The trip of a lifetime for the only Canadian who supports both Arsenal and Sutton
by H Mark Bodwell
I met a bloke at the train station after the Kelly Smith tribute match and we got to talking. He turned out to be one of the contributors to Untold Arsenal, and he was fascinated that I had come all the way from Canada to watch a couple of football matches. He wanted to know the story of my weekend in England – and so here it is.
I’ve actually travelled to see Arsenal play on quite a number of occasions, starting in 2009. I’ll see one or two matches and do some touristy stuff around them. On my 2013 trip, I also made a trip to the south of London to watch the non-league team that I support: Sutton United. They were quite amazed that not only did they have a fan in Canada, but that said fan would come to England to watch them play! The chairman Bruce Elliott was a wonderful host and arranged for me to have a tour of the ground and the clubhouse, and an introduction to the team before the match.
Fast forward to the 2016-17 season. For my Arsenal match this year I chose Stoke in December (my choices of opponent are dictated more by the price of airfare than the quality of the opposition). I enjoyed it very much, and went back home already thinking about who I’d like to see in 2017-8. And then, something extraordinary happened.
Sutton went on an astounding Cup run, on each occasion beating a team from a division one higher than the last one they played, culminating with a win over Leeds United of the Championship. A lot of my friends in the Vancouver Arsenal Supporters Group know I’m a fan of the Us and were asking me what I’d do if the two teams were drawn against each other in the fifth round. I said I’d blow up that bridge when I got to it.
I watched the draw on my computer at work. Sutton were the fifth team out of the bowl. And then came Arsenal! Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined my two teams might play each other, but it happened! I couldn’t not go, I just couldn’t. Bridge, dynamite, ka-boom!
Within two minutes of the draw, there were posts on both the Arsenal Canada and Vancouver Arsenal Facebook pages saying “Mark! It’s Sutton versus Arsenal!”
That night I got home and e-mailed Bruce – the subject line of my e-mail was “I know my chances are probably zero, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t ask”. I immediately started checking out the cost of airfare and accommodations, and found that a quick trip Saturday to Tuesday was quite reasonable. The flight was under $1000 and hotel was around $160 a night. I told my boss I might need a couple days’ vacation on short notice. I couldn’t wait for Bruce’s reply.
But the days went by and the match got closer and closer and I didn’t hear from him. The Sutton website announced details of the ticketing process – the priority groups were directors, shareholders, staff, season ticket holders, and sponsors. I’m not in any of those groups. A week and a half before the match, I looked up the Saturday to Tuesday airfare again and found that it gone had from $975 to $2240. The hotel I had looked at was now $250 a night. My hopes dashed, I began composing an e-mail to Bruce withdrawing my request.
As I was in the act of typing that e-mail, my inbox chimed. It was from Bruce! It said “Hi Mark, sorry I haven’t replied, but it’s been manic. Do you still want those tickets?”
Back to Travelocity dot com and Booking dot com! I found that by changing my itinerary from Saturday-Tuesday to Friday-Tuesday, the price was right back down to $975. I found a better hotel, closer to the ground than the one I had looked at before, for only $130 a night, with no down payment required and free cancellation right up to the day before arrival. I booked them right away.
Only one issue left … I phoned my boss, who was on a short vacation, to ask if I could have two days off the week after next. No answer, so I left a message. The next morning, I phoned again. Same result. In Canada, any airfare booked over the net is 100% refundable for 24 hours after booking. So at 23 hours and 50 minutes after booking, I phoned the boss a third time – again, no answer. This time my message was “Okay, now I’m asking for forgiveness rather than permission, because I am going!”
Fortunately, when he got back from vacation the next week, he said I could go!
It wasn’t until later in the week that I realized the Kelly Smith testimonial match was the day before the FA Cup match. Talk about serendipity! I’d always wanted to be able to see that, as I had met Kelly when she came to Vancouver in 2015 to do TV commentary for the Womens World Cup. The Vancouver supporters group invited her to the Arsenal bar for the Cup final against Villa, and I chatted a bit with her and got a picture of me and my daughter with her, and my friend also got a picture with her. Kelly’s a proper Gooner and was as loud and proud as the rest of us when we thrashed Villa. She’s a real class act, totally outgoing and friendly, and everybody loved her.
I had my hopes that Kelly might interact with the supporters at the match, so I printed 8x10s of the pictures and brought them with me.
So, that was my Sunday and Monday fully planned, just the Saturday night to fill up. On my previous travels to London I’ve always gone to the Tollington before each match, and every time I’ve met some exceptional people. The friendliness of people in neighbourhoods pubs in Britain never ceases to amaze me, you can just walk up to people and they’ll start talking to you. That doesn’t happen much at home. The best group I’ve met was on my trip last December, and we’ve kept in touch. I messaged them to see if they would be free on the weekend, and lo and behold, they were. They couldn’t make it to the Kelly Smith match because the journey is a nightmare for them (step-free access is required for one of them), but a Saturday meeting at the Tollington was a go.
There it was, all set! From hopes dashed to tickets bought and everything planned, in four short days!
I left directly from work on Friday afternoon. The flight from Vancouver to Heathrow is an overnight flight, which is convenient for minimizing jet lag (always fly by night from west to east, and by day from east to west).Despite leaving late, we picked up a good tailwind and actually arrived early. Border control was about average, a bit under an hour, and by 1:00 I was on the tube and train to Sutton.
Sutton United’s ground, Gander Green Lane, is a two-minute walk from the train station, so I walked directly up to the stadium. I found Bruce right away (interrupting his lunch – sorry about that!) and presented him with a couple of items I brought from Canada. I’d originally thought of bringing him a Vancouver Whitecaps scarf, but I figured he probably has closets full of football scarves. However, I bet he doesn’t have a hockey scarf. So I gave him a Vancouver Canucks scarf, and a bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whisky. The Us manager Paul Doswell was also there, and he remembered me from my previous visit; he joked “You can’t lose with this match, can you?” And he was right!
The Sutton team had just finished training and were having their lunch too. I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained … and I asked Bruce “If I were to buy a jersey from the club shop, would it be possible to get the squad to sign it?” Well, the club shop was not open. But Bruce had one of the coaches go into the store room and get me a jersey – turned out to be one of the special ones made up for their earlier Cup match against Wimbledon, with the date printed on it! And yes, I got the entire squad’s signatures on it. That’ll be framed and on my wall the day after I get home. To top off the day, Bruce refused to charge me for my ticket, saying if I was prepared to pay to come all the way from Canada to watch his team play, he’d gladly let me in for free. What an incredible gentleman!
After that, it was a quick walk to the hotel to check in, then a sprint back to the train station to get into London. I got to the Tollington just after 5:00, and the gang began showing up a few minutes later. Tony, Pat, Mac, and several of their friends came by. How wonderful to meet up with other committed Gooners again! Needless to say, a VERY good time was had by all, and by the time I had to go catch the last train back to Sutton, all three bar staff had memorized our orders (one Green King, three San Miguel, one Star, one rum and Coke, and 7-Up for the designated driver). We didn’t even have to ask, as soon as they saw one of us headed to the bar they started pouring.
When I got off the train in Sutton at about a quarter to midnight, I noticed a pub called The Plough right across the street, and decided to drop in. Once again, I was amazed at the willingness of the patrons of neighbourhood pubs in Britain to talk to complete strangers. Before the night was out, three of them had bought me pints, in appreciation that I had come all the way from Canada for a football match. It was a truly wonderful day and evening.
Sunday started out surprisingly free of a hangover. How do the British manage to brew such delicious and hangover-free beer? Could you possibly teach North American brewers how to do that? If I drink four pints at home, I’ve usually got a headache the next day. But Saturday night my final score was somewhere around thirteen, with nary a side-effect at all!
The journey up to Borehamwood was very easy – there’s a train that goes directly there from Sutton. I arrived around 12:30, plenty of time for lunch before walking to the park. I had my photographs and a Sharpie with me. I decided to try something new for lunch, and went into my first ever Turkish restaurant. And right after I sat down and took off my jacket, revealing my Özil jersey, several of the wait staff approached me and said “You like Arsenal? You like Özil? He eats here!” Well, I can see why Özil eats there. The food was excellent! Sadly, though, Özil did not turn up for lunch that particular day. If he had, that would have made for the second jersey of my trip that would be framed when I got home!
The ground in Borehamwood, Meadow Park, is your typical non-league stadium that holds a couple of thousand. In chatting with the fans around me, I learned that the Arsenal Ladies rarely get crowds much over a thousand, and that filling the entire stadium for Kelly’s testimonial was a huge turnout. It’s a shame that the women’s’ game hasn’t got much support in England. In Canada, the Whitecaps Ladies regularly draw three or four thousand, and in the US, the Seattle and Portland teams get anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000. I hope that attendance in England will improve – the football’s really good.
The match itself was a lot of fun. You could tell the players were enjoying themselves, and Howard Webb as referee was a showman. Indeed, by the end of the match, the crowd was chanting “Howard Howard, score a goal”, and he was making runs into the box! The score ended up 4-2 for the Ladies over Kelly’s All-Stars, and it was highly entertaining. There really is a lot of talent in that Arsenal Ladies team.
Halftime was very special for me. I got a chance to talk to Kelly as she came out for the second half, and she remembered visiting Vancouver and speaking with me in 2015! She signed both pictures for me and asked me to send her best wishes to my daughter and my friend. This picture will be something I treasure for the rest of my days. After the match, while Kelly and the teams were taking a lap around the field signing autographs, I made sure to tell her she was welcome to come and visit us in Vancouver again!
I took it easy Sunday night – not taking any chances for tomorrow!
Monday dawned bright and sunny, and with several hours for me to kill before the match. I spent the day walking around Sutton and Cheam, and coincidentally the restaurant I went into for lunch turned out to be another Turkish one! I think I’ve found a new style of food that I really like, as it was easily as good as the one in Borehamwood, plus the portion was so huge I was able to take enough leftovers home to eat for dinner.
I got up to The Plough at about 4:00 to start the evening’s festivities. I had on a Sutton jersey, an Arsenal jacket, and a neutral cap (Baseball Canada, if anyone’s interested). A bloke came around selling half-and-half scarves and I bought two. A couple of folk I’d met on Saturday evening were there and remembered me, and even remembered what I drank, so the only pint I had to pay for was my first. I met several more people who were fascinated that not only had my two clubs chanced to play each other, but that I’d come 8,000 kilometers to see it. I told them the same thing I wrote earlier – how could I NOT go? This is practically a once in a lifetime occurrence. If it ever does happen again, I’ll probably be in a wheelchair drooling into my blanket.
Again and again, everyone I met was full of generosity and friendship. If it seems that this is a recurring theme in my narrative, it’s because it kept happening. I can’t get over how blessed I have been to have met so many good, kind, open-hearted people on my travels.
I made it into the stadium by 6:30. It was already pretty full. I was in the parking lot when the Arsenal bus arrived, but there were so many people in front of me that all I got was a glimpse of the top of Arsene Wenger’s head. So I went into the bar, just in time to hear Bruce finish his speech to the invited guests having dinner. I had a brief chat with him to thank him again for his extraordinary hospitality to me and wish him luck for the match. After that I had enough time for a couple of beer in the bar, and then out onto the grounds!
It’s one thing to say that Gander Green Lane is far, far smaller than the Emirates, but for me the real difference is how close I was to the players! I made sure I got my position leaning on the fence right away, as close to the Arsenal end as possible. To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by both Sutton supporters and Gooners, so I knew it wouldn’t be too awkward if I cheered for goals at either end.
The pre-match warm-ups were entertaining and occasionally a ball would roll over to the fence and an Arsenal player would come over to pick it up. I was really hoping Rob Holding would get close enough for me to ask him to quickly sign my program. When my daughter found out I was going to this match and I told her Holding would probably play, she gave me explicit instructions – “You must kidnap Rob Holding and bring him home to me in your luggage. He is my future husband.” I told her Arsene Wenger would probably frown on that, and also it wouldn’t go down too well if I got to Canadian customs and declared Rob Holding as something I was bringing into the country. So she relented and said she’d be happy if I just got his autograph.
Alas, he never came over to pick up a ball, and even though he heard me and gave me a wave when I called out his name, I couldn’t get his signature. Jacqui, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry, but I tried.
Before the match, from an Arsenal point of view, I had a few butterflies. This could be a real banana skin. While I do love and support both Arsenal and Sutton, my number one club is Arsenal. If Sutton were to win this match, I might have the consolation of having one of my teams in the quarterfinal (and possibly a semi-final, since the winner was drawn at home to Lincoln City in the next round), but as a Gooner I’d be devastated. I also didn’t want to see a blow-out like Arsenal handed to Southampton. Sutton deserved better than that. What I wanted was a good competitive match, with Arsenal playing their game well and Sutton dealing with it well.
My wish was granted. In spades. Arsenal came out passing the ball like it was stuck to their boots; Sutton didn’t have a touch until nearly two minutes. But Sutton kept a solid shape, forcing Arsenal outside and denying them any runs in behind. When Walcott or Lucas did manage to get in behind, the Sutton back line timed their step-up perfectly and repeatedly caught Arsenal offside. The artificial pitch wasn’t watered before the match, but the speed of the surface had Arsenal overcooking several of their passes.
The first goal was kind of fluky. Lucas made an excellent run down the right side, pulled up and cut in towards the middle, then sent a low cross towards goal which no-one got a touch on. It completely wrong-footed Worner in goal and dribbled into the far corner. Arsenal dominated possession and generated several good chances, but Sutton held firm and blocked anything goalbound. Sutton managed to bring the ball forward a few times but didn’t test Ospina at all in the first half.
In the second half Sutton came out a little faster, and tried to attack more. Arsenal held firm and took advantage of the exposed spaces. As the half went on, Sutton were obviously beginning to tire. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas were able to easily outpace Sutton defenders on the wings. I remember one phase of play when in less than thirty seconds, both of them blazed past the same defender right in front of me, and from the expression on his face the poor guy’s thoughts on the second run could only have been “Can’t they leave me alone?!”
The second goal arrived shortly after when this same defender was again beaten by Lucas, who crossed for Walcott to volley in his century goal for the club. With the result now safe, Arsenal took their foot off the gas, happy to play keep-away and not run up the score. Sutton made some daring substitutions, bringing on attackers for defenders, to try and salvage something from the match. It nearly paid off, as they created two great chances for ex-Arsenal boy Roarie Deacon. He put one high and wide, and smashed the other off the bar with Ospina well beaten.
That was all Sutton could muster and the match ended two-nil to the Arsenal. But sadly, that was not the end of the action on the night. Despite repeated requests on the PA to stay off the pitch after the match, a flood of Sutton fans invaded the pitch at the final whistle. It started out relatively innocent enough, just trying to get pictures with their players, but then a crowd of them headed down to the Arsenal end and began taunting the Arsenal supporters in their enclosure. A police line blocked them off and began moving them away. To their credit, the Arsenal group did not rise to the bait. Down at the other, a bunch of idiots tried to break down the goal frame. I was walking right past that goal on my way out when this happened. The police nabbed a couple of them and the proper Sutton supporters, who stayed off the pitch, were yelling “I’ve never seen you at a match before and you try to do this to my club, just fuck off!” at them. It was very unfortunate that such a superb match had to be overshadowed by that kind of behaviour.
Once I was away from the pitch I was in a calmer crowd. I headed over to The Plough and ended up closing the place down. As ever, I was treated royally. A few more of the regulars bought me a pint, I returned the favour a few times, and the owner of the pub gave me an England-Wales scarf from the Six Nations tournament to take home with me. A couple of pretty ladies who are apparently karaoke stars sang Elvis songs to me. It was, in all, a magic day.
Now it’s the day after. I’m on the plane home, about an hour from touching down in Vancouver. Of all my visits to England, this has to have been the best. I hope you have enjoyed reading about it, as much as I enjoyed experiencing it and writing about it.