It had been a difficult night, unpleasantly hot and I had been unable to sleep. I wanted to get up earlier than I did, much earlier. It was way past 8.30am by the time I did get out of bed, but I had wanted to be getting ready and heading into town by then. Instead I left about an hour later to get my haircut. The sun was shining and I was looking forward to a memorable day. Trying not to think about this afternoon’s game, I instead concentrated on getting myself ready to be there as early as I could. Just after 10am I returned home and started to get ready. After a quick shower, checking my e-mails online, a quick lunch and I was on my way. The last minute was how I would get to the mecca in North London. Originally I had wanted to make it a public transport affair but waiting for and taking the bus would add at least thirty minutes to my journey time. Plus I did not fancy walking up Castle Street in the midday sun. As I pulled into John Hall Way, I saw the 326 bus coming in the opposite direction, it would have been the one I caught into town. Thankfully I was in my car and on my way into town. In my head I went through a list of everything I needed and realised I had forgotten my confirmation e-mail, so turned around at the top of Marlow Hill heading back and calling my sister. Thankfully I had realised my forgetfulness before I boarded my train into Marylebone. Pulling up outside the house, my sister Natalie rushed out to give me the all important bit of paper and I jumped back in the car and headed off. I was on my way to Ashburton Grove and nobody was going to stop me. I had my sunglasses on and felt great, the sun was shining. The weekend was living up to it’s star billing. Yet there was much more yet to come. Driving into High Wycombe station, I struggled to find a spot but eventually found one quite near the entrance, rather than my usual spot which would be in a different time zone. Paying the £2.50 for the half day I went over to the Fast Ticket booth to purchase my tickets for the Chiltern Railways service. You may not know but the station is currently being repaired with temporary porta cabins outside, following a fire back in November last year. So there are no barriers, you literally purchase your ticket and jump on a train. There are ticket inspectors that occasionally check your pass. I rushed across to Platform Three, which is at the other side of the station, via subway and there were already some people waiting. I decided this was the perfect moment to wake up Chris. It was 12:37pm, my train was about to pull up. The morning had disappeared and yet my friend was half asleep as I spoke to him. I murmured something about going out in Reading on Friday night before cutting the call short as I saw the dark blue training pulling in around the corner. I felt really bad for walking him up and would get around to apologising on the phone later and in person tomorrow. Talking a seat on the train I noticed a father wearing the new kit with his young toddler daughter. Both with 14 Henry on the back. What is that saying about great minds think alike? I got comfortable in my seat, even slowly drifting off to sleep before we reached Wembley Stadium. I did not want to miss seeing the current state of our future national stadium. Chiltern Railways are making the most of the redevelopment working on a new platform that we take passengers from the train to the stadium. Until now, the area by the side of the track has been a mess, but today I could see they had removed some barriers and you could see more of the semi-completed stadium. The proposals look impressive and it will be great to come off at an amazing station platform just before you walk up to the ground. Rather than the tired and tatty looking stations that currently make up the majority of the network on the line down to the capital. After seeing Wembley, I drifted off, but only slightly. I would not call this sleep, instead just a few minutes of having my eyes closed and resting my head against the window. While the hot sun beating down outside, inside we were perfectly cool thanks to air conditioning. (Trying my best not to mention the annoying adds for cucumber man on LBC 97.3.) When I next opened my eyes we were coming into Marylebone. I got up out of my seat and was one of the first off the train. The experience from a few years ago does make you a more alert commuter. I headed to the barrier walked straight through and headed for the tube station. Thanks to my Oyster card, touch in and I was on my way. I rushed down the escalator onto the platform. It was just before 1.30pm, less than an hour and I was in central London. Give me twenty minutes and I will be in Islington. I took a few stops down to Piccadilly Circus and then caught the Piccadilly Line north to Finsbury Park. I perhaps should have got off with all the other supporters at Arsenal but as I had been there so many times before I preferred to walk from Finsbury Park and take the road to the old North Bank. The tube was crammed with Arsenal fans and the occasional small group of Dutch fans in their bright orange jerseys. An American tourist asked me what time the kick off was, 5pm I replied. “Why so many fans so early?” It’s our new stadium I replied with a smile. I was shocked by his response, “Yeah, we were up their yesterday, gotta say it’s damn impressive!”. Quite a compliment from a man whose countrymen play football with excessive padding and the wrong shape ball. He soon got off the train and I moved further up, taking a seat with a few other fans. Mainly families, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. The train emptied at Arsenal but I waited until the next stop. Finsbury Park was just as busy. Just outside the station I was handed a leaflet for an artist. I thought it was a interesting piece of art, until I visited the web site and discovered Mighty Crowded was just a pop look at the last game at Highbury. The signed material was not related to the football club at all, just the autograph of the artist. No thanks.
I was nearly there. There were brand new signs all over the place, silver text on black, pointing out the direction to the new stadium. I could taste the air of anticipation in the air. There were hundreds of supporters making their way to the new stadium, but I opted to head back to Highbury, perhaps for one last time. I wanted to truly appreciate what we had left behind. As I came down Saint Thomas Road, I could see through the trees the date the North Bank was completed in 1993. It was a strange sight to see the stadium but know the match would be kicking off elsewhere. I expected a few more people at the old ground, but there were a healthy number walking around, some talking photos. I took a few pictures of East Stand before being approached by a Japanese tourist, perhaps a few years younger than me asking if I would take a picture of him in front of the stand. I took the picture and he was extremely grateful. Not the first time I’ve been asked to take a photograph of someone in London and for sure not the last. I headed up to the main entrance and was surprised to see it open, marshalled by some security guards. People were being allowed in, in pairs to have their pictures taken with Herman Chapman who still graces the marble halls. I considering going up there and queuing to have my photograph taken but there was no one around to take my photograph and I realised as much as I should respect the past it was time to turn around and head to the future. I joined the crowds down past Avenell Road. I wanted to pick up a couple of programmes and then head over to Ashburton Grove. In what has become routine I would also buy a programme from the same elderly gentleman opposite the entrance to the North Bank. To my surprise he had been replaced by a much younger model, all dressed in red. In fact all the programme sellers were young, aged around 16-18. What had happened to the old guys? The programme was a special souvenir edition which included a Bergkamp photo book. There was no time to look at it though, the crowd increased, as did the police presence. I was walking past Arsenal underground station and although I thought it a great idea to take a photograph, it was not the ideal moment, with just the sheer number of people walking by. I opted to leave it for now. There was a queue at the bridge but not for the stairs. The queue was for the small Arsenal shop, imaginatively called, “All Arsenal” built into the structure of the bridge. I took some photographs and headed up the stairs and held my breath before looking to the left. Through the steel mesh I set eyes on the stadium for the first time. Amazing, I took a photograph and smiled. I had arrived. I was here.
Finally, for the first time in the afternoon I began to relax. I had arrived in plenty of time for kick off. It was around twenty past 2 and I had a good few hours to kill. Better get snapping. The stadium was busy with thousands of people milling around. I stood to the side of the bridge, out of the way of the passing supporters and began finding some good angles to take some photos. As I put the camera down to review a photograph I had just taken I saw Terry walk past. He and his friends and stopped just in front of me so I tapped him on the shoulder. I was glad to see him. I spent the rest of the afternoon, prior to kick off with the three of them, Sean, Lisa and Terry. Terry took a photograph of me in front of the stadium and I was surprised at how well it came out. While it was rather wet and the sun had disappeared I was full of life.
One of my proudest moments as a football supporter, standing outside the new home of football. I was glad I had met up with Terry, as a season ticket holder, he would spending every other weekend here and it was good to be with him for the first match (even though he seat is on the other side of the ground). We joined the queue for the Armoury and Sean purchased the new home shirt, when he found the right size. I must say for such a big shop they need to have a few more full-length mirrors. It was busy, particularly at the shirt printing section at the far end of the store. I queued up with my purchases at till 7. Each till is number relates to a famous player that once wore the red and white. Mine was of course, Rocky Rocastle with my server Wendy. The queue was long and I must have been waiting a good twenty minutes. While in the queue, Terry told me that they would go into the ground and meet up with me for a drink in the lower tier. Great. After I got my bits and headed out of the shop, I saw security rush in to grab someone who had walked in through the exit to jump the massive queue. They found him and hauled him out. Time for a few more pictures before I head into the ground. My entrance was turnstile H, right at the other side of the ground. Putting away my camera I got my membership card out and e-mail confirmation and headed to the queue. To the left I saw a familiar face go in. When I was let him I recognised who it was. I must say this new fancy system is amazing. Place your membership card in the reader, some fancy red (now were they ever going to be any other colour!) light shines across it and picks up that you have a valid ticket and you are allowed in. I thanked the steward as I walked in but there was no need, he had done nothing to help. The famous D list celebrity I had seen, was Reggie Yates. A young fan had his photograph taken with him before he headed off to the far left, in direction of my block (15). I text Terry to let him know I was in and he replied that he was by block 3. I walked over (which was the other side other building and waited by lift A but they did not find me. I never saw them, so after waiting a while headed out to see if the stadium was as impressive inside as out. I asked a steward where my seat was and he told me it was to the right of the gangway, when it was actually to the left. The seat had a great view of the entire pitch. (Thanks for picking my spot Christopher) My row was quiet, and as I sat down I discovered a t-shirt and flag in bag. Just like at the last game at Highbury I opted not to wear the shirt on the day and just put it in my bag. There was no point in it getting spoilt. (I later learned that Dennis and personally paid for each of the shirts and his vision was to have ICEMAN and DB10 spelt out in orange across a sea of red and white on the tiers. As it worked out, perfectly this shirt was red, my shirt at Highbury had been white. The opening ceremony was scheduled to start at 4.15pm with kick off at 5pm. I made most of the time by taking some photos of the fans and my new surroundings.
The were presentation by various dignitaries and the name Emirates mention more often than not. A quick note on this. The current financial climate in football means stadiums will be built in partnership or with sponsorship with big corporate conglomerates. While I hate the idea of our stadium being named after a sponsor, if it means it is built on time and to budget I am more than willing to give it a go. Plus we should consider ourselves less fortunate than FC Dallas, whose soccer specific stadium is called, Pizza Hut Park. Although of course, ten years of history is nothing for a club that has over 93 years of history in their old home and five times the attendance of the team from Texas. In England, more specifically the Premiership over recent years you have seen more and more stadiums bearing the name of the sponsor. While for some grounds it has stuck, Bolton – Reebok, but for others, such as Middlesborough is still known as the Riverside rather than the BT Cellnet, but of course that company no longer exists. What I would like to know is what happens after the fifteen years or so after the contract with the Arab airline concludes? That is a question for another day.
After our chairman was presented with a mock up plane by the CEO of Emirates and joined on the centre circle by the gaffer, it was time for something football related. A gigantic ball was placed in the middle of the north of the pitch and Arséne asked to kick it into the goal in what was described as the new “North Bank” by bloke on the tanoy. The ball flew up into the air and then hit the bar. Was that a good open for the opening game? The young first teams then came out for a warm up while we waited for the star of the day. DB10.
A group of Junior Gunners came onto the pitch holding flags of each of the clubs Dennis had scored against. Then, after a moment of flag waving, which is a tradition in Holland, out came our hero. The man of the moment. Dennis Bergkamp with his wife and children. The big man was truly back in time for one last roll of the dice.
Dennis without a shadow of a doubt is my favourite all time footballer of all time. He is someone I can relate to has being a genius in my living memory, my era. Sure there is Pele, Best, Maradona but Bergkamp is the name that will live long in my mind. Touches of brilliance, from a football mind way ahead of all the defending players on the turf. It was his amazing talent and the fact that he was the first of the new wave of European talent to arrive on this shores and take the English game by storm that makes him the greatest signing to our club in modern times. In years to come it will be noted as a significant turning point in the club’s history. Without Dennis, much of what Arsene Wenger has achieved in North London just would not have happened. Can this really be true? Can one single signing, one player change the fortunates of a club? I have longed believed that noone is bigger than the club. Yet from time to time you get a special person come along that not only wears his heart on his sleeve but on the pitch embodies everything that is great about the game and our football club. Sure, only during the French revelotion did we see the sexy interplay, the one touch football but it was infact Bergkamp was at the centre of every pass, every move. Rather than go into details of what happened during the course of the game, which truly reflected that old chestnut cliché, “game of two halves” I would prefer to let FlickR be the photostory. Plus there is a full menu serving up the delights of the day over on the official site expect constant promiment mention of an airline.
As I walked away from the stadium, following Dennis’ final lap of honour, I looked forward to returning to the ground as soon as possible. This had given me a taste of what was to come over the course of the season, particularly Henry’s goal! Leaving my seat the season ticket holder (gold member if you will) sitting next to me, finally spoke and asked if that was my seat for the forthcoming season. As much as it hurt, I explained that I was only a red member and it would be several years before I would be eligible for a season ticket. How could I ever end this entry on such a ‘downer’ as that. Talk amongst the fan community is that the wait for seasons tickets has been reduced to a more realistic four to seven years, rather than the original guesstimate I made of between twelve and fifteen. Who knows, I might be coming up to Holloway Road one afternoon to pick my seat, sooner than you think!