Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.
I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.
The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.
As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.
The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.
“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”
Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.
“I can see us losing 3-0.”
Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.
“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”
The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.
“The Round Table.”
“The White Swan.”
“The Shakespeare’s Head.”
We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.
Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”
Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”
Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.
“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”
Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.
Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.
“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”
We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.
As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.
“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”
“You were there, right?”
“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”
By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.
I had a little chuckle to myself.
The team news came through.
Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.
Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.
“Make way for the champions…”
Bruno was full of smiles.
On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.
There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.
“What do you think of Tottenham?”
“What do you think of shit?”
Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.
A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.
There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.
We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.
Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.
Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.
While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.
A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.
Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.
A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.
The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.
“He’s done it again.
He’s done it again.
He’s done it again.”
This soon morphed into the more sinister –
“He’s done you again.
He’s done you again.
He’s done you again.”
Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.
Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.
I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.
“Enjoying it, mate?”
“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”
The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.
Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.
In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.
An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.
Five minutes of extra time.
Glenn was right.
We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.
The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.
The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.
Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.
I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.
“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”
It had been a good day.