The news that up to 10,000 fans were going to be allowed into Emirates Stadium for the final game of the season was quickly followed by an email informing me that I was one of the “lucky” ones to be selected to stump up £90 for a Club Level seat for the match. Cynically I couldn’t help but wonder how many season ticket holders had removed themselves from the ticket ballot based on Arsenal’s only just short of woeful campaign?
Despite my scepticism, I was actually quite chuffed and excited to be going to a match for the first time since the 12th of December (do you really think I had to look up the date?) and Orient’s stunning win over Newport County who were at the time top of League Two. To say the experience was different from the football-watching that we were all used to before Covid-19 changed the world as we knew it, would be more than an understatement.
First up came the Pre-Match Health questionnaire that needed to be completed in order to activate your ticket, thankfully alongside the expected Covid-related questions the toughest to answer was whether you were a home supporter or not, alas there was no: “Unfortunately Yes” option in the response! If it slipped your mind to complete a questionnaire received on Thursday ahead of the deadline of midday on Sunday there were friendly club staff on hand to chase you up, I received two text messages and a phone call before filling mine in on Saturday morning. It seems it isn’t just renewals that the box office staff are hot upon at the Emirates!
There was also a code of conduct to read and abide by which included the brilliantly comedic line: “Be respectful to others in your vicinity taking a responsible approach at all times, avoiding excessive shouting / singing / celebrations that increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19.“ Not really something that’s been an issue at Arsenal for some time now!
Once I set off on my travels towards North London, mentally actually having to remind myself of the route even if I was only coming from the Isle of Dogs given how long it had been, the trains weren’t as quiet as I expected them to be, although there was a distinct lack of identifiable Arsenal fans were you would have normally expected to see them, eg Holborn, Kings Cross and even exiting Arsenal tube. Of course, there weren’t any of the usual food, souvenir, or memorabilia stalls that usually serve to enhance the pre-match experience, save for the stalwart Gooner Matchday Seller Alex and his trusty bags full of the fanzine. This did make me wonder what had become of @Arsenalfatharry, my traditional source of pre-match sustenance, through these truly difficult times for small businesses I can only hope he has survived and our paths cross again when things get back to normal.
As I rounded the corner of Drayton Park there was a line of stewards waiting at the foot of the stairs to the Ken Friar bridge to check that anyone passing them had a valid ticket for the match. Given the general feeling of discontentment amongst the Arsenal faithful I churlishly wondered if this might be as much to do with discouraging would be protestors as for Covid safety reasons? On the other side of the bridge it was straight into the security checks and then onto the external podium. The lack of people milling around created an eerie feeling akin to when I have been to the ground for non-matchday events.
Once inside you had to check-in with the staff and they showed me to my personal table in the Dial Square bar, the other end of the ground to my usual base of the 49ers as my allocated seat was nearer the Clock End. Thankfully the additional cost of Club Level brought with it the opportunity to have a seat at a table and to order food and drink via an app, a relief given as I had dutifully arrived the 90 minutes before kick-off as directed in the match guidance. I believe those in the standard seats were encouraged to take their seats immediately. Having dispensed with a staggering £19.90 (these are tough times even for billionaire owners!) for a pint of Camden Hells, an unremarkable cheeseburger and cold chips, I settled in to read my “complementary” programme.
As I whiled away the time to kick-off I couldn’t help glancing round the bar and thinking how well decorated and designed it was but how utterly soulless it seemed, even more so given that there wasn’t the usual pre-match chatter amongst the fans due to the vastly reduced capacity. Strangely, or perhaps understandably, I found myself yearning for the far less salubrious surroundings of the East Stand concourse at Brisbane Road, posh it may not be, but you would struggle to find a more authentic matchday experience.
Ever since Arsenal’s initial renewal update email came out a couple of weeks previously which intriguingly mentioned a Season Ticket Holiday for 2021/22, I had been toying with the idea of taking them up on the offer once details were revealed (more on that later!). I first took the plunge and signed up for a Club Level season ticket in the days when that was the only way to secure a regular seat to watch Arsenal.
Through the subsequent 13 years of ongoing decline, I have found myself more and more distanced from the club and the way it is now run. Say what you like about other billionaire owners, (and believe me there is plenty that I could say!), if they actually seem to care about where the club is headed and actively desire and pursue success, that is a tad more palatable than our incumbent owner. My resultant and increasing desire to have nothing to do with Arsenal and to give them no more of my hard-earned cash until the Kroenkes f**k off out of our club, has only been assuaged by blind loyalty and the knowledge that I am simply incapable of stopping going to football.
The least said about the actual match, the better. Suffice it to say that in a very end of season feeling game, two goals from £72 million record signing Nicolas Pépé were enough to see off Brighton, but not enough to secure European qualification of any form for the first time in 25 years, the season that George (ask your dads kids!) was sacked for his financial shenanigans, a truly sad indictment of how far the club has fallen since the stadium move. Or possibly something of an escape given the new Europa Conference League looks like the most ill-conceived yet of all of UEFA’s hair-brained concepts.
As I made my way back home on the much emptier than usual tube, I found myself mulling over the season like no other that we have all just endured. As poor as Arsenal have been throughout, I can’t be alone in thinking this campaign has been a chore for all football fans. All but a handful of matches being played behind closed doors, pay-per-view, VAR, Project Big Picture and the European Super League – in which the owners of the Shameful Six made it crystal clear what they thought of us the paying fans, have all served to create a season that most of us are glad has finally come to an end and the like of which we have to hope will never be repeated.
For those of us who support one of the self-avowed Premier League elite, this season will most likely have changed our relationship with our club forever. If we didn’t realise before we certainly know now that we are nothing more than paying customers and are treated no differently than anyone else that can be fleeced for cash. However perhaps what Arsenal and the others need to realise is that the customer-supplier relationship that has been created is a two-way street. As customers we can choose whether we want to buy something dependent on price and our perceived need for it.
While my own football obsession won’t ever allow me to give up my season ticket as I simply can’t live without a regular football fix no matter how much I hate what Kroenke has done to our club, Arsenal’s season ticket holiday has given me the perfect excuse. It has basically given me licence to not turn up for a year, an approved protest if you will. I suspect I may not be alone amongst Arsenal fans and the majority of home games will be played out in front of vast swathes of empty seats as we have seen previously even when fans have paid for those seats. Equally, one wonders how attractive those seats will be to the tourist fans that used to take them up for a team that finished eighth in the league and won’t be playing in Europe. Not exactly the dream we were all sold when the decision to build the stadium was first taken.
I made the decision a week or so ago, I am going on an Arsenal and Premier League sabbatical, a gap year if you will, I will still watch Arsenal on TV as and when I can but I have renewed my Leyton Orient season ticket and I am planning on using the money I am not wasting on Arsenal to see if I can watch every away game as well as every match at Brisbane Road. League Two may not be the elite of the football world but real football, like the game I fell in love with all those years ago, is what I need for a year.
How I will feel at the end of my year off remains to be seen, (although Mrs Football Nerd and another Orient-supporting associate @TedTalksOrient remain convinced that I might never come back!), however just typing those words has brought a smile to my face and a flutter of anticipation to my stomach. The adventure will of course be documented on these pages and there may even be a book in the offing, watch this space.
Up the O’s!