Sunday, July 31, 2016

10 years at the Emirates - does it feel like home yet?

Arsenal have now completed 10 seasons at the Emirates Stadium since the heart-wrenching move from Highbury in 2006. There’s still no doubt that Arsenal needed to make the move from N5 to N7 to be able to compete financially, but with other clubs benefitting from wealthy investors and a boost in television rights income, the monetary gains that the Gunners were hoping for from the increased match day revenues haven’t quite been as great as planned.
In comparison to modern stadia, the Emirates is a superb place and still feels modern and ground-breaking ten years after it opened. The fact that other leading Premier League clubs have explored the option of a new stadium and are yet to make a similar move into a purpose-built ground highlights what an impressive feat it was to upgrade to such an impressive stadium.
But forgetting both the positive and negative financial consequences of the stadium move, does it actually feel like home yet?
The club did well to not bring about a massive overhaul and move the club completely in finding a location for the new stadium. Had a deal for Arsenal to move to the new Wembley come to fruition, frankly that would have been dreadful. While Arsenal are now a global club, it would have felt wrong to be taken out of Islington. The fact match-going fans didn’t have to amend match day routines too much made the transition period slightly easier.
Initially though, the stadium did have a soulless concrete bowl feel to it. While the atmosphere at Highbury was often as quiet as it can be at the Emirates, the place had character. You could sense the history and the tradition of the club as you walked intlegends tour19o the ground. The smell might have been distinctly dodgy in parts of Highbury, but as it was created by generations of previous Gooners, you didn’t really mind it. That was always an interesting contrast to the grandeur of the marble halls and the art deco outers to the East and West Stands, giving Highbury its unique charm.
With any stadium, intangible emotional feelings and being able to sense the history are things that can only be developed through time, meaning those initial seasons in N7 were always going to feel different. If fans were adapting off the pitch, the team on the pitch weren’t helping them on it. The breaking up of the Invincibles team meant the link to Highbury was being broken quickly, and a new team was emerging. Through a combination of transfers, retirements and injuries, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole never appeared in an Arsenal shirt in a competitive game at the new stadium, despite playing in Highbury’s last campaign, while Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry only lasted one season at the Emirates.
The next generation with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Samir Nasri had the chance to create their own history at the club and be the first group to be successful at the Emirates Stadium but, bar 2007/2008, a title challenge could never properly develop. All of those listed eventually ended up at rival clubs in some tumultuous transfer dealings that mean initial Emirates Stadium heroes are not welcomed back fondly, making it harder for supporters to develop the attachment to the ground with those negative feelings towards those who were initially charged with making it feel like home.
More recent seasons have seen some more consistency in the squad, and some silverware with FA Cup triumphs. The full-on charge for the title has still eluded them, but the likes of Mertesacker, Koscielny, Arteta, Cazorla and Giroud have done a better job of making the stadium feel like home.
But at any stadium, players come and go. For it to really feel like home, there needs to be stand-out moments that bring people together; moments to remember exactly where you were and what the feeling was like in the stadium. There’s been no title win to celebrate, but the Emirates has had plenty of those moments. Here’s my top ten:
10 – Gilles Grimandi v Ajax – July 2006 – On the opening day at the Emirates, it would have
just been wrong to have a Tottenham player score. Appearing for the Ajax legends team aP1000506gainst Arsenal in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial, while on the books of that other lot in North London, Edgar Davids raced onto a through ball, went round David Seaman and had an open goal to give his side the lead. Gilles Grimandi sensed his chance for hero status and charged back to cynically bring him down. Ronald de Boer missed the subsequent penalty, Arsenal went on to win the game and all was well on a day that could have been incredibly emotional for Gooners, thanks in no small part to the intervention of the Grimster.
9 – 5-2 v Tottenham – November 2012 – After going 1-0 down to an Emmanuel Adebayor goal, things were going very badly in this North London derby. Then Adebayor made a crazy challenge on Santi Cazorla to get sent off and Arsenal surged into a commanding lead before half-time, with Per Mertesacker’s thumping header to equalise being a stand-out moment. It was a key game for the Big German, along with Cazorla and Giroud to show they understood what it meant to play in the North London derby.
8 – Giroud v Tottenham – September 2013 – This 1-0 derby win was nowhere near as comprehensive as the previous 5-2 victories, but after a summer when Spurs had spent around £100m and Arsenal, at that point, had only signed Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini on free transfers, you got the sense that Spurs thought they’d turn up and walk over the Gunners. Olivier Giroud scored a superb near-post flick in the first half before a heroic defensive effort from the team, epitomised by Flamini, secured an old school 1-0 win. For someone that became the target of a lot of fans’ frustrations, it is worth remembering how well Flamini whipped up the crowd that day in the sort of game that suited his aggressive style.
7 – 3-0 v Manchester United – October 2015 – The first 20 minutes of this game are up there as the best Arsenal have played at the Emirates Stadium. Manchester United were blown away as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez tore them apart. The explosive finish for the third goal from Alexis summed up Arsenal’s dominance on the day. It was the sort of performance, from world class players such as Arsenal’s majestic German and Chilean, that a world class stadium deserves.
6 – Rosicky v Tottenham – January 2014 – I’m considering it to be a good thing that goals and win against Tottenham are featuring so heavily on this list. This goal came in the FA Cup 3rd round with Arsenal already 1-0 up against Spurs. Santi Cazorla had already given the Gunners the lead, before in the second half, Danny Rose dithered with the ball on the half-way line. With everyone else up field, he was tackled by Tomas Rosicky, and the Czech midfielder ran half the length of the pitch to then delicately lob the ball over Lloris. It was just a beautiful moment.
5 – Henry v Manchester United – January 2007 – A very important goal in the life of Emirates Stadium. There were some good wins in that first campaign in N7, but this goal was the one that was crucial in being the first real explosion of noise from the bigger capacity of Arsenal fans. Thierry Henry had been going through a stop-start season, but he rose brilliantly to nod the ball in during stoppage time to complete a comeback 2-1 win.
4 – Welbeck v Leicester City – February 2016 – This would probably have been higher up the list had it led to greater things in the season. It felt like one of the few games last season where everyone at the Emirates was really behind the team and when it felt like the crowd did suck the ball into the back of the net. The fact Welbeck was returning from a long-term injury just made it all the better.
3 – Arshavin v Barcelona – February 2010 – Similarly to the previous moment, this would have been even better had it led to Arsenal knocking Barcelona out in the second leg. But this was an incredible night in itself as the Gunners came from behind to win. It wasn’t like Barcelona were caught on an off day either as the overall quality of the match was frighteningly good. After initially being slightly mesmerised by Barcelona, the Emirates crowd then got swept along following Robin van Persie’s injury. The subsequent winner from Andrey Arshavin was one of those goals that you couldn’t quite believe had happened.
2 – 5-2 v Tottenham – February 2012 – This game was absolutely crazy. Despite the team not being in great shape, it was another moment when it seemed like the crowd were completely united behind the players. At 2-0 down, Arsenal would have 13 points behind Spurs. A thumping header from Bacary Sagna and a brilliant curler from van Persie levelled things up before an explosive start to the second half with Rosicky scoring and Walcott bagging a brace. Spurs ended up melting down in the following games and Arsenal overtook them, all started by that incredible day at the Emirates.
1 – Thierry Henry v Leeds – January 2012 – It’s telling that my favourite Emirates moment came from the King of Highbury. Arsenal shouldn’t have been in a position where they needed to re-sign Thierry Henry for a few months in 2012, but it was magical to see him back in red and white. Despite losing a bit of pace and filling out his shirt a little bit more, you felt that whatever happened during the game, Arsenal would be alright because Thierry Henry was waiting on the bench. Inevitably he came on and scored the winner with a classic TH14 finish. The King had returned, as had the feelings for me as a fan that became synonymous with growing up watching the Arsenal at Highbury.
With those sort of incredible moments, over time the Emirates has felt like home, especially with Highbury changing into flat, so there isn’t the opportunity to go and see it as a complete football ground. The club have done some great work with the ‘Arsenalisation’ of the stadium, new bonds have been built between supporters in season ticket seats and it does feel like ours now, but if I had to name one place that defined Arsenal for me, it will always be Highbury. That is simply down to the fact it was the place where I first saw Arsenal and fell in love with the club. We could win the league multiple times at the new stadium, but in 30, 40, 50 years’ time, the answer will still be Highbury for me. Without that place, I wouldn’t necessarily be the Gooner that I am today. But I was one of the last generations to be able to experience the old ground and have lasting memories from it. As time passes, hopefully the Emirates-generation of fans coming through will be able to build the attachment continue the gradual process of making it feel like home.DSC01523