash Indian friend of mine, offered the shot and Les and I gulped without hesitation. Pints, more shots, and Dee giving it to everyone around him.
From there, Les took me to his university bar where the pints were cheap and the talk about football flowed freely. All nervous anticipation about the match the next day. Agreement around the table was that it was important to get a result and that Flamini-Arteta midfield would be a disaster. I figured it was probably the most important match of the season. This team needs a trophy, not just to end the “years without a trophy” klaxon constantly sounded by the media, but more importantly to instill a winning attitude in these players. For my money, this has been the final missing ingredient to each of Wenger’s rebuilds since 2005. They have been close to a trophy three times but came up just short.
Saturday morning and London was a balmy 60F.
Once again I woke up with plenty to complain about. My hotel has inexplicably had no wifi all weekend and this is more than a minor annoyance since I do all of my communication via the internet. I have a phone but it’s a burner. Try, just try, texting someone on an old stick phone. And perhaps even less edifying than complaining about a flight where my life is on the line, complaining about the lack of wifi at my hotel has to be the most petty thing I have ever moaned about. Especially considering the fact that I’m typing this from the free wifi at Pret just a block from the hotel.
The match kicked off early and I had to meet a man about my match tickets for the Munich game. We decided the Tollington at 10:30. I was also supposed to meet Chary and Adrian for breakfast at 11 and Arsenal’s media folks wanted to do a piece with me called “why I’m Arsenal” at 11:45. Here’s a tip for match day: don’t try to schedule anything for match day. And if you do schedule something, just expect it to be 10-15 minutes late. 10:30 turned into 11 and I was now getting nervous. My scheduling pile-up is putting others out and I hate doing that but I’m getting tickets for both myself and Anna the Mad Russian to see the Bayern match and no matter what happens with the other things it’s the match that’s most important.
And it all worked out: an American got tickets from a Belgian so that American and a Russian can see an English team play in Germany. That’s the Arsenal: friends from all over the world working together for a common cause, the game.
Chary bought me and Adrian breakfast, I got the Falafel, what’s more English than Falafel for breakfast? And then Adrian and I skipped off to meet the Arsenal media guys at the Armoury.
I have to say that Adrian is a really great guy. Not only did he get me tickets to the game but he also helped out with the whole media thing. He and Chary are… uhh “diamond geezers”? Does that mean that they are great or old? I think it means great.
Adrian and I got into the stadium and purchased a couple of ciders. Nice and refreshing, perfect for drinking at 1pm. Adrian pointed out the starting lineups. Sanogo was there but more of a concern for me was Flamini and Arteta. “Barkley will cut through Arteta and Flamini like butter” I moaned.
Still, from where we were in the North Bank, I could look down and see the coin I’d put in Tony Adams’ hand. A donation to the gods, for luck.
Adrian had gotten us some truly amazing seats. Sitting in the North Bank, with the emerald green pitch laid out before us, it was a perfect day. The sun was shining and the only thing we all really had to worry about was whether we would get a result and a sunburn from the match.
Adrian had asked me what I thought the score would be and I told him 2-0. “An early goal followed by another in the second half?” was his reply. “Yep”.
And so when Özil slotted home the opening goal with just 7 minutes gone off the clock we jumped and hugged and I got a chance to say “see? I told you early goal!” Despite the fact that he told me. That’s just what you do when you’re a writer, you steal other people’s lines.
It wasn’t like Arsenal didn’t deserve that opener and especially Özil. Arsenal’s Oxlade-Chamberlain was simply electric all game, he turned the ball over a few times but that would be complaining over a minor annoyance because when he had the ball he took it straight at the Everton defense, causing panic every time he was on the ball. I lost count of how many really dangerous shots Arsenal had in that first half. The crowd pressed into OHHing and AHHHing every few minutes it seemed. Everton were on the ropes and the only blot in the Arsenal copy book was an early yellow card for Flamini who, despite that yellow, was often the last man as Arsenal took corner after corner.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of nervous folks all around. Every missed tackle drew groans and sitting there with my Flamini shirt on (covered by a jacket) I cringed every time I heard someone scream down how Flamini was excrement. I’ve given up trying to understand why Arsenal fans moan about Arsenal players in the stadium. Couldn’t we all agree that maybe Flamini is a bit of a one dimensional player but Everton’s Barry is so fat that he’s gone into a fourth dimension?
It’s a strange atmosphere in the stadium. Something of a holdover from the League Cup final we lost a few years back, I fear. On that day in Wembley, I saw a kid crying in his father’s arms. I saw a man so filled with rage that he tried to rip up one the Wembley chairs. And as we walked out of the stadium in the dreary night we trudged along like pallbearers to the Arsenal funeral.
Those same fans that were there when Birmingham beat us were there at Everton yesterday And despite the odds in our favor, despite the glorious sunlit London day, and despite the early Özil goal, you can imagine the reaction when Lukaku scored.
Adrian and I could see it developing from the off. As I already said, Flamini was our last defender on corners and so when Barkley had him one v. one I could see Flamini’s wheels turning as he weighed up the consequences of tackling the Englishman. Barkley invited Flamini to take a bite and the Frenchman looked as if he might for a second and realized he would have been off. Wenger’s 101st red card narrowly avoided.
But the result was Lukaku bundling the ball over the line after a fizzing ball by Barkley wasn’t claimed by Fabianski. The energy in the crowd dropped considerably. I haven’t seen the likes of that since that League Cup final. Even I was starting to doubt and the Flamini haters behind us were virtually foaming at the lips.
But Arsenal did a weird thing then. Something I’m not sure those other Arsenal sides have done well in the past. They rounded the wagons and set up a defensive posture. They had their hands slapped by Everton for being too attack-minded and they knew that getting out of the half with things level would be a good result.
At half time we had some more ciders and joked about Arsene taking Flamini off early. Flamini wouldn’t come off at all in that match, a real testament to his maturity as a player and an understanding of his importance to the team. As long as I’ve been writing about Arsenal, fans have begged Wenger to buy a midfield destroyer and now we have one. A mature, calm, organizer who does so much more than just wreck people. No surprise that Wenger didn’t change anything at half time. All managers have quirks that people don’t like and this is one of Wenger’s: he has the temerity to trust his players.
When he did make the change it was Giroud for Sanogo and it was the exact correct call. Sanogo is a joy to watch because he is literally everywhere and never afraid to get stuck in. But he lacks the tactical nous that Giroud has and as Adrian pointed out after his very first shot, Giroud makes those near post runs that Sanogo hasn’t quite figured out yet.
But it was Oxlade-Chamberlain, with his man of the match performance, who would get Arsenal ahead in the game. The Ox drove at his defender, who stuck out a leg, and the Ox went down. I felt it was a dive, but remember that there are different types of dives: fouled + no dive, fouled + dive, and not fouled + dive. This was a foul plus a dive and Clattenburg had no hesitation giving the penalty.
Arteta stepped up, scored, we hugged each other, and then confusion reigned. Giroud was shown a yellow card and Arteta had to take the penalty again. Encroachment? Is that a yellow card? Really? So, up stepped Arteta again and scored again.
Arsenal were up 2-1 and belief had snuck back into the stadium. That’s when the crowd started to sing, in dribs and drabs, about going to Wembley. It was a bit early for me. But hey, who am I to fault people for believing when I felt we were going to win all along?
And if we had belief then, that belief turned to ecstasy when Giroud turned in the third and jubilation when he turned in the fourth. That was it, the Wembley songs were now raining down on the field.
After the match, we were all bubbling. Talking about the game, the players what would happen next in the tournament, who was going to win the League, and everything about the Arsenal. After sending Adrian and Chary home, I went to get a pie for dinner at Piebury Corner. They were out of hot pies and I was hungry but the owner simply offered me one of her husband’s Scotch eggs. A haggis Scotch egg. How wonderful are these people? I ate my Scotch egg, had a pint of Fullers, and walked over to the Tollington.
At the Tollington I spent the night drinking pints of lager and talking football with all the locals. If I name them all, I’ll leave someone out. So I won’t. And I won’t bore you recalling how many pints of lager I drank, whether I could belch the whole of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Ras downing a pint of cider, or any of the conversations we all had.
Just suffice it to say that my whole experience here has been great. I miss being able to talk football with passionate fans. I just don’t have that where I live. Whenever I come back, I’m reminded why I love this place: I miss the stadium, the smell of London, the streets full of people dodging in an out of traffic, slow walkers, pints of lager on a Saturday in the sun, and the Arsenal, mostly I miss the Arsenal.
But I’m left wondering if winning makes everything better or if everything is actually pretty good already and the winning is just the topping on a pretty damn fine cake. I really feel lucky to be able to have gone to a single game in my life much less to have the wonderful experiences I have in London. I feel lucky to have friends like Adrian and Les, Chary and Ras. To meet people like the Tollington Gooners and to be able to get tickets to a Champions League away match in Bayern.