An Executive day at the Arsenal
It definitely had me curious. A chance of a seat in an emirates executive box doesn’t come around often and when the phone rang late on Friday night and the offer was made I jumped at it.
Never mind it was my wife’s birthday, which I had briefly forgotten, or that I’m not really the executive type: This was a chance to see Arsenal vs Fulham from a place I’d never experienced.
Come Saturday I wrestled briefly with the dress code and opted for trainers and a shirt, linked by “not jeans”. I like to be mobile when I go to football, to be able to move nimbly if needs be. It wasn’t Tottenham but you never know.
A brisk visit to Highbury to finally lay that ghost of the 5th light Northbank to rest and I was into the Emirates, reasonably guilt free, accepting a programme from the delightful hostess on my way up the escalator to the ‘box seats’.
There’s a circular corridor that runs the circumference of the stadium on this special, middle floor. On one side it’s meticulously lined by photos of key Arsenal players and moments. On the other side it keeps discreet blue doors with plaques announcing whose executive suite lies beyond. Barclays was one. I don’t remember any others apart from mine which was, as they say, the title track.
Greeted by friendly, immaculate Emirates air hostesses, and further welcomed by other hosts, even the chef radiated a reasonably twinkly-eyed smile. I thought this generous as, judging by the spread in front of him, he’d been hard at work since the early morning. Plates of seafood, smoked salmon, assorted salads and quality breads were ready for the eating.
Chilled beverages added nicely to the picture and as I took it all in I felt the need to consciously remind myself I was at Football. Yes, I could see the red seats of the stands and a glimpse of the green pitch through the glass doors onto the balcony reassured me I was in the right place.
But it was warm and relaxing and, quite quickly, rather seductive. I’m a man of old habits and I wasn’t sure I could get used it but I decided to give it a good go and stepped up to the counter, plate in hand. Two courses later, which could have included steamed fish, mushrooms and grilled chicken or roast beef with a variety of trimmings and sauces, we’d arrived at 2.55pm.
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Stepping out onto the balcony and then settling into a front row seat behind the goal, I declined the blanket and zipped up my coat. I consider myself a hardy Gooner and, with respect, couldn’t even recline into the wide, padded red leather arm-chair until well into the second half.
The match played out with Santi Cazorla finding his goal scoring form again and we dispatched the Cottagers with reasonable efficiency and no small amount of creative play. I will admit to having my head turned by Berbatov, who to me looked majestic in the smallest of plays.
I know it’s greedy, and perhaps the day’s excesses were to blame, but I do think he’d find a good home with us. He is simply class. I have no truck with those who criticise his work rate. To me he is efficiently sublime. However, perhaps like me he doesn’t see himself as the executive type and prefers to ply his craft in a hungrier climate.
Mind you, he may be swayed if he sees the dessert menu on offer here. Half time saw an array of puddings that would normally have led me well astray. I opted for the more frugal approach, perhaps needing to reconnect with the match but others scoffed heartily. I used the loo – no queue there – and at full time allowed myself a generous helping of cheese and biscuits with a good quality fresh coffee to wash it down. Not before I’d clapped the team off though, and here’s the rub:
I go to football to watch the match. It’s the main event. My team work their socks off to play beautiful, fluent, creative football. That is my banquet. The least I can do is give them my full attention and feel the cold as it starts to bite. And I have to admit to precious little chanting from our cosy corner of the stadium.
For all the executive hospitality, and like our football surely there’s no one who does it better, the sensation I’ll remember best beyond the enjoyment of the match is the smell of the pitch. Sitting there, alongside a row of blanketed legs and comfortable overcoats, I realised about 10 minutes into the game that I really could smell the Emirates turf. It was glorious. We all know how great it looks but until you smell it you don’t fully get it. In the depths of winter, after weeks of miserable London monsoon, we have a carpet of grass on which to ply our trade. It’s the finest of tablecloths on which to lay out our feast of football and it’s the best that modern turf technology has to offer.
I used to reference the undersoil heating at Highbury to friends of other teams as indicative of our approach to the game. Our watermark if you like. The Emirates now feels a bit more like that to me: A home of quality. I understand better how it works economically too, now.
Those executive suites aren’t cheap but they are as they cost: Quality. Carzola, Walcott, Giroud, Mertesacker. None of these guys work for free. Income has to play its part. My club is solvent and we’ve got the most terrific stadium, replete in its attention to detail and its ability to host the beautiful game and all its attendants. I’m glad for that. I’m fortunate to be a Gooner and for this game I felt like I’d been treated to the most interactive Match of the Day experience you could ever want.
But when Liverpool come to town for the fifth round of the cup, if I’m lucky, I’ll be cheering them on from a luxuriantly wide but realistically chilly plastic seat somewhere away from the executives. I’ll have sandwiches, crisps, a cup of tea and I’ll be chanting with happy regularity for the lads. Maybe at the end of the day we’re all executives at Arsenal; we just have different tastes in how we watch our football. “Come on Arsenal, come on Arsenal….”
Jon Preston, Jan 2014
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