Why the Emirates is no longer in the shadow of Highbury

The end came swiftly. One minute she was pulling pints, engaging in banter and very occasionally allowing herself a tipple or two while she served the thirsty patrons of the Railway. The next minute, the axe fell. Ladies and gentlemen, Gina has left the building.

The news reached me as I enjoyed the build-up to the 125th birthday celebrations before yesterday’s 1-0 hammering of Evertoffee. The messenger, fittingly, was Adrian, a man who perhaps more than any, typified the stoic old school Arsenal fan who supped in this Finsbury Park boozer.

“The end of an era,” he opined with usage of a mobile telephonic device texting system. I am told he went on to vent his spleen during the skirmish against the Scousers with particularly colourful invective aimed towards Tim Cahill, the shocking revelation of landlady Gina’s demise still playing on his state of mind.

The brewery in their wisdom had called time on Gina and her lilting Irish brogue and rosy cheeks. A new dawn would rise. And the skewered symmetry wasn’t lost on me. For yesterday at the Emirates I finally felt as if I belonged at the “new” ground. I was in the stadium early with my son and for the first time I was able to see at first hand the efforts the club have made to turn this once-soulless, cavernous bowl into a home from home from Highbury (most other home games I arrive a few minutes before kick-off which allows only a brief period of admiration of the urinals).

Of course, Highbury will live long in the memory, never to be forgotten. But once you cut through the nostalgia and embrace the Emirates, you can obtain a clear vision of what a magnificent cathedral of football it is. Best club ground in Britain by a country mile. And the architects, both in vision and practice, deserve huge credit. As do the Arsenal employees charged with transforming the stadium. Largely, they have listened to the fans’ moans and groans and acted upon them (don’t hold your breath for the price of ale and grub to come down though).

After we paid homage at the TA6 statue, we went in and toured the colourful and vibrant display of former glories and one-time greats that adorn the stadium walls as part of the “Arsenalisation”. Here I was able to tell Josh about the likes of Peter Storey, Bob Wilson, Liam Brady and Rocky Rocastle, to name but a few, as he gazed at life-size images. I talked him through a few of my experiences witnessing hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments: Anfield ’89, Wembley,Copenhagen, Riot Direct Stadium and Very Old Trafford (never got round to mentioning Brussels ’80 funny enough).

But here is the point: history is vitally important and should be cherished. But it is the here and now that counts. As I eulogised about Mickey Thomas, Tony, Adams and Dennis Bergkamp, Josh kept staring at the RVP figure previously purchased for seven stirling at the club shop. I stopped wittering on and we took our seats. I realised that to a great extent, my time following the Arsenal wasn’t that important to my boy. It was RVP, the goal-getting hero to the new young blood, and his swashbuckling team-mates, who he had come to see.

The fans around us were particularly up for it having been served a (real life) glimpse of the old guard, sparking memories of bygone glories. Georgie Graham (minus his magic hat), Bob Wilson, Jens Lehmann, Bob Pires amongst a host of other favourites took to the turf to cheers. It was touching that Rocky’s son Ryan got such a tremendous ovation (BTW, I have just looked up ubiquitous in my dictionary and the definition is Tom Watt).  But overall the reflection served the supporters well. The songs coming from the area in which we found ourselves – East Stand/North Bank lower tier corner – embraced recent history. All the old favourites got an airing. Why, I even chipped in by starting, “My old man’s got a second hand Sierra…oh, Pat Vieira!” The response wasn’t universal.

Yes, there were still periods of uncomfortable silence as the game appeared to be heading towards a 0-0 draw despite our dominance but generally the atmosphere was bubbling along nicely where we sat. Not quite joyous. However, jubilation was to come.  As the chill began to take hold of the toes, out of the night sky an Alex Song ball arrowed towards the majestic stride of our very own Captain Fantastic. Bang. Goal.

We celebrated with gusto. How fitting that on a day we marked the past, the present played such a magnificent part. The whistle. Josh held his RVP miniature aloft. Arsenal and the Emirates now belonged to him as well as me. To all of us.

On the way home to Sussex with the lads, we raised a glass to the Gunners…and to Gina.

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