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Monday 5 September 2005

For As Long As Ye All Shall Live!

Driving past our magnificent new stadium you can't fail to be impressed with the mammoth structure which seems to have sprung forth from the Drayton Park dirt, to dominate the local skyline. Even me, as one of the most selfish disbelievers, having been safely ensconced in my West Upper pitch at Highbury for the past umpteen seasons, with none of the tiresome
Ticketmaster struggles of trying to secure myself a regular seat at Highbury, I have to admit that it appears as if we are going to have a fitting new home in the near future, for a club which hopes to secure its place as a major player on football's world stage. And that's a big leap of faith for someone who's so stuck in his ways. I've been petrified that our departure from our beautiful and historical Home of Football is bound to sever the sentimental ties which have bound me to the Arsenal for the vast majority of my life. As far as I'm concerned, it might still be football, but certainly not as I've always known it.

However, while I've grown to accept the move as an inevitable fact of life, if the Gunners are to continue to flourish, that doesn't make me any less desperate to cling on for dear life to that certain "je ne sais quoi" which has always distinguished our club from the rest of the Premiership dross. Whoever said that childbirth and moving home were the 2 most traumatic events in a person's life, obviously wasn't a footie fanatic in mortal fear of having their entire heritage stolen out from under their feet!

I can fully appreciate the feelings of all those Gooners who believe the world will be a better place, when they can simply buy a ticket to watch their beloved Arsenal play, without the sort of military planning required to try and bag one of the limited number of precious pitches available at Highbury, 2 months in advance of every match. Nevertheless my concerns continue to mount almost daily at the prospect of us ending up at some point in the future watching 22 overpaid prima donnas kicking a ball around in an albeit spectacular arena, but with little more soul than the Birmingham NEC.

Go to a night game in Milan and the lights of the San Siro give the ground's silhouette the look of a spectacular prop from the Close Encounters movie. Yet turn up during the cold light of day, when there's no match and you'll find little to connect this deserted concrete tribute to architectural modernity, to the great footballing dynasties of AC or Inter Milan, other than some guttersnipes' coarse graffiti. The system of sharing stadia in Serie A ensures that the majority of their most well known grounds might be great stages for Italy's most glamorous footballing occasions, when they are filled with enthusiastic 'tifosi' and adorned with spectacular. But if the Arsenal's ancient old arena is humble by comparison, at least it feels like OUR Home of Football, rather than the somewhat impersonal venue that is merely the location many Italians share with their most hated local rivals for their live (if a little boring) version of the beautiful game.

Despite me being an incorrigible romantic, I know only too well that the days are long gone when a young footballing prodigy could walk across the threshold to our hallowed marble halls and want to sign on the dotted line, without giving a monkey's for the terms of their contract. In the past, players were just desperate to associate themselves with all the tradition and the magical scent of success, which continues to ooze out of every vein of the Arsenal's ancient marble. It's hard to imagine that the 'have boots will travel' type mercenaries currently plying their trade in modern football, are the least bit worried about anything else but the wonga and being enticed by the sort of wage packets which could eradicate Third World debt.

Chelsea's recent title triumph contradicts the suggestions that you cannot buy success. It might no longer be sufficient to make players want to turn down the prospect of earning twice as much, but mercifully there remains an intangible quality of tradition and reverence around Highbury's stately environs, which is beyond the taint of Abramovich's filthy blood-stained lucre. You simply will not find that special aura which is encapsulated in our old world entrance hall, amongst all that new money fuelled glitz at Stamford Bridge. Peer beyond the temptations of their garish pots of gold and Chelsea just lacks the substance that one senses instinctively at Highbury.

Meanwhile the club can line the walls of our spectacular new stadium with the best Italian marble money can buy. But all the ostentatious finishing touches in the world won't guarantee that they are able to bring that essence of the Arsenal's heart & soul a few hundred yards along Aubert Park. At the end of the day, it won't be the standard of haute cuisine in Club Level, or high-class half-time comestibles which will distinguish our new footballing temple from the fairly bland experience of watching the game in decidedly homogenised, but none the less well-built modern grounds such as The Reebok and St. Marys.

Don't get me wrong, from our wonderful West Upper perch, where we pay the best part of 4 grand for the privilege of watching the Arsenal, some sort of reverse snobbery would be more than a little hypocritical. Moreover I'm conversant with the harsh economic facts of life which have to date seen our club focus almost exclusively on promoting the fabulous facilities available to the considerable contingent of the Arsenal's most affluent punters. I've been led to believe that between the Exec Boxes, Diamond Class and Club Level, the club are expecting that the vast sums received from these income streams alone, will pay for the entire ambitious project over the course of 9 years. It is therefore completely understandable that they should be concentrating on marketing these packages to the Arsenal's poshest punters.

However I'm becoming increasingly dismayed that this decidedly blinkered focus is going to prove to the detriment of the vast majority of loyal Gooners. I might not be blessed with deep enough pockets to have jumped to the front of the new stadium queue, by buying a bond a short while back. Nor have I a hope of affording a little short of 40 grand necessary to
pay 4 years up front for the two centre seats in Club Level (which are in fact the closest true equivalent to our current fabulous pitch). Nevertheless the club might not consider me one of the highly prized mug punters, with several thousands worth of disposable readies to stump up for one of the new stadium's more highly desirable seats. But if I sat down to work it out, I've little doubt that over the years my total investment in the Arsenal will amount to far more than the 'paltry' sums being paid for these luxury pitches in the short term.

If this financial investment doesn't carry any weight because I don't currently have enough cash for my opinions to matter a jot (along with the rest of the masses), then it should be our emotional investment which the suits at the club might really want to concern themselves with. After all they are merely the caretakers of our club and since football remains a cyclical sport, the feelings of the 50 thousand plebs and our matchday experience must matter as much as the 10 thousand watching from their lofty ivory peaks, because we will still be there long after the corporate hordes have hitched their wagons to another more attractive train.

Although we shouldn't be surprised at this short-term lack of any true footballing nous. It seems to prevail in everything the club has done during this desperate dash for cash to fund the project. According to those with a knowledge of such matters, the deal to sell off our birthright to an Arabic airline will be worth diddly squat in the long term, compared to the value of enhancing the club's image around the world with The Home of Football. Even when the marketing whores in Manchester were beholden to their shareholders, they didn't cash in for the sake of a quick dividend by flogging off The Theatre of Dreams.

I continue to pray that someone, somewhere will pull their finger out and stand up to represent our opinions, during a period of the greatest upheaval we are going to experience in our entire Arsenal lives. Although in truth we've just about relinquished our rights to have some input on the matter. By failing to open our gobs over something so significant as the fact that brand new bond holders were to receive priority over season ticket holders, some of whom have been carrying this club since the old King died, our apathetic response basically gave the decision makers carte-blanche to do exactly as they please without fear of any real protest.

When I think back to how militant we Gooners were when it came to uproar over the North Bank project, plans which eventually proved to be quite petty in the great scheme of things, I am absolutely flabbergasted about the way in which we've sat back on our big fat arses and let the whole new stadium development pass us by, with nothing more than a token input.

Personally I get the distinct impression that there must be some sense of shame over the fact that the club has been quietly hiving off all the fancy seats at our unfinished stadium to all the most affluent punters. Otherwise, one would have thought that they are rightly so proud of this magnificent project that they'd be marketing it in 6-foot high neon letters, along the length of Avenell Road. Instead of which they've been touting all the best tickets out of an extremely anonymous office in a commercial backwater off the Cally. If you phone Highbury, they will admit to the existence of the Reservations Centre, but no one could give me the address. Despite knowing the area well, I drove up and down Brewery Road three times
before I eventually got through on the phone to discover the exact address (by the way it's worth a visit, if only to get ones picture taken with the huge "Immaculate Season" poster, listing our unbeaten run).

So in the near future when you poor prejudiced Clock End season ticket holders end up choosing their new pitches from the last knockings of the remaining available seats in the North end of the new stadium, please don't come crying to me. Moreover I don't mean to imply that occasional visitors make any less contribution to the atmosphere at Highbury (let's face it, it wouldn't be hard to make more noise!). But it would appear that instead of the administrative aggravation of having to move fans from one end of the ground to the other, on the mere few Cup occasions where the visitors get an increased allocation, the entire area behind the south goal has been given over to general sale. So in the future when much of this crucial area of the stadium ends up occupied by footie tourists, ticking off the Arsenal on their itineraries, I wouldn't go expecting them to suck the ball into the back of the net on our behalf. Nor are they likely to be leaping to their feet and pressurising the ref into awarding a penalty.

If in a few years time, when the initial rush of 'I want what I can't have' Arsenal fans have had their fill of the new stadium because it's such an expensive family outing, don't say I didn't warn you when on a miserable wet Wednesday night in the deep mid-winter, there's nothing but a smattering of away fans at one end of the ground watching Arsenal v Wigan (or whoever happens to be that season's lamb to the slaughter!).

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