By Nick Lellenberg
I’ve always wanted to see London and Arsenal in the springtime, but my past two trips over have — inevitably — been in the dead of winter. Having previously enjoyed going to see lower division teams, I decided I would start my latest trip with Ipswich Town away in the Carling Cup Semi-Final first leg.
Really, I should have realized how the night would go when it took us around four hours to make the drive from St. Albans to Ipswich – a drive that normally takes less than two hours. We finally found the parking garage — which evidently everyone else had found as well since we had to park on the roof level — and made our way to the Station Hotel for a quick beer with a large portion of the Arsenal support before heading into the ground.
|A scene from Arsenal's win at Upton Park
The banter was clever and spirited, but it came to a quick end once the game began. This was the biggest home match for Ipswich in quite a while and the ground was packed. It’s an old stadium where you need to worry about poles being in your line of sight and with small, cramped away quarters. But as I stood there with my friend, he said to me, “it’s a bit like Highbury… really miss that place.” It was an old-fashioned cup tie in an old-fashioned stadium – the way football is meant to be played. The night began to take on that look which has become all too familiar for most Arsenal supporters in recent seasons — beautiful build up, no cutting edge. While Arsenal’s away support is always vocal, Ipswich Town’s dominance upon the proceedings began to take a toll.
The home support grew in confidence and when they began to sing “we’ll score in a minute”, they did exactly that. From that point on it was “one-nil to the Tractor Boys”, “who are ya?”, and “que sera, sera…” until the final whistle.
When the final whistle went I wasn’t shocked in the least. Nobody had to worry about getting any stick following the match; the majority of the crowd was too happy to even take notice of us. Ipswich Town deserved their victory, we had put in a shoddy performance, and I had just witnessed my first Arsenal loss in person in about 30 games. It didn’t come at Anfield, White Hart Lane, or the San Siro…it came at Portman Road, to a team sitting nearly bottom of the Championship. That dumfounding realization made the hour-long wait getting out of the parking garage and the hour drive further north to Mildenhall even worse.
|A sign pointing to a WWII airbase outside Norwich|
As much as this trip was about seeing the Arsenal, it held a personal touch for me. With an English grandmother from Norwich, I was determined to head there after Ipswich to see where it all started for my family as I have known it. She was a war bride — having met and married my grandfather during World War II while he was flying out of Hethel, just outside Norwich. I was able to find the church where they were married, her childhood home which has not changed since she left, and finally my grandfather’s airbase — which now happens to be the headquarters of Lotus cars in the UK.
Returning to London in time for Saturday, I headed to West Ham for our match in the league against a team in complete disarray amid rumors that Avram Grant would be sacked following the game no matter the outcome. There were more travel woes in reaching the ground as the tube was on strike in the Upton Park area, but eventually I was reunited with my Arsenal family and some of those who I have spent summers with in Bad Waltersdorf the past two years.
Everyone seemed pretty confident ahead of the match, but I’m sure if you’d asked for their honest thoughts more than one would have admitted to being nervous. If there’s one thing this season which Arsenal have shown, it’s the ability to make any game nerve-wracking.
Theo’s goal helped lower the blood pressure, but it wasn’t until the third went in that I felt absolutely safe. As it turned out, the match itself was probably one of the most simple I have seen. West Ham weren’t at the starting blocks and for most of us near the corner flag of the away section the game was spent going back-and-forth with the West Ham supporters right next to us.
The final whistle gone, three goals to the good, flying high in the league, defeat at Ipswich was all but forgotten. I was able to grab a few beers with friends before heading back to St. Albans and then to Heathrow in the morning, content with another trip back to the old country.
Nick Lellenberg is a long-time Arsenal supporter and a founding member of the Boston Gooners. He has traveled to Europe numerous times to see the Gunners in person, including two visits to the Club's training camp in Austria.