The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
Let us take you for a walk. We'll start at Queen Vic's clock on the edge of Highbury Barn, and as you sashay down Highbury Hill you'll briefly espy the horizon-clogging deathstar of "the Emirates" (the stadium name that mainstream commentators and journos are contractually obliged to use, but it's only really known to locals and Gooners as the Grove), before it sinks once more beneath the Victorian villas on either side of the road. Eventually, on the right just by the old art-deco West Stand entrance, as the street flattens out towards Arsenal tube station, there's a gateway where the old Highbury matchday turnstile used to be.
Now, of course, it's the entrance to a gated parallel universe of glass-flecked, clean-lined flats (sorry, we mean "an exclusive and truly unique development of high specification apartments") but - unlike the old Highbury - there's a public right of way enabling even us unwashed to venture unescorted through the grounds of said flats, meaning that you or I can freely wander across what used to be the turf in front of the South Stand, see how all of the old stand facades remain, albeit now housing urban luxury ("Highbury Square") for an unbeguiling combo of Arsenal obsessives, second-home seeking City workers, buy-to-let parasites and minted locals.
It's fair to say that the residents and developers do their best to stop you noticing there's a public path: indeed, it took a local newspaper campaign to shame them into actually unlocking the gates, even though the requirement to provide public access was one of the few concessions the council made when rubberstamping Arsenal's plans to bury N5 in endless vistas of premium high-rises and premium low-rises. So don't worry if it all looks a bit "private": it isn't. (Similarly, a little further south there's daytime public access from Gaskin Street to Islington Green through the private square built there, behind the old Collins Music Hall: again, the residents would seem to prefer we didn't know, so use it or lose it).
Stroll through the gate and in a few steps you are there, where the pitch used to be: treat yourself to a touchline meander. An acre or two of manicured plants to the landscaped left. Shrubbage where Adams caught opponents offside, where Keown wrestled them down, where Meade and Caesar laboured, where Henry's shots rippled the net. For an older generation, memories will be of Joe Mercer, Wally Barnes or Reg Lewis gracing this arena at the outset of the 1950s, when much of the area was still bombed out, when memories of Cliff Bastin were fresh, when local kids used to alternate their Saturday 3 p.ms between Highbury and White Hart Lane (even celebrated THFC fan Chas Hodges freely admits in his autobiography to being one of them). Incidentally, the Nicholls toy shop on Holloway Road those same kids used to frequent is still there: not everything has been overhauled this past half-century or so.
When you reach the east side of Highbury Square and exit, take the sharp left into Avenell Road where the 'thirties frontage of the stadium is most neatly preserved: the concierge desk snug where marble halls and Chapman busts abounded. Then, ambulate down towards the huge grey new Arsenal spaceship, fortnightly sucking in 60,000 come-lately out-of-towners until they all leave 80 minutes in (not merely for easy access to the Waitrose, the waiting limos and the chauffeured 4x4s that leave their engines running throughout the game: a lot of them are more into rugby really, and just get confused easily). Many fans still commute, though: since the ground move, the greenspace of Highbury Fields has been disfigured permanently by a diagonal track directly through its heart, the grass worn down to dust and mud solely by the weight of Arsenal fans trampling across it every fortnight.
The ten-foot high letters that spell out "ARSENAL" in imposing grey stone - sadly, you can't move them about to make choice anagrams - are the entrance to the ground from Drayton Park (the road), in front of the recently-christened Clock End Bridge over the railway line to Drayton Park (the station). Across the way, Drayton Park (the pub), normally quiet and hyper-local, enjoys bonanza paydays when the away supporters' coaches come down and it can barely contain the demand. A few doors down, Veli's caff: a great place for double egg and chips that no doubt now has to face up to unparalleled competition for its handful of tables. Veli once told us that he only ever really wanted to concentrate on serving locals, but now there's a stadium right across the way, that's a bit of a pipedream on matchdays. One suspects the takings compensate.
Should you slope around the Emirates' environs before a game you will spot all the tickbox new-breed Arsenal fan matchday staples: huge queues in Starbucks (fan in front of me plumped for a wet skinny caramel macchiato, paid for on a card), fans indulging in champagne breakfasts in more than one Upper Street eaterie, a small army of Range Rovers (usually with disabled badges) crawling around the streets, Zilouf's doing its £16 per head gourmet "matchday special". Post-game, fans in Holloway Tesco's stocking up on fine red wine, French cheese and more champagne. Now it is quite possible that the same scenes are repeated nationwide, and that fans in Bristol, Bournemouth, Bury, Burnley and Barnsley also max on macchiato, champers and Bordeaux in the same numbers. But somehow we feel entitled to doubt it.
To be fair to the club, the main entrances to the new ground (sorry, "stadium") acknowledge the club's peripatetic history via Dial Square, Woolwich and Highbury; we haven't yet dared to enter the Arsenal Museum, but the mural wrapped like a cake decoration around the circumference of the place has a reasonable spread of Arsenal greats past and present, although the true greats, those who've earned their place in history rather than those still hanging on the coat-tails of the present, are defiled by having their names on the back of their shirts, as if all that we've ever had is the febrile acceleration of the commoditisation, the monetisation of the sport post-1990, a financial imperative now reflected in the unresolved antagonisms between local people and the Arsenal empire in their midst about planning, about parking, about policing. It's hard for cash-strapped councils to negotiate against multi-million pound corporations, whether Tesco or Arsenal, and it's harder still for the immediate community to have their voice heard by an entity that is increasingly looking to markets thousands of miles away, that is on-the-record as claiming 30 million overseas fans (and a frankly unlikely 2 million in the UK) whose goodwill needs to be mined. Arsenal FC *does* still do very good work in the community, does continue to foster some of its local links: we wouldn't want to suggest otherwise. But in general, a bit like the game itself, it's never felt further away.
And - the story is old, but it goes on - we think of our love of football (and we do still love it, despite its lazily packaged ubiquity spreading it thinner and thinner, which we will refuse to let crush us) and all the truisms that underpin it: loving not just football today, but the rich cultural history of the sport; loving not just the highest tiers of football, but valuing and enjoying it at every level; loving not just your club team or your country, but the wonderful, wide world of international football; loving not just "champagne" football, but admiring defensive, resilient, yes even bus-parking football too; appreciating that football is a game - a game - played (and refereed) by human beings in real time, and that the TV-led obsession with "video evidence" is just as inimical to appreciating it as overdosing on Carling OPTA stats, or those over the age of about 12 wheeling out the good old "deservometer" (the ever-selective "we should have won because we had more possession / we hit the woodwork / their goal was offside / the ref was a homer / because of Blatter and Platini", etc etc); recognising that MK Dons are not a football club; recognising that at the end of the day, real life is still more important (this is quite comforting to dwell on if, to pluck a random example out of the air, your team of choice has just lost 6-1 to Oxford Utd), and that just shouting a lot, being able to dish it out but not take it, and using football as a vehicle for general abuse of the other team / their fans / your own fellow fans / officials is not "passion", or at any rate, not the kind of passion that's worth cultivating. And we realise that actually, only a few of us seem to regard these things as truisms any more, which is probably why we feel so isolated in thinking that football is disappearing swiftly into a swishing cesspit of its own making, soundtracked only by cash tills and verbal abuse (and given that the average afternoon at a game at any level consists of little other than folk hurling the C-word about with abandon, the irony in the fear that vuvuzelas might destroy such a valuable atmosphere is PALPABLE...)
So we sigh, and retrace our steps to the old ground, and we step inside again, just to try once more to summon up the ghosts of matches past and imagine the roar of the North Bank in the days of Joe and Wally and Reg, and we wonder what they might have made of the inescapable, in-yer-face modern game, of Super Sundays and baby Bentleys and Football Punk and "the race for fourth" and taking out a second mortgage to buy a season ticket. Then, feeling a slight chill, we turn around, ascend the steep incline back up Highbury Hill, and contemplate all that the new season might bring.