Wednesday, January 25, 2006

We watch the Arsenal go down at Highbury

Tonight we headed to north London, for another great British sporting experience – watching Arsenal play at home on the hallowed football ground - Highbury.

Thierry Henry (14) lurking on the left wing right in front of us

Scoring tickets from my mate Dan 'who knows a guy', we travelled there after work for the match against Wigan Athletic, which was the second leg of a semi-final in the Carling Cup. Normally you wouldn’t be too interested in a Cup match between these two teams, even if it was a semi-final – but in the first leg, Arsenal were beated 1-0 away at Wigan, meaning that they had to score at least two home goals to take back the aggregate lead and get themselves into the final. However at the same time they could not concede an away goal by Wigan, as they are worth 2 goals.

We arrived at Arsenal from the Piccadilly line, and walked to meet Dan and friends at a nearby pub before we walked to the ground and took our seats. The whole Highbury area was buzzing as some 35,000 fans began to pack in for the match in the old traditional ground for the club, which is in its last year of service before it is replaced with the flash new Emirates Stadium nearby. It is a bit of a shame really, but with club football here being bigger than life itself, the club needs to expand and update its facilities. Once we were inside it was easy to see why.

While the seats and viewing area are more than fine, the facilities beneath the stands are pretty substandard, although they give the sense of a venue that has seen so much history. The old brickwork in the walls, timber work in the beams, supports, and rafters, the old-style bathrooms and amenities, and the narrow low clearance corridors where the fans gather in the break to smoke and debate the game so far - you wouldn't think it but it is just brilliant stuff!

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The game got underway and it was obvious that Arsenal was a cut above. Precision passing, an obvious lack of panic in their gameplay, and overall dominance lead them to be 1-0 up at the break after a brillant cross to the front of goal finished off by a simple header by captain Thierry Henry.

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Jose Reyes misses Arsenal's early gift penalty chance, which in the end would cost them the game

However there was always the chance of Wigan getting that critical away goal hanging over the match. As I shot photos from our fantastic seats, the entire home crowd sang all of the songs that you hear when watching a game on TV, and with every exciting moment the whole crowd in front of you would leap off of their spring-loaded chairs, and so inturn you would stand up and then those behind you would follow, meaning that the whole stand would be on their feet before the shot at goal had left the boot. The crowd was amazing to watch let alone the match!!

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Henry (14) and Bergkamp (10) in action up front on our side of the ground - brilliant to watch in person

At the end of standard time we still had a 1-0 draw on aggregate, so onto extra time we went. And it just had to be one of the coldest January nights in a very long time!!

In extra time Arsenal was awarded a penalty just outside the box to the right of goal, and Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie drilled a perfect shot at goal curling the ball into the top right corner, which we were in a perfect position to watch from behind the kicker – it was a perfect example of just how talented these players really are, and luckily we both managed to leap up out of our chairs before those in front so we both caught the ball hitting the net!

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Henry (14) & Bergkamp (10) discuss tactics before a penalty; and the players wait for the restart after Wigan's winning goal at the death

So with the Arsenal up 2-0, and the crowd on their feet sticking it up the Wigan fans at the away end, the clock began to tick down to what was becoming a certain win without the need for a penalty shoot-out decider.

Then, the worst nightmare for the home fans – a runaway through-ball running towards the Wigan goal followed by two Wigan players is nudged beneath the Arsenal keeper and Wigan take the lead 3-2 on aggregate. No-one could believe it.

The whole stadium went silent – besides the ecstatic Wigan fans at that end, the rest of Highbury’s Arsenal army appeared to have just had a death in the family – without exaduration there was complete silence. Nothing. As the game ended seconds later with Arsenal unable to equalise, the supporters strolled out with bowed heads all across the crowd.

We left Highbury and walked up to the nearby Finsbury Park Victoria Line station and headed home. Unfortunately the scoreboard didn’t lie, BBC has just confirmed what we saw in person hours ago – Wigan is through to the final, and the Arsenal is not.

It was fantastic to have seen a match there, before they tear it down at the end of the season – 93 years of history in the home of an amazing football club. Have they become ‘our team’? We’ll have to see..

-shane

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