Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Trouble with Emirates

Without wanting to dwell on the departed Fabregas and Nasri too much, in recent weeks both players have made comments that have resonated, albeit a little uncomfortably, with a lot of Arsenal fans – certainly those who were familiar with the matchday atmosphere in the unforgettable corner of North London that was Highbury. Cesc suggested in an interview that the Emirates did not feel as ‘special’ as Highbury: ‘I have never felt at home as I was at Highbury at any other stadium in the world … Highbury was a special thing that I don't think will happen any more, but Arsenal have to make the Emirates their own home now and with their own cabinet of trophies to start all over again.’

Nasri, on the other hand, reportedly said that Gunners fans were ‘not that passionate’, although he later backtracked slightly by stating that he only meant playing at Emirates was a ‘little bit different’ from the City of Manchester stadium. Presumably he is so desperate to become a cult hero among the blue half of Manchester ahead of Aguero, Savic, Clichy and, er, Hargreaves, that he wanted to get a head start by playing up to supporters. Although I’m sure most City fans would say to young Samir that if he thinks that’s loud, then he should’ve heard the noise at Maine Road. We all have a nostalgic tendency to don the rose-tinted specs, after all. Yet however clumsily made, Nasri’s point is valid. There is a problem at Emirates. But why?

The Emirates Stadium screams ‘big club’. Highbury, on the other hand, didn’t scream anything at all. It was just there; reserved and dignified in its art deco splendour. It was a fantastic ground. And, at its best, it was a fortress. Often, admittedly, when Dixon, Winterburn, Adams, Keown or Bould – and sometimes all five, it wasn’t unknown – were on the pitch. Then you knew that the opposition were going to have to work really, really hard to get the ball in the Arsenal net. Added to which, Highbury had some truly magic nights.

Emirates, for all its advantages, isn’t like that. It’s got good hotdogs (they even put sesame seeds on the buns), you can always get to a bar, you can get a decent view from pretty much anywhere in the stadium, and you can still get Bovril at half-time. It will also give the club long-term benefits, or so we are repeatedly told, in terms of financial stability. But that’s not what makes a good football ground. It doesn’t have the noise, the atmosphere, that Highbury had. And yet, it’s so much bigger. It fits more Gooners inside. A lot more. And they all pretty much turn up every week – Emirates always has at least 55,000. Of course, they don’t all sing. And the noise, such as it is, does seem to dissipate. And if you’re up the top, sometimes it’s hard to even hear the North Bank – which it is still called, in an effort to preserve some tradition. And that's just one thing that's wrong, among numerous others - not least the name. Many of the more dogmatic fans prefer 'the Grove', or just 'the Arsenal'. These are problems that have been noted by others. Regarding the players' opinions, Red Action, incidentally, agree with Nasri and Fabregas, stating that although it ‘hurts a bit’, it ‘needed to be said’. The club themselves have also acknowledged the issue, and to be fair have tried to encourage a policy of ‘Arsenalisation’ (their word). The graphics of club heroes that now surround the exterior of the ground are a nice touch, the red and white scarves placed on every seat at the start of last season (to be waved in unison when Denilson completed another successful short backwards or sideways pass, presumably) perhaps less so. The less grey concrete and the more club colours the better, in general. But they can’t artificially create noise. And at the end of the day, walking round the outside of the Emirates isn’t like walking up Avenell Road used to be. Things are different now.

Of course, atmosphere partly comes from shared memories, a collective history, and that's something Emirates just doesn’t have yet. We probably do need to win something and bring a trophy back there before it will start to feel like home. Which isn’t to deride the team – to some extent it’s up to fans to provide the atmosphere, at least initially – but of course, that’s always much easier when the players are demonstrating some fight, some belief, and showing that they’re proud to wear the red and white. Thierry got it right; he showed how much he cared with 174 goals, and the affection was still there – not just for Highbury, but for Arsenal – when he returned with New York Red Bulls to play in (and win) the most recent Emirates Cup. The reception our old number 14 got then showed how loud Emirates can be, and more of that level of noise would probably help in 2011/12. The solution then, rather crudely, might be simply to sing more. Enough decibels will conquer even the monolith that is the Emirates. But do it the Arsenal way. We’re not Stoke, after all.

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