Instead of writing about the mind-numbing 1-0 loss to Norwich (BBC recap here), I decided to pick a happier topic: my first trip to Emirates Stadium. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to visit the home of Arsenal, I strongly urge you to save your hard-earned dollars and make it happen. Every football fan will tell you that their stadium is the best, but the Emirates is truly magnificent.
May 1, 2012: I received an email from AFC confirming that my Armoury Square stone had been installed. I actually ordered the stone back in August 2011, but understandably they did not do any work during the winter months and there was a huge backlog of orders. At this point, I decided to plan my pilgrimage to London. I wanted to skip the Olympics crush, and also to wait until the EPL season started so that I could catch a game while I was there. The first interesting home match was against Chelsea on Sept 29.
Brief interlude: in June, a friend of mine went to the Emirates and photographed my stone. The stone was in rough shape, even though it was brand new. I contacted AFC, and to their credit the customer support was courteous and efficient. I informed them that I was planning to visit at the end of September, so they re-did the paint job and sent me a photo when the work was done.
August 30: I woke up at 5:00 AM (10:00 AM London time) to buy a ticket for the Chelsea match. There’s a special phone number for Red Members to call to order tickets. You can buy only 1 ticket per Member, so keep that in mind if you want to go with a group of friends. Also note: ticket prices are higher for the premium games. I paid £89.35 for mine, and that was an Upper Tier seat. If you’re going to buy a ticket, ask for the North Bank. The away fans sit in a wedge of seats in the south. Start learning the songs (if you haven’t already).
I used tripadvisor.ca to book my flight, and Booking.com for the hotel. I prefer non-stop flights, but you can save money if you’re willing to make a stop or two. For the hotel, I picked a hotel in central London, as opposed to a hotel close to the stadium. When you arrive at Heathrow Airport, buy an Oyster Card so that you can travel by Tube . I took the Tube from Heathrow to Hammersmith (it’s called the Piccadilly Line, it’s dark blue on the map) to get to my hotel. On game day, I took the same line from Hammersmith to Arsenal station. When you buy the Oyster card, you’ll need coverage for Zone 1 and 2. If you want to go further north than Arsenal station, you’ll be approaching Zone 3. If you just want to see the usual tourist sites in London, Zone 2 should be sufficient. One more note about the Tube system: some lines have more than one terminus, for example, the District Line (it’s green on the map). So depending on your destination, you might need to let one train pass and wait for the next one.
September 28: I took the Stadium tour, hosted by none other than Charlie George. He’s been working for the Arsenal for about 20 years, so it’s nice to see that AFC takes care of its own. He was willing to sign autographs and take photos with the fans. At the end of the tour, he had a Q&A session in the press conference room. After the tour, I checked out the Armoury, which has pretty much the same merchandise that you’ll find online. To be honest, the away shirt looks much better in person than on the web. The purple is quite dark, so it blends nicely with the black. I decided to go with the training shirt, which was less expensive. Personalization of my shirt was an additional £7.50. Those who did the Stadium tour got a free pass to the Museum.
September 29: Game day! It was an early start, presumably to appease the Sky Television gods. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful for a change, if a bit cold. I had enough time to walk around the outside of the stadium, checking out the lifesize statues (Tony Adams, Herbert Chapman, Thierry Henry) and all the player profiles along the wall. There are two bridges that lead to the stadium, and there are flags of the Arsenal legends (Bergkamp, Henry, Adams, etc) as you walk over the bridge. There was a huge group of Chinese fans posing with the Henry statue, and a camera crew. So I’m guessing we’ll see them on Arsenal Player at some point.
Inside the stadium, there are more photos and inspiring quotes along the walls. As I walked up the stairs to my section, there were large signs that said “We are the North Bank.” My seat was just about as high as you could get, but the view of the pitch was fantastic. We were also covered by the roof. The seats are not cramped, and they’re also cushioned.
Although we lost the game, it was great to hear every cheer, jeer, song, insult, groan, and fan commentary. Over on the south side, the Chelsea fans were very vocal throughout the game. Chelsea drew first blood; from the video replay it looked like Koscielny blundered. But when I watched the highlights on TV it looked like a skilful strike by Torres. Gervinho equalised just before the end of the half, and we were chanting “Who are ya?” at the Chelsea fans. Mata scored early in the second half, and we missed our chances to score late in the game. Giroud could have been the hero, but it was not meant to be.
After the game, I took another walk around the stadium. I had a “Divine Feast” hamburger for £7, and I must say it was pretty tasty. Over there, “bacon” is more like salty ham, not like our bacon. And the cheese was Swiss, not cheddar. Probably not worth $11 Cdn, but it’s all about the context, right?
I did take some photos of the Emirates Stadium, but they don’t do it justice. You’re better off checking out official photographer Stuart MacFarlane’s photostream on Flickr:
General comments about London: the prices are the same as in Canada, but in pounds. Therefore, it’s 1.6 times more expensive. The city is huge, so unless you’re Mo Farah, you’ll be taking the Tube to get around. I was there for a week, so I paid £34 for unlimited travel within Zones 1 and 2. I paid a £5 refundable deposit for the card, and then returned the card at the end of my trip. A good place to start is the Piccadilly Circus station; from there, you can walk south to the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, London Eye, and London Aquarium. Another stop would be Hyde Park Corner station; there’s Hyde Park to the northwest, and Buckingham Palace to the southeast. Tower Hill station will get you to the Tower of London. If you plan to visit other parts of Europe, you might have to go to Gatwick Airport; go to the Victoria tube station and catch an express train from there. It takes about 30 minutes.
Old Highbury is also close to Arsenal station; when you exit the tube station, go east along Gillespie Road, then turn right on Avenell Road. It’s about a block or two. To go to the Emirates Stadium instead, you would go west along Gillespie Road, then south on Drayton Park. You will see an Arsenal boutique; it’s not the Armoury. You have to walk up some stairs, then walk over the Ken Friar Bridge (the North bridge).
If you’ve been to the Emirates and would like to share your experiences, please post them in the Comments section. COYG!