First, let's get one thing clear. I am not anti-Arsenal. I have no agenda against the club, manager or most of the playing staff. In fact, I probably like Arsenal more now than I have ever done. As a child I found them dull as dishwater and, as a result, vaguely disliked them in much the same way that I now vaguely dislike Stoke. You know that joke about children snapping one arm off each of the back four of their Arsenal Subbuteo team and gluing the arms back on the other way up – as if claiming an offside decision? That was my favourite joke as an 11-year-old. These days, they play admirably beautiful football, and while they have obvious flaws, I can at least gain plenty of pleasure from watching Arsenal. This is something my childhood self would never have thought possible.
But yesterday evening I had perhaps the dullest, most lifeless, anodyne football experience of my life. I'm struggling to think of a worse one. I guess the only consolation was that I did not pay for it. But, in a way, my free ticket did not help.
I was sat with the prawn sandwich brigade in the middle tier. And it wasn't even my employer that was paying for it. Another company with an interest in maintaining a good relationship with ours was footing the bill. In short, you could argue that I was one of the most freeloading corporate tossers in the whole stadium. But the difference was, the other freeloading corporate tossers were all there to watch Arsenal turn on the style; to see a Nasri or a Wilshere massacre a lowly Football League minnow and toy with its carcass. I was there in the hope of seeing something special, namely Leyton Orient making a fight of it and giving Arsenal a fright. The others got what they were baying for. Arsenal scored early and quickly killed the game as a contest. I got precious little, bar enormous respect for the Orient fans who were sat directly below me in my legroom-tastic middle tier.
As the second half started with the score at 3-0, the Orient fans were still in very fine voice. A boy sat near me, who looked for all the world like a younger Jack Wilshere, couldn't get his head around this. Surely these silly fans of such a comparably terrible team should be slumped in their seats? "Oi! Shut up Orient, you're crap! We're smashing you three-nil!" His parents seemed to think this was fair comment and continued to gaze gormlessly ahead.
As the strange mix of genuine fans and freeloaders around me lapsed into chatting about work, Barcelona and last night's telly, Arsenal won a penalty. I knew this because I'd heard the whistle and seen the referee point to the spot. But the fans didn't react to winning it. There was no cheer at my end of the stadium at all. They either didn't realise or didn't care sufficiently to emit any sort of noise. Yes, they cheered as the delightful Nicklas Bendtner duly completed his hat-trick, but it was more of brief "wa-heey" than anything else.
Bendtner had previously scored two first-half goals down in front of us. If I was in any doubt as to his character, his pointless goading of the Orient fans on netting his second did little to improve my mood. Classy behaviour from a man who ranks himself among the world's best. Having been in celebratory mood to this point, the Orient faithful suddenly had their backs up. A boo for Bendtner preceded a hearty and very salient burst of: "Four-nil and you still don't sing!". This chant echoed around an increasingly listless stadium.
"Stand up for the Orient," they sang, as eight or nine thousand away fans got to their feet and applauded. With the game now put to bed, surely this was the Arsenal fans' chance to acknowledge the efforts of Orient who'd played so brilliantly to force a replay in the first leg? Nope. I scoured the stands looking for Arsenal fans showing any sort of appreciation. I spotted one solitary fellow stand up and offer a clap in their direction. That was it. One guy.
Bemused and perhaps a little hurt, the Orient fans had had enough. They knew they deserved better than this. It was time to give the Gooners a quick jab in a painful and tender place. "Two-one to the Birmingham!" came the chant.
Clichy thumped in a decent fifth to complete what should have been a confidence-boosting rout for Arsenal. But surely a big part of rebuilding the side's confidence would be a standing ovation at full-time, in the hope of giving the team a lift before they head off to Barcelona? Instead, three quarters of the Arsenal fans had left by the 88th minute. The final few minutes were played out largely bereft of home fans, while the Orient contingent continued to sing.
I realise this was probably quite a different sort of home crowd to a regular league game. Some Arsenal die-hards might have given this fixture a miss for financial reasons, and that is more than fair enough. But Arsenal still had 50,000-plus in attendance last night, and only a fraction of those were freeloaders like me. Surely the lion share were Arsenal supporters of some description? Those in the regular seats did not seem to be enjoying it very much, nor did they seem interested in playing their part in rebuilding their side's dented confidence.
As the final whistle sounded and the players left the pitch, my fellow prawn-munchers and I filed out through our executive lounge area towards the stairs. At this point, I spotted a series of paintings depicting Arsenal legends. I couldn't resist taking a snap of the painting of Tony Adams. I've seen lamp-posts that look more like Tony Adams than this.
|Bottom left: Tony Adams (apparently)|
While I'm fully aware that I was on a hiding to nothing in hoping to see Orient pull off a shock in this game, once Arsenal took control it turned into a football experience that summed up much of what seems to be wrong with the game at the moment. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know of course – just providing a little snapshot of the game's ills in microcosm.