Maybe it was the innumerable times I’ve been past it’s towering green facade on the train, or maybe it’s the way everyone goes on about how wonderful the matchday experience there is, but I was genuinely very excited to visit The Emirates on Wednesday night.
When I randomly saw a tweet from the excellent London Football Guide saying that tickets were on general sale for the Champions League match with Montpellier, I knew I had to strike. It’s so rare that matches here make it onto general sale and I wasn’t especially bothered about paying £42 for the privilege of a visit.
It was similar to the opportunistic way I got my Olympics tickets and my Old Trafford Ashes seats for next year - sod your mailing lists and mass 9am logging on scrambles, just rely on hearsay and Twitter...
Anyway, it was also to be my first Champions League match which added another thread of excitement. I’d seen a couple of Europa League games - at Fulham last season and Tottenham this - but there’s something very special about the top competition, which is somehow capable of generating such peerless entertainment year-in, year-out even if some cynics might argue the “Champions” element has been buried somewhat.
Of course, I couldn’t fault the Emirates experience. It is a magnificent cathedral to the game and effortlessly easy in how everything is done and organised. I’d rank it very highly in the stadia I’ve visited, from the most conveniently-placed hog roast stand outside the Tube station to the comfortable padded seats.
I was way, way up in the Gods behind one goal in the Clock End and yet still felt I had an excellent view. It was a bit draughty though as the top of the stands have been left open and there was a biting wind that night. I’d put it up with Wembley for quality of the view, but, in contrast to Wembley, the outside of the ground has great character too.
Every inch in the 360 degree shape of the Emirates is covered in old pictures and quotations, and there are a number of statues of legends and other things to see. On a winters night on the concourse outside Wembley, with the wind whipping round, it does feel rather desolate until you get inside.
I wanted to watch the ground fill up and so was inside at about 7.10pm, as they two sides came out for their warm-up. Arsenal needed a win to absolutely make sure of Champions League football after Christmas, while the French champions, who were robbed of their star player Olivier Giroud in the summer, had already been dumped out on their CL debut.
Many of those around me were clearly also on their first visit and had no idea of where their seats were. There was much rustling of tickets, double-checking of rows and seat numbers and bobbing up and down until everyone got settled in the right place. To be honest, the game was nowhere near sold out, with pockets of red visible all around the top tier.
The two lads who had the seats next to me turned up 25 minutes into the game, took the obligatory Facebook picture, texted all their mates with it, and then disappeared at half-time. I assumed they had gone for an overpriced hot dog or something but they never came back! Forty quid for 20 minutes of drab action - how ridiculous!
I say drab because the first-half was a non-event. It was all Arsenal going forward - Montpellier offered next to nothing, to the chagrin of their vocal travelling fans and the guy setting the beat with a bongo - but only managed a couple of scuffs wide. Hearing the Champions League tune played live for the first time, and all the associated memories that brought up of classic matches on ITV and Sky over the last 15 years, made the hairs prick up.
Thankfully for us all, the second half was jump started by Jack Wilshere’s goal. Vermaelen crossed from the left, Giroud smartly nodded down and there was the Englishman to poke into the roof of the net. A lovely crafted move and great to see him fully back from injury again. Let’s hope the weight of national expectation doesn’t inhibit him in the same way it has for many others.
There was little to fear from the toothless French guests but you always feel in even a perfunctory game at this level, a second goal is necessary. It arrived in fantastic style - one of the best-taken goals I’ll ever see. After neat build-up from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (another one we must not burden), Giroud and Lukas Podolski swapped passes and the big German leathered the ball on the volley past Geoffrey Jourdren.
It had been a long day at work but I was surprised how lethargic my reaction was. I was as taken aback by the class finish as the goalkeeper and kind of slowly levered myself up with arms outstretched in bewilderment.
That was the fatal mercy blow to a barely-breathing game and secured Arsenal the group. The Montpellier fans did the whole “Let’s pretend we’ve scored” thing three times which, in their minds, would have won them the game. It looked mental as everyone rushed about and such good fun the Arsenal fans followed suit just before the final whistle.
In conclusion, I agree with everyone else. You have to visit the Emirates at least once.
Next Match: With Boston still reluctant to leave home (they play a fifth successive home game this weekend), I’ll be heading to a decent-looking FA Trophy tie between Billericay and Cambridge United.