As a lifelong Arsenal fan, I was obviously going to jump at the chance of free corporate hospitality tickets to the Emirates Stadium (thanks, Dad). We’re not just talking club level; we’re talking our own private box of nine people, owned by my Dad’s company. Even better; my Dad had managed to hustle three tickets, meaning that my Dad, brother and I could all go together (something that we had previously been deprived of).
You see, back in the day we had two season tickets in the East Stand Upper (or the ‘Highbury Library’ as I so familiarly recall). My brother and I used to share games between us and take it in turns to accompany my Dad (Mum was quite happy at home, away from what she termed a shabby, yobbish and unpleasant experience). But we were hardly deprived. If anything, on most match days I’d feel like the luckiest kid in the world.
Match days represented something so much more to me than the games themselves; they represented a fatherly-daughterly ritual. We would park in the same place, meet the same people (the shy but intelligent Tony whose death a few years ago came far too prematurely), and walk the same route to the stadium. I would cling to my Dad’s hand, desperately trying to keep up with his insane pace, whilst clocking every swear word I have and will ever learn from men with large bellies. My hair would become wrapped in the smell of fags and fried onions – an adult smell – and I’d listen intently to everything my Dad was teaching me about the beautiful game. I clearly remember the feeling I experienced when seeing the pitch for the first time at the first ever game I attended (we lost 2-1 to Everton): awe; delight; surprise; love. The brain’s capacity to exactly remember these important ‘firsts’ always impresses me.
But enough reminiscing. Yesterday, the three of us stomped across to the impressive Emirates stadium, sharing adult perspectives on childhood memories. The walking distance somehow felt shorter, and my Dad seemed to be walking slower than he used to. But again, it’s just a matter of perspective: the distance was further and now my longer legs can now take bigger strides than Dad’s.
There’s something very welcoming about being in a sea of football fans wearing the same colour. It’s a uniform, a comradeship. Arsenal fans aren’t exactly known for their hooliganism and raucousness, so there was no sense of threat, only anticipation.
The first difference between standard tickets and box-level tickets is the entrance. No metal turnstiles for you to rub your thighs against. A sleek little automated ticket-reader (not unfamiliar to the one I use every day in my optimum-security offices at Canary Wharf) let me in, while apparently ladies’ bags checks are no longer mandatory. Or maybe I just look trustworthy.
Then, the option of an escalator or lift to take you to your seats (nothing like the myriad of concrete steps I used to huff and puff my way up at Highbury). We opted for the escalator, which opened out on to a lobby from which I could see various bars and restaurants, more like a five-star hotel or first-class airport waiting lounge: nothing ‘football’ about it. The main reminder that we were inside the Arsenal football stadium came from the chants reverberating around the ground, and perhaps the large beaded curtain with an imprint of Arsene Wenger’s face on it. Elegant.
Helpful staff (in odd air steward uniforms) directed us up a floor: above club level and to the exclusive box level. I’m told the next level up is ‘diamond’, an invitation-only type affair, where seats are worth one-hundred grand and members are flown to away games, amongst other things. We were taken along a corridor (carpeted, elegantly lit) with closed doors (not at all unlike a hotel) until we came to our destination: Box 62.
It really was incredible. Buffet lunch, silver service (from our own private host), free bar, free programmes, flatscreen TV showing the game, two seats (indoors and outdoors) and a perfect, unobstructed view. We staked our claim on seats at the very front, looking down on the flawless pitch, and feeling rather important all of a sudden. Oh, and I can’t not mention that there was no queue for the ladies: something I have never experienced at a football match (or indeed any other day outing for that matter).
Not many words needed about the game, other than it was a 6-0 thumper, with Theo claiming a hatrick (lovely how the players are now referred to by first names). We also got to see the delights of Cesc and Robin, who were brought on for a pleasurable knock-about for the last thirty minutes. In fairness to the Blackpool fans, they made one hell of a racket, presumably just enjoying the day out as opposed to actually expecting anything from their players. I got caught up in the carnival and joined in with a bit of home chanting (still the same old classics), and fondly remembered a few that rose to popularity and died out when the players left the club (Dave Platt and Vieira anyone?) and even the golden oldie of ’98 (“Arsene Wenger’s magic, he wears a magic hat…”).
So did yesterday’s classier experience top all those childhood years watching the games in cattle class? Absolutely impossible to compare. Do I still love going to watch Arsenal play with the best men in my life? You bet ya.
We all agreed that Mum should get the next box seat game; after all, it’s not too shabby anymore.