As one of the longest-serving members of the squad, Calum Chambers has experienced plenty of highs and lows with the Arsenal fanbase. The matchday programme spoke to the defender about the best atmospheres he’s known – as both a player and a fan himself.
Ever since he was 17, Calum Chambers has been playing top-level football in front of paying crowds.
A member of the Southampton academy from the age of seven, he was soon making waves in the youth set up, progressing year on year to become an England youth international, then make his Saints first-team debut, aged 17, in 2012 in the Capital One Cup away to Stevenage.
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But it was the following season – in fact the opening day of the 2013/14 campaign – that his career really began to take off. Named in the starting XI for Southampton’s trip to The Hawthorns, Calum played the full 90 minutes at right back, helping his side to a 1-0 win, and impressing enough to keep his place and become a regular for the rest of the season.
He’s not looked back since. That breakthrough season was enough to convince Arsène Wenger to bring the teenager to Arsenal in summer 2014, and just a month after making his Gunners bow at Wembley in the 3-0 Community Shield win over Manchester City, he was back at the national stadium to make his England debut against Norway. So it was a completely new experience for Calum this summer, when he found himself as part of the crowd again, rather than performing in front of one.
The defender was at Wembley as a fan, for England’s Euro 2020 clash against Denmark – the country’s first appearance in a tournament semi-final on home soil since Euro 96, when Calum was just one.
“Obviously I don’t get to go to many games as a fan anymore,” he begins. “The last one I went to watch live was the semi-final of the Euros in the summer at Wembley - and it’s one of the best games I’ve ever been to. Honestly it was just unbelievable, what a game to go to live.
“I went with my mum and my step dad and it was just a brilliant day. That’s part of the game that we don’t usually see. When you play, you don’t really see the atmosphere, the build-up, the fans outside the stadium and everything that surrounds the actual 90 minutes. It was great to see that again and be a part of it all - the real fan experience.”
A sense of optimism had swept through the nation by the time Gareth Southgate’s side met Denmark in the last four in early July, as the team looked to reach a first major final since 1966. And for Calum, being part of that excitement ‘from the other side’ was a memorable experience.
“I got the tube in to the stadium, walked up the Wembley Way with all the fans,” he continues. “Then in to the stadium with thousands and thousands of fans all singing songs. It was amazing and it really took me back to being a kid again. It made me appreciate all of that atmosphere and the love for the game again, from a fan’s point of view. Turning up for a game and being involved in everything in the crowd on a matchday is so different to what we see as players normally. It was a really good experience, I loved it.
“The emotions are obviously very different to when you are playing,” he adds. “It’s out of your hands so you watch the game, knowing that you won’t have to come on. It’s much more relaxing! You can enjoy it more. But if you’re watching a game from the bench, then you are obviously much more focused. It’s a very different feeling, you’ve got to be ready if needed so you are not watching as a fan at all. When you are in the stands it’s a totally different feeling – you can enjoy and take in the other aspects of the game.
“The crowd, the songs – stuff you don’t focus on when you are playing. That whole experience was a great night, and of course when England scored the winner in extra-time as well, it was great to be there.”
Great to be there watching, but nothing, he says, compares to actually performing in a huge arena with a massive atmosphere. When asked what’s the best atmosphere he’s ever played in, one game springs immediately to mind.
“The first one I think of is the AC Milan away game,” he grins, recalling our Europa League last-16, first-leg match in 2018. “That was just incredible. The atmosphere there was just crazy. It’s actually a different type of noise even. It’s hard to explain but when you go abroad and play in the Champions League, or Europa League as that one was – it’s a different sound.
“When they cheer or when there’s a goal, it’s just a different kind of noise than we get over here, if that makes sense. But yeah that one in the San Siro was great. I can remember even in the warm-up before, we were all looking at each other on the pitch, taking it all in and thinking, ‘This is insane! This is so good!’”
Calum and his team-mates were certainly inspired by the occasion that day - Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners to all but secure our place in the quarter-finals before returning to London.
There were more than 70,000 inside the famous San Siro that night, and that atmosphere has been known to intimidate many an opposition in European competition. Calum though, now aged 26, says he has learnt to harness the presence of a crowd in a positive way over the years.
“I don’t find it intimidating, for me I love it,” he insists. “In fact I struggled more last year when there were no fans. I was injured for a lot of the lockdown games, but when I came back I played in a few behind closed doors games – and to be honest I hated it. I think most of the boys were used to it by then, but for me it didn’t have that same feel, that same edge as you do on a normal gameday with a full stadium. I get a buzz from a crowd, I work with that energy that they have and that can be home or away.
“From the home fans the energy you get is positive, but even in away games, when there’s booing and stuff, I’ve learnt how to channel that and use it to my advantage. So much so that I love it now. Playing in front of a loud crowd, a huge atmosphere – you can’t beat it.”
The former Southampton youngster concedes it wasn’t always the case, and that learning to deal with opposition crowds is part of your footballing education.
“Did it used to intimidate me? Yes, definitely at times," he admits. "When I was first coming through at Southampton, my first year in the first team, I remember going to away games and there were a few times when I was thinking, ‘This is quite intimidating’.
“The only thing you can do though is get used to it and after a few games you can deal with it easier. I learnt how to feed off it instead, and channel it in a positive way. I think it was because for some of the games I would turn up and think, ‘Wow – I’ve watched loads of games at this stadium on TV and now I’m playing here.’ It can take a while to get your head around. To be honest though, it’s pretty cool when you do step into a big stadium and play there. That’s what you need to realise, and as soon as you do, it becomes easier.”
So can Calum remember the first time he ever played in front of a paying public?
“Yeah I can, I think the first ever experience I had of it was in the FA Youth Cup away for Southampton – but it was a very, very small crowd! It didn’t matter to me though, because it was at a proper stadium, a small one, but at the time it really felt massive for me.
“There was a crowd in to watch us for some youth games and that helps you get used to it before you turn pro. Then my first game for the first team in the Premier League was West Brom away for Southampton. That stands out because that was the first real big atmosphere I’d played in. The first really big crowd. I could feel the tension, the energy – a big away game. We won 1-0 as well so it was a really good first experience for me.
“It was massive for me, my first game in the Premier League, I played the whole game, did well, we won 1-0 so it was a feeling of ‘wow, I can do this!’ I think you always have those questions of yourself in your head, before you play at a level, or before you play in front of a crowd, a question of, ‘What’s it going to be like, how am I going to do, how will I react?’ So after that game it was one big sense of ‘Yes, I can do this.’ I loved that first taste of it and have done ever since.”
That passion for the game and big occasion has continued to grow, but it’s all about being on the action side of the touchline now.
Despite his experience watching England at the Euros in the summer, Calum says that was just a temporary departure from the usual routine. As a professional footballer, he believes will never be able to truly immerse himself in being a fan: “It’s not easy to do that. I watch football because I watch our games back but I don’t watch programmes like Match of the Day or anything like that.
“To be honest I’m just fully focused on Arsenal and results here to be a football fan the rest of the time. You’re a fan of the team you play for basically, and that’s it.
“It was a bit easier after my year at Fulham to follow them and look for their results, because they weren’t in the same division as us, so it didn’t have any effect on stuff at Arsenal. So I could follow their scores ‘like a fan’ if you like, and what they were doing because it’s not against us, so I find myself doing that a lot still.”
How about everything else that goes with supporting a club, the transfer speculation, discussing the rumours and so on?
“Ha ha I have plenty of mates who are very on it when it comes to transfers and that sort of thing,” he laughs. “But when you are involved in it, you’d much rather stay out of it all.
“Of course there are always rumours flying around but no I’m not into that side. It’s easier to keep your head down, keep working hard and keep your focus on the important stuff. Obviously some transfers are quite exciting and pretty cool to see when a big player moves, but the rest of it doesn’t interest me.”
It’s clear that it’s matchday that truly interests Calum, and having seen both sides of it – he’s determined to enjoy them even more.
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