By Kevin Mooney
Truly great stadiums are sometimes referred to as the cathedrals of sport. And for any Arsenal supporter, a visit to Emirates Stadium is almost a religious experience. But for the first time visitor it's something else. Something bigger.
In America, stadiums often rise seemingly out of nowhere. In some cases you can literally see them for miles as you approach. But after emerging from Holloway Road station several hours before kickoff. You could be understandably confused until you get your bearings. There was no wave of fans heading in one direction and the 60,000-seat stadium was nowhere to be seen.
I arrived in London the day before with my wife. Aside from a three-hour layover in Heathrow airport a number of years ago, it was my first time in the UK. For most first-time visitors, a trip such as this is about Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. But for me, it was all about the N5.
Armed with a lack of sleep and riding the eight-hour time difference between London and our hometown of Portland, Oregon we had an idea in our heads of what we were about to encounter. If we could find it.
Sheepishly, I asked a security guard at a local shop the best way to get to stadium. A funny look and two steps of instruction and we were on our way. We crossed Holloway and started walking down Hornsey Road. And after just a few steps, I got my first glimpse of the Heroes Together mural. And then the steel and glass. And finally the cannons and Armoury Square.
A beautiful site.
Despite the strong desire to just explore and risk spending a month's salary at the Armoury, bigger plans were afoot. I rang my boss, the managing editor of Arsenal.com who came outside to sort our tickets and give us a tour.
And what a tour! We saw everything from the Arsenal.com studio to the Diamond Club. We walked through the tunnel, stood pitch side and were nearly soaked by some freakishly powerful sprinklers. We stood in the flash rooms where post-match interviews take place and met Arsenal legends Charlie George and Ray Parlour. We even ate lunch with former Gunner and current MatchDay Show host Stephen Hughes.
And that could have been enough. I could have left London completely satisfied had the day stopped there. But all of it was building to what is bound to be one of the most memorable moments in my life. Shortly before kickoff, I stepped onto the pristinely manicured pitch and walked a few yards toward the Arsenal players. Meeting me was Robin van Persie. A friendly greeting. A shake of the hand. Me handing him the USA.Arsenal.com Player of the Year award for 2010/11. And of course a few pictures for posterity.
The takeaways from that experience: Emirates Stadium is really, really big. Per Mertesacker is really, really tall. Robin van Persie strikes me as a genuinely nice guy. And the pitch was perfection, but did not actually feel like walking on a cloud.
The next 90 minutes don't need to be re-hashed. It was Arsenal. We won. And I was there. In the 17th row. And to top it off, we attended Arsène Wenger's press conference after the match.
Emirates Stadium is every bit as spectacular as you would imagine. The facilities are amazing. The sightlines are impeccable. And airlines could learn a lesson or two from the comfort of the seats. The stadium is a marvel of modern engineering and it's a beautiful site in an incredible city. It was simply the high point of my visit.
And yes, I did see Big Ben too. But, you know, whatever.