In what should probably more accurately be referred to as ‘a summer with slightly less football than usual’, immediately after our return from a weekend in Stavanger in which we had taken in two games in a weekend; Mrs Football Nerd and I were off to the inaugural Star Sixes tournament over at the ‘Arena formerly known as the Millennium Dome’, situated handily just over the river from our house in London.
The tournament itself promised ‘a stellar cast-list of players’ and with international line-ups including such luminaries as: Steven Gerrard, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Gilberto Silva, Michael Ballack, Carles Puyol, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pirès, Deco and Jay-Jay Okocha; plus the one and only Paul ‘The Merse’ Merson; it was hard for those of us of a certain vintage to argue differently!
With tickets priced fairly reasonably, both for London and the O2 Arena, there was a definite ‘dads and lads day-out’ feel to the event, especially during the Saturday afternoon session that we were attending. However the beer prices, akin to those we had experienced in Norway the previous weekend, probably made a number of the dads fairly happy their lads weren’t just a few years older!
Even as the most hopeless of football obsessives, I had little experience of this version of the game; described by the founder of the now long defunct North American Major Indoor Soccer League, Ed Tepper, as ‘athletic showbusiness’ rather than ‘the world’s most popular game played indoors’.
This is an important distinction to be kept in mind, for this was to be football but not as we know it. The experience was something more in line with the ATP World Tennis Tour Finals hosted every autumn in the same venue. Flashing lightshows, DJ’s, cheerleaders and all other types of US-style entertainment were thrown into the mix to enhance the ‘spectator experience’. This however didn’t in itself make it less enjoyable once we threw off the shackles of being football traditionalists; it was simply a case of enjoying the event.
With games at this stage lasting just 20 minutes, the impetus was on the teams to really go for it and to try and make their mark as early as possible. The legs of the legends were not what they used to be, but the dimensions of the pitch necessitated a more cultured passing football approach, and it was clear across the board that age hadn’t taken away the skill in possession or competitive spirit of these illustrious names.
The slick nature of the games and entertainment during the breaks saw the afternoon pass along very pleasantly indeed and when the final game came to an end, it was with a feeling of regret that we exited the venue and made for home. We kept in contact with the remaining sessions over the rest of the weekend and found ourselves hoping that the whole event had been sufficiently successful to do it all again next year. In the end it was France, who had looked poor and uninspiring when we had seen them in the final group game, who overcame an organised and functional Denmark in the final on Sunday evening.
Just two weeks later, after a weekend off spent following more typical off-season pursuits, ie not watching football, it was off to North London for our traditional trip to the Emirates Cup last weekend; ultimately it is only a pre-season friendly competition, but coming just two weeks ahead of the start of the season proper, it is just a little bit more serious than the games played on the money-oriented tour to Australia and China that preceded it. For Mrs Football Nerd and me it provides a rare opportunity to go and watch our team together.
With some of our previously regular Holloway Road drinking establishments having been lost to the progress of the modern British economy, we were pleased to discover the House of Hammerton craft brewery taproom on the site of the old Wig & Gown. It may have been uber-hipster and one of those places that Mrs. Football Nerd rightly surmised had spent a fortune on its décor to look like it hadn’t; but the selection of beer was excellent and it provided an excellent stop-off before we headed to the Legendary Piebury Corner in search of pre-match sustenance.
For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting this rapidly-becoming-legendary purveyor of Arsenal-themed pies, what are you waiting for? Launched a few years back by husband and wife Gooners, originally a stall in their garden on the corner of Avenell Road and Gillespie Road, virtually part of the old Highbury, the empire has grown to boast shops on Holloway Road and now Kings Cross. Offering gourmet pies, an excellent array of beers, DJ’s playing an eclectic selection of 7 inch singles on a portable turntable perched on an ironing board (yes that does say ironing board!) and walls lined with Arsenal memorabilia; it is the quintessential experience not only for Gooners but anyone who takes nostalgic football culture seriously.
We managed to catch the end of the Seville – RB Leipzig game in which the Red Bull franchise team enjoyed a lot of possession without creating too much while their Spanish counterparts looked a far more accomplished side in possession; and it was they that took the victory.
Arsenal’s game against Benfica was played at a largely unthreatening pace, somewhere slightly more intense than a training session but short of a full-blooded serious match. To add to the surreal feel of the game Arsenal turned out in their brand new light blue/ dark blue change strip, which had no doubt been designed as ideal leisure wear rather than with any focus on tradition.
Organised defending was conspicuous by its absence and it was Benfica who took the early impetus going 1-0 up, but cometh the hour cometh the overpaid marketing weapon, for not once but twice, Theo Walcott, so suited to these low octane encounters, found the net first equalizing then putting us 2-1 up while barely breaking into a sweat. More sloppy Arsenal defending allowed Salvio to level things up just before the break.
Early in the second half Theo was denied his hat-trick, which no doubt would have sent shirt sales rocketing all over the world when Lopez selfishly turned his cross-shot into his own net. Further goals from Giroud and Iwobi sealed the 5-2 victory and sent the crowd home happy.
Family and a friend’s birthday commitments denied us the chance of watching the Sunday games but from what I can gather despite turning out a stronger side than they had in the previous day, Arsenal came up a bit short against a better calibre of opposition in the form of Seville, losing 2-1 but thanks to a quirk of the competition rules still winning the trophy thanks to the number of goals scored. On a positive note, new striker Alexander Lacazette scored, which following on from the solid performance by fellow new boy Sead Kolasinac the previous day, at least gives us something out of the weekend.
Things start to get more serious and focused from here on in as the off-season draws to a close with the Charity Shield (sic- traditionalist that I am!) on Sunday and then we are back into the full swing of the football season once more. For those of us that find it hard to know what to do with ourselves, other than to watch whatever football we can over the summer, we wouldn’t have it any other way!