Saturday morning after I roll out of bed I will join legions of soccer fans across the United States as we plop down in front of television sets from coast to coast to take in the action from England’s Premier League, the Bundesliga, or perhaps La Liga, or Serie A.
It is all just a click away, one benefit of our modern world, but last Sunday afternoon, I did it the old fashioned way when I attended my first Premiership match.
A trip to London was the catalyst, if I was going to be in London in season, I simply HAD to see a Premier League match. And with five teams calling the sprawling city home (and one or two on the outskirts) a ticket of some sort could surely be procured.
As it turned out I needn’t have worried. A generous connection with season tickets came through and just that easily I had two precious ducats on the halfway line to see Arsenal host Bournemouth at the Emirates.
My wife and I were staying with family in Wanstead in East London and I was happy to bring my cousin-in-law, if that’s even a thing, with me. There was just one problem – he’s a Tottenham fan!
Would he want to go? Would he get us killed? It turns out my concerns were unfounded. A Londoner by birth, my soccer partner hardly needed me to tell him to leave the Spurs gear home, although he did cheekily suggest the possibility of Tottenham underwear.
So, togged out in his red England jersey, no flies on him, my local guide led the way. Oyster cards in hand we set off and not much later we were at the Emirates.
My previous experience of a live English soccer match had been 15 or so years earlier when a friend brought me along to see Queens Park Rangers play at Loftus Road. Then, as now, QPR played in the English Championship, the second division of the English game. I think Burnley was the opposition, but don’t quote me on that.
On the way to the stadium that afternoon, I had felt a slight, indescribable something in the air. An atmosphere that had me slightly on edge as I entered the stadium and watched the game. Exactly what it was that I sensed, a hint of menace? I can’t say and in the end, we enjoyed the game, but I felt it.
There was none of that as we walked up to the Gunners oh so 21st century home on a pleasant afternoon this past Sunday. It was a lovely day, around 50F, or 10C, and not a cloud in the sky. Even the English rain stayed away, as it did for the full five days of our stay. After snapping a couple of obligatory smartphone pics, we made our way across the bridge to the stadium surrounded by a relaxed and convivial crowd of supporters.
We picked up our tickets with a minimum of fuss at the desk of the hotel lobby-like Woolwich Gate and we were in.
There was time to kill and the wide concourse allowed plenty of room to enjoy a pint and a meat pie, an English football match delicacy that did not disappoint. The short, almost nonexistent lines, queues if you prefer, were a change from U.S. stadiums, although it was a different scene during the halftime break. So table those fat American jokes, please.
Then it was match time. Bournemouth provided the opposition and while the tiny South Coast club entered the game in a respectable 10th place in the Premier League, the home fans eyed a handy three points as we settled into our seats high above this glorious emerald pitch in the center of London Town.
Almost immediately the songs and the chants began. And if I had hoped that proximity would make it easier to work out exactly what was being said, sung, or chanted, (and I had), I soon found out it was not to be.
I hadn’t a clue and when I turned to my companion for help none was forthcoming. Eventually, a call went the way of the Cherries (Bournemouth) inspiring my favorite English soccer chant, directed at the referee. “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing!”
Why is it my favorite? First off, I can understand it, and second, it is kind of funny.
And the game itself? Well, Bournemouth made Arsenal work for it, arriving at the intermission level at one goal a piece. But with Alexis Sanchez in fine form and accompanied by the likes of Mesut Özil, it seemed inevitable when the home team scored twice after the break to claim a 3-1 victory, a victory that brought the Gunners within three points of first-place Chelsea.
Shortly before the final whistle word came over the PA that the Picadilly Line on the Tube was operating at 50 percent capacity, followed by a list of closed stations.
There was no rush for the exits, however, and with three points in the bag, the crowd happily made its way home. As for myself, I was glad to have the benefit of some local knowledge as we headed into the London streets.
The Premier League experience had been a good one, civilized I would say. Because while the visitors had given a decent account of themselves, Bournemouth couldn’t help it that they aren’t Chelsea or Tottenham and the smattering of empty seats around the stadium reflected that status.
So this weekend as I sit in front of the television with my feet up, coffee cup in hand, computer in my lap, with a world full of soccer at my fingertips, I will enjoy that convenience and that comfort knowing all the while that nothing beats being in the crowd, even if I still don’t know what they’re singing.