By Neal Thurman

Like many sports fans in America, Neal Thurman has had the good fortune to witness a wide-range of live sporting events. In a strange quirk of fate, he even had the rare opportunity to play in a charity match at Highbury in 2006 – four years before he actually saw an Arsenal match in person.

In this installment of ‘Across the Pond’, he shares his experience of attending a match at Emirates Stadium on April 3, 2010. He discusses the differences – and similarities – between attending football matches in London and going to events in the USA. Part one revolves around the match against Wolverhampton on April 3, 2010. Part two details the rest of his trip to London including attending matches at Craven Cottage and Selhurst Park and checking out the match-day scene at a London pub. 

Getting Tickets

Before my wife and I even scheduled our trip, it was pretty important that we know for a fact that we were going to be able to see an Arsenal match at the Emirates.  After all, seeing the Gunners was the primary reason for the trip; everything else was just a fun add-on.  

It turns out that it’s a bit of an ordeal to get tickets for matches at the homes of the “big clubs” in England.  For non-season ticket holders, acquiring a ticket in an officially sanctioned way is a complex maze of membership schemes, small windows for ticket availability, and the somewhat confusing online ticket exchanges.  I assume that all of these make sense if you live in the UK and don’t have to make a significant investment of money and time to attend a match, but for those of us who have to plan well in advance, it becomes an arduous task.

So, how did we finally solve this problem? As I was making reservations at a very nice hotel in the Holborn area of London, I asked to be connected to the concierge.  As is generally the case with a good concierge, two things were true: He could help and it would be expensive. I won’t tell you how much we spent to see this holiday-weekend match against Wolves, but let’s just say I can’t even imagine how much a match against Manchester United or Chelsea would have cost us!

American Equivalent:  There is no real equivalent that I’m aware of.  This was definitely the most complex process that I’ve encountered in getting into a sporting event and that includes a World Series game, World Cup matches in two countries, NFL, NBA, NHL, and March Madness and even the Olympics. 

Getting To Emirates Stadium

Our experience improved dramatically after we arrived in London.  I guess that going to a game at the Emirates is a bit like attending Harvard: the hard part is getting admitted and after that it’s almost all upside.

From our hotel, we took the Underground to the stadium.  The trains were heavily used but certainly not packed to the point of discomfort. Plus there were multiple stops that ticketholders could use to get to the stadium.  The walk from the tube station exit to the stadium was about six or eight blocks through an older, middle-income neighborhood comprised mostly of row houses. It reminded me a little bit of the Baltimore neighborhood I lived in when I was in college in the early 1990s.

As we neared the stadium, many of the streets were blocked off from auto traffic, allowing supporters to walk in the streets.  In contrast to most American sporting venues, you didn’t see people trying to buy or sell tickets, but there were many more street vendors grilling burgers or selling snacks in a way that US sporting venues cracked down on long ago.

American Equivalent: Getting to the game was a pretty cool experience in that there was no gigantic parking lot. The dominance of foot traffic and street vendors reminded me a lot of football games at the University of Wisconsin – without the 9 AM beer and brats of course!

The Stadium

I thought the exterior of the stadium was nicely done.  They didn’t try to re-create the old style charm of Highbury but at the same time, they did a nice job of creating a modern building while integrating murals of past heroes linking arms in a bow to the club’s motto Victoria Concordia Crescit (‘Victory Through Harmony’).   The murals, along with the Arsenal logo, also provided some great splashes of color which, along with glass elements in the exterior, created a livelier effect than the average stadium. 

 

ATP - Emirates Stadium

Inside Emirates Stadium

As we moved from outside to inside, I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed.  After having seen the entry area into Highbury which looked nothing like a traditional stadium, I was hoping that they had found a way to update the experience while maintaining some sense of the history that differentiates a club like Arsenal from a DC United or LA Galaxy in the US. 

What we found was an interior fairly typical of any newer NFL stadium. Wide concourses with plentiful TV monitors allowed us to watch the end of the Noon match. And the vendors were well-spaced, allowing for an easy flow of people getting where they needed to go.

What I felt was missing though, were the small touches. Things that would have reminded me that I was watching a club whose history stretches back to the late 1800s, not one that’s only really been relevant since the 40s or 50s like an NFL team.  Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Emirates, it just wasn’t quite as unique as I’d hoped.

American Equivalent: It was Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia) or FexEx Field (DC) when I was hoping for PacBell Park (SF Giants) or Camden Yards (Orioles).

The Game Atmosphere

I don’t want to be an apologist because I’m an Arsenal supporter so I won’t try to glorify everything about the experience at the Emirates.  But the major myth that was busted for me was that every English soccer match is full of singing and chanting from the opening whistle to final one.  It was actually fairly quiet compared to what I was expecting.  I once saw a match in Buenos Aires that was non-stop noise and excitement for about 120 minutes (20 minutes before kickoff, the entire first half, most of halftime, and the entire second half). 

The only time that the Emirates crowd really reached a crescendo was in the last five minutes of the match. In typical Arsenal fashion when playing an industrious but not terribly skilled team, they left it until the last moment.  As they pushed forward with attack after attack in the closing minutes, the crowd was on edge fearing that the Gunners might drop points against lowly Wolves.  When Bendtner broke the tie in the 90th minute, the place absolutely erupted. 

That said, for the majority of the contest, it was a fairly low level of noise and emotion compared to other soccer matches I’ve seen.  It was certainly below Argentina and the World Cup matches I’ve been to.  It was also a shade below the USA/Netherlands friendly I saw in the Amsterdam Arena in the early 2000s.  It was even well below the energy level of Beckham’s first MLS match here in the States at RFK Stadium. Was this because Wolves are not a natural rival? Was it because no one expected a close match? Was it because many “hard core” supporters were absent because it was Easter Weekend? I’m not sure because this was my only Emirates match to date. I’ll be very interested to add a more compelling match to my Arsenal resume to see how things change.

American Equivalent: An NFL game on the West Coast (San Diego or San Francisco; but not Oakland)

Food and Souvenirs

The food, other than minor differences in selection, was pretty much what you’d expect from a major sporting event in the US.  But what was remarkable was the team store.  Most modern stadiums I’ve been to have a team store that is much more extensive than what I was used to growing up.  When I was a kid, all you could buy was t-shirts, jerseys, pennants, and maybe a few other gimmicky gifts along with game-day programs out of the same sort of openings in the stadium walls from where you might get food or beer.

 

ATP - The Armoury

Inside the Armoury

Not so any more and not so to the extreme at the Emirates.

That team store felt like a department store at Christmas!  There was more selection than I could comprehend – from replica kits to sweaters to women’s underwear.  Even more impressive than the selection were the crowds and the lines to check out.  If I can suggest one thing to you other than making sure you have your tickets before you book travel it’s “pay the delivery charges and order what you want online” – the lines at the club stores were just too much to handle unless you gave yourself a lot of time to do so.

American Equivalent: Macy’s on Christmas Eve (probably more accurate to say Macy’s on Christmas Eve about 10 years ago before everyone started shopping online)

I definitely felt much more connected with Arsenal – and English soccer in general. After the trip, I had a few more solid data points to refer back to as I reverted to my regular routine of watching matches from the comfort of my own living room five time zones away.

» Part two: More stadiums and an English pub

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. 

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 11 Nov 2010