When I began this blog almost a year ago, typing up each matchday adventure I experience, I wasn’t expecting to go this long without a post featuring the team I actually support.
Yet here we are.
The reasons for the delay are plentiful but the largest factor involves cost. Like many fans of the Premier League in the twenty-first century, I do not live close to my chosen team. Therefore, transport to London alone can be very expensive, and Arsenal are notorious for charging the highest ticket prices in English football. Combined, it makes it very difficult to see my team as often as I’d like. The travails of modern football, eh?
My love affair with Arsenal dates back to the 1996/97 season, when I discovered club football through a family friend and quickly converted my entire family. Your typical football initiation story usually involves parents, often the Dad, passing down the love of his team to his sons and daughters. In my case, it was in reverse.
Still on a high from Euro 96 and finally understanding there was more to football than just smashing the ball around with mates on the school playground, a friend of mine introduced me to Arsenal. Or, The Arsenal as he put it. We had a kick-about in the garden, and he wore one of those classic early-90s Arsenal shirts. I was absolutely besotted with it, this resplendent red shirt with the white sleeves, and all the trimmings that made those nineties Adidas kits such classics.
Just like that, I was hooked. I didn’t know any players, I didn’t know they were from London, I just loved everything about this kit; the imagery of the cannon on the chest, with JVC sprawled across the torso in block white letters. I even liked that the team’s name began with an A, just like mine. I was Arsenal. To this point I only knew about the England national team, so discovering Arsenal was a revelation.
I soon began to learn all I could about my chosen team. When I get interested in something, I absorb information like a sponge, and at seven years-old I owed most of my Arsenal knowledge to a random copy of Gunners Magazine discovered in the village post office. Looking back now, I can see just how timely and fortuitous it was that the magazine was even in stock (it must have been the only football magazine the post office carried).
Before long I began demanding my family change the channel to Sky Sports whenever Arsenal were featured (another blessing, satellite TV), and soon enough my Dad was converted, and then my brother as well. Over the course of that first season (Arsene Wenger’s first year also) we became an Arsenal family and the bond was established, not in the traditional sense obviously, but it worked and has stood the test of time. Dad doesn’t miss a game, and has become more obsessed than I could ever hope to be.
Which leads us to this game, Arsenal versus Wolves, my first trip to see the Gunners in 2018/19, and my first time seeing them under a manager not named Wenger.
I met Caleb at the train station in the morning and, like me, he’s another Arsenal fan who has followed the team since an early age. Caleb had been to Highbury when he was a nipper but had yet to attend a game at the Emirates, so we had a special day ahead of us. We grabbed some breakfast and a couple of beers for the train and set off, London-bound.
Our journey to north London was swift and before long we emerged from Arsenal station into the welcoming smell of fried onions on Gillespie Road. We moved past the burger vans and met up with my Dad, but the smell of food had made us hungry so lunch was on the agenda.
Minutes later we arrived at our destination, Piebury Corner on the Holloway Road. Football matches and pies have been a match day tradition for almost as long as football has existed, and I had heard great things about Piebury Corner and their range of Arsenal-themed pies. Their match day menu is inspired by legendary Gunners from the club’s past, like Tony Adams (steak and ale), Charlie George (beef and onion), Dennis Bergkamp (chicken, ham and leek), plus a bunch more.
We ordered our pies and grabbed a beer each before settling down outside to enjoy our lunch. I opted for the Sol Campbell themed pie, a jerk chicken edition with roast potatoes and gravy. Piebury Corner surpassed all expectations and was genuinely one of the best pre-match meals I’ve ever had. There’s no doubt I will be making repeat visits.
As we were tucking into our lunch, enjoying the northern soul pulsing from the DJ decks nearby, Dad kept looking over his shoulder at a tall, smarty dressed gentleman stood a few metres from us. “That’s Alan Smith!” he said, and Dad was right, the Arsenal legend was there signing his new book for fans, right in front of our eyes. It’s not every day you’re having lunch and a legend like Alan Smith walks by. He still looks every inch a footballer, and it was an unexpected highlight of the day to see him. Later in the day, I saw on Instagram that Ian Wright had been at Piebury Corner as well, so we narrowly missed out on two legend sightings.
We finished our pies and begrudgingly stopped staring at Alan Smith, and finally made our way towards the stadium. As I only get to the Emirates once or twice a season (or not at all last year), a visit to the club shop, The Armoury, is mandatory. We still had time to spare before the 4:30pm kickoff, so we could browse the shop in relative peace, as thankfully the majority of fans had yet to overwhelm the place.
I had a £10 voucher to spend so had already resigned myself to purchasing at least one item. This season the Arsenal squad have been training in a very smart navy and pink fleece top (very Dulwich Hamlet actually), so I had that in the back of my mind as a potential pick-up. Naturally it was on the first rack of clothes I saw upon entry.
“I’ll just hold onto this for awhile and think about it,” Caleb and Dad heard me say to myself, naively.
We continued to roam the shop but the damage was done, so I headed to the tills to make my purchase. Along the way I found some bruised banana pattern socks hung on the queue barriers and impulsively added them to my haul (how could I resist, they are beautiful).
When I got outside I noticed Dad was missing. Didn’t he leave the shop when I got in the queue? Caleb admitted, “he might be buying something as well…” which astounded me as Dad always has such great willpower when we go to Arsenal. He has never succumbed to the temptations of the club megastore but on this day, 30% off coats proved too much to resist and got the best of him. Well played Arsenal marketing team, you did it.
Armed with our gear we moved on. I bought my customary programme and picked up an issue of the Gooner fanzine as well. The match programme this season has often featured designs from the past but this one had an especially distinctive look, based on the programmes from the wartime years between 1939 and 1945. In honour of Remembrance Day, the retro programme cover even included advice on how to react in the event of an Air Raid Warning. You know, just in case.
Every trip to the Emirates must include a visit to the legends cast in bronze, dotted around the outskirts of the ground, so we took a lap and paused for photos with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
We still had over an hour to go before the game got underway, so I thought Caleb would appreciate seeing what remained of Highbury, Arsenal’s historic former home. When the stadium was torn down and redeveloped for luxury apartments over twelve years ago, thankfully the stylish Grade II listed East Stand was left untouched (externally at least). Walking past this architectural marvel is the very definition of a trip down memory lane, and I enjoy making that mini pilgrimage to the place that brought me such joy in my youth. As great and modern as the Emirates is, I still miss the cosy confines of Highbury.
With kickoff in sight we walked back to the stadium, passed through the turnstiles, watched the final minutes of the Chelsea – Everton game on the flatscreens, and ascended the staircases to our section in the Clock End. I usually sit in the Clock End on my visits to Arsenal, as it tends to be the only section tickets are still available to members like me. Emirates Stadium is such a fine venue that wherever you are, you’re guaranteed a good view, and we remarked on our perfect vantage point as we settled into our seats.
With it being Remembrance Day, both teams gathered around the centre circle to observe the Last Post and minute’s silence that followed. They were joined by a hundred ex-servicemen and veterans, spread out along the sideline, dressed in their immaculate uniforms. It was extremely profound to hear 60,000 people silenced, and when the referee blew his whistle to end it, the roar and applause from the fans was deafening. It was a powerful moment.
The ceremonies concluded and Arsenal got the game underway. Under Unai Emery, the club’s new head coach, the Gunners have made an impressive start to this new era but have been notoriously slow to begin matches. In fact, along with Cardiff, Arsenal haven’t led at half-time in any of their matches so far this season. We were obviously desperate for that to change, as Emery’s men attacked the Clock End and were headed right at us.
Unfortunately Wolves had other ideas. Before the game Caleb and I had spoken to some guys on the platform at Kings Cross, going to the game as neutrals they said. “What do you think the score will be lads? 3-0, right?” I was taken aback at his confidence and got the sense he hadn’t followed Wolves much this year. I knew the Black Country side were, at the very least, supremely well organised, the definitive embodiment of a team you could say. Wolves had hit a rough patch of late, losers of their last three games, but I knew not to underestimate them and expected a tough afternoon for my Gunners.
And so it proved to be, as Arsenal repeatedly had the lion’s share of the ball but couldn’t break down the stubborn Wolves defence.
Disaster struck when the visitors took an unexpected lead after 13 minutes. In all honesty, you could sense it was coming, as multiple Arsenal players made a string of errors over a five minute period that resulted in Wolves capitisaling. A Sead Kolasinac pass in field was inexplicably left by Granit Xhaka for reasons unknown, allowing Wolves to pounce on the loose ball. A quick exchange later allowed Ivan Cavaleiro to tap the ball past a helpless Bernd Leno to give Wolves a 1-0 lead, sending the travelling fans into rapture. It was a terrible lapse in concentration by the Swiss midfielder, another mistake to add to his collection.
Hoping for an Arsenal response, we were left wanting. Leno made more saves to deny Wolves and Arsenal continued to beat their heads against the golden Wolverhampton wall in front of them. Kolasinac was having an awful time at left back, repeatedly making the wrong choice and often isolated by the Wolves attackers. In his defence he was given no support by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left wing, playing out of position. Arsenal’s best outfield player of the half was easily Lucas Torreira, as the diminutive Uruguayan midfielder never stopped battling and covered every inch of grass, constantly mopping up his teammate’s mistakes. He really impressed the three of us, and drew applause from the crowd many times.
When the referee blew the whistle for half time, I was disappointed but still confident Arsenal would find a way back into the game. Emery had managed to re-energise his side for the second half so many times this season, surely he would work his magic again.
Unfortunately, the performance didn’t improve as much as we hoped. Alex Iwobi was replaced at half time by French youngster Matteo Guendouzi and it definitely helped shore up the weak links that Wolves had exploited, particularly Kolasinac’s left flank. Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3 and began to look more dangerous, but still lacked that extra something in the final third to really test Wolves. To their credit, the visitors were superb in their defensive effort and pressing, never allowing space to the likes of Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Mesut Ozil, captain for the day, was rendered ineffective by Wolves’ system and looked quite jaded as he repeatedly twisted and turned to find gaps that just weren’t there.
With twenty minutes remaining Hector Bellerin had a chance fall to him on his weaker left foot that he could only sweep over the bar. Bellerin then turned provider when his cross found Aubameyang, who missed a glorious chance to equalise from close range, only glancing the outside of the post with a flick that really ought to have done better. I started to fear this was going to end in the worst way, another sad chapter to my “seeing Arsenal in person” scrapbook.
My friend Mark often jokes that I’m cursed when it comes to watching our team, that I bring them nothing but bad luck.
Was he going to be right, again?
Emery had seen enough and introduced Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with just under a quarter of an hour remaining but Arsenal still couldn’t find a breakthrough, and Wolves remained dangerous on the counter, with Leno making yet another magnificent one-on-one save to keep the score at 1-0.
Finally, relief came with just five minutes remaining, when a Mkhitaryan cross evaded everyone, including Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio, and nestled into the net to bring Arsenal level. I think I actually looked to the sky and said thank you. The Emirates crowd around us went nuts, as it appeared the team had rescued a point at the very least.
With injury time upon us we urged Arsenal forward, to push for the winner we desperately craved. Wolves seemed momentarily rattled from the setback of losing their lead but quickly recovered, and began to apply pressure in return. As the home side poured forward, they left themselves susceptible at the back and the Wolves’ sprint relay team almost won them the game.
Adama Traore, their dynamic super-sub, collected a long ball and burst clear of Rob Holding down the centre of the pitch, only to be denied by a fantastic point-blank save from Leno. Then, in the dying minutes of injury time, 18-year-old substitute Morgan Gibbs-White hit the underside of the crossbar. As the youngster connected with the ball and it hung in the air, the stadium fell silent in anticipation and my heart felt like it was in my mouth. It was a narrow escape as the ball was scrambled to safety.
The referee blew his whistle and I was thankful it ended at 1-1, as Wolves could consider themselves unlucky not to have walked away with a famous victory. I expected the visitors to provide a stern test for the Gunners, and for the neutrals it was probably an entertaining game, but I found the experience exhausting, a tension-filled nightmare (especially those final minutes). Despite that, it was good to see all the new faces in the squad, and Bernd Leno was definitely my man of the match. The German shot stopper single-handedly prevented the afternoon from turning into a complete disaster.
As we departed the stadium and made the slow crawl among the masses to catch the tube, we all agreed it had been an enjoyable day. Football isn’t always about winning, despite what they’d have you believe. I’m set to return to the Emirates again, in early December for the visit of Huddersfield, and I’ll be hoping Emery and his men have a more inspired afternoon next time.