By Neal Thurman
How does an American born in 1970 with modest but not entirely absent athletic gifts and no experience as a professional footballer find himself playing in the final-ever match on the pitch at Highbury?
The story of my on-field appearance at the legendary home of the Gunners in 2006 is just part of how I have tried to go beyond watching Arsenal matches on TV and in local pubs to create a deeper bond between myself and the Premier League club that I have adopted from afar.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia playing every sport I could and passionately following the local sports teams. Despite the success of Philadelphia’s four major teams in the late 70s and early 80s, professional soccer was just never part of the local – or national – consciousness. But soccer was the dominant participant sport in my town and our team was very good. Many of my favorite memories of my childhood revolve around our travel soccer team.
I remember a lot of good times with friends. I remember my dad as a vocal presence at every game despite not really caring about soccer outside of my participation. I remember fast food after games. Perhaps most vividly of all, I remember a lot of winning. The only thing missing was that meaningful professional team to follow and dream about being a part of.
Fast forward to the early-90s and I had graduated college and moved to Washington, DC. After giving up soccer during college to play basketball, I rediscovered the game and immersed myself in the local soccer scene playing a match schedule that would exhaust even a well-trained professional.
The difference this time was that in addition to all of the fantastic personal memories and relationships, the international soccer world was starting to beat a path to our door. Soccer at the highest level started to become available as a supplement to playing the game and hanging out with friends who had shared similar experiences growing up.
I vaguely remember watching Italia ‘90 during afternoons between years of college but USA ‘94 was really the beginning of the obsession that led me to be standing on the pitch at Highbury in 2006. In 1994 I had the privilege to see Dennis Bergkamp play for Holland with such style and skill, that I decided that I’d better find a way to follow his career and whatever team he played for. At the same time, world soccer started showing up more and more frequently on television and with the 1997 launch of Fox Sports World (now Fox Soccer Channel) the seeds of my obsession were firmly planted.
In my late-20s and early-30s, my obsession grew. I had a tight-knit group of friends who were playing soccer together regularly, going to DC United matches in the newly-birthed MLS and turning out for televised matches from the best European leagues at Lucky Bar, Summer’s, Capitol Lounge, or someone’s house. We all had our own rooting interests from Arsenal to Manchester United to Chelsea to Newcastle but we had created our own version of a soccer culture despite being thousands of miles from the UK.
Then, as it tends to do, life started to intervene.
As often happens in a transient town like Washington, DC our tight-knit group started to gradually disperse. Some got married and found themselves with more responsibilities. Some took jobs or assignments in other cities or countries. Some just moved on to other interests once their bodies betrayed them and they couldn’t play the game anymore.
As a result, I found myself in my mid-30s and at a crossroads. My connections to the local soccer culture that had given my support for Arsenal so much context was fading. Unlike fans who live near the team they support, I had very little personal connection to Arsenal and very few day-to-day interactions with friends, family, and co-workers to help replace that fading group.
Rather than letting my relationship with Arsenal wither as my support became a more and more solitary experience, I decided to find some experiences that would allow me to connect with a broader Arsenal community.
It was this search that led me to Football Aid, an organization that puts on charity matches at famous football grounds in England and Scotland. Those interested in participating bid on spots in the starting line-up for two squads – one wearing the team’s home kit and the other wearing the away kit. From there, the experience is similar to what a professional player would experience on a typical match day – minus the thousands and thousands of screaming fans. Here is a brief recap of my day and how it got me closer to the Arsenal culture.
I arrived at Highbury and was directed into the main entrance to the East Stand. The first thing that struck me upon seeing the stadium is how neatly it was tucked into the neighborhood it is part of, a stark contrast to the acres of parking lots around American stadiums. You have to understand that the venues I grew up going to in Philadelphia – Veterans Stadium and The Spectrum – shared two things, they were built relatively recently (in the 1960s and 1970s) and they were built utterly without any charm.
You can imagine my surprise at the marble-floored entrance with the cannon logo and a bust of Herbert Chapman on a marble pedestal. From there I was struck by the large mural signed by Arsenal greats past and present as they paid their respects to Highbury in its final season. The entire effect spoke to a different era and one that I’m glad I had a chance to see before it passed into history.
From there it was on to the dressing rooms. Now, I won’t kid you, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the dressing rooms were nothing to write home about, apart from perhaps the inadequacy of the facilities. But that was all brushed aside the minute I stood in front of my locker – complete with a full personalized kit. There’s something about seeing your name on the back of the shirt, being in that locker room, and knowing you’re about to head out of the tunnel and play a competitive match on hallowed ground that makes you realize that the quality of a dressing room means very little when compared to the entire experience.
|Playing on Highbury's famous pitch
Sitting in the same stall where the greats of the game have prepared to meet their counterparts and going through the same motions – putting on the shirt and shorts. Shin pads next. Socks over them and then the boots. Just sort of a surreal experience. It just got more surreal from there as we saw the “enemy” coming out of the other dressing room and joined each other in coming out of the tunnel, warming up, taking pre-match team photos, and gawking up at the iconic images usually reserved for television – the Clock End, the thousands and thousands of seats, and the words “Arsenal FC” spelled out in white seats among the red ones.
The actual game experience wasn’t TOO different from what you’d expect here in the States from a decent amateur league match. For all of the cultural air of superiority about “their game” that is generally on display from the British media, I didn’t feel out of my depth. There were one or two players that were decidedly better than me either technically, athletically or both but as the lone “Yank” in the group, I was by no means outclassed.
The pitch was a little rougher than I expected after seeing it on TV and imagining it as one gigantic golf green but it was the end of a long season, it has been very dry for about a week, and there was little reason to keep the field up because, as I said, this was about the last thing that happened there before they started to redevelop the stadium into the Highbury Square project. Still, compared to the small-ish, overused and under cared-for fields that have marked most of my playing career, it was still a treat to play on a field where the ball generally rolled and bounced true.
Ultimately, my (away) side lost the match, but the day was about so much more than that. It was my first tangible brush with the history of the club and an experience I wouldn’t trade since there isn’t a professional footballer alive who can say he was involved in the last competitive match at Highbury.
Neal Thurman is a management consultant in the Washington, DC area. In his spare time, his obsession with soccer has led to writing assignments for Yanks Abroad, Goal.com, Yahoo UK, and World Soccer Magazine. His very understanding wife deserves a lot of the credit for allowing this obsession to continue despite life’s mounting responsibilities. He and his writing partner (who isn’t a Gooner, but is OK anyway) can be found writing about the Premier League and Premier League Fantasy Football at http://fantasyepl.blogspot.com. Join him there on most Premier League Saturdays for a live chat while the games are going on.