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 FC (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.