FA Cup 4th Round Proper – Arsenal FC v Aston Villa FC
Sunday, 29th January 2012, 4pm
Distance 21 miles, Attendance 60019
Most clubs have floundered under the weight of costs, demands and expectations, but since the Taylor Report, only one team seems to have got it right; Arsenal (not sure what happened to the “The”). The former Woolwich-based outfit has clearly learnt from all the mistakes around them and fully embraced football’s brave new world… off the pitch.
Growing up, whilst I was lauding the work of Graham Taylor and the Golden Boys, school friends if they didn’t follow Liverpool’s European kings, donned the North London blue or red. It was a geographical thing, and despite my enjoyment of the West Ham’s Cup win in 1980, The Gunners were always closer to my heart than Spurs. Arsenal was, after all, “connected”, to Watford that is. I won’t open up the Kevin Richardson wounds (Harry Bassett you were a fool), but Bertie Mee played a huge role in Taylor’s early success with The Hornets, and Pat Rice once chased down and performed a perfect defensive tackle on a young Norman Whiteside whilst wearing our lovely yellow, red & black. Of course one might even suggest that Rice learnt his trade from Graham Taylor and thus helped Arsenal become the team they now are… maybe. I also really liked Highbury. Like many grounds it oozed nostalgia but it wasn’t a usual football stadium. This one had good architecture too.
The former Gillespie Road tube station (as it was when I was at school?)
It was thanks to an old school friend that I found myself once again travelling to the Gillespie Road* tube station. Stepping out into the early evening air you’d be forgiven for thinking little has changed since our school days, but in reality, everything has. I’d been to Highbury many times, and to the Emirates Stadium on The Hornets first trip there, but this would be my first experience of sitting in with the home fans, and it proved a good one. No, they’re not “my people” but they were friendly and welcoming, and mixing in the pub afterwards was again easy for this outsider. We were sat in the North Bank lower tier; the right end to sit for this game.
Save for the enormity of the new stadium, as the teams ran out on the immaculate pitch there were little real differences to my other FA Cup experiences this season; two teams, tossing coins, pretending to agree with the officials, warming up and shaking hands. And then we were off… now at this point I was expecting the swift-paced-one-sided-tippy-tappy-all-conquering Arsenal that the media rave about. Sadly what I witnessed in the first half was anything but. There were moments when I wondered whether the players actually appreciate how much The FA Cup still means to their fans. Yes, they’re exceptionally skilful and can pass beautifully and do it faster than your average professional, but in front of goal The Gunners, well they weren’t very gun-ho were they? They passed the ball back and forth and forth and back, drifted wide, passed again, skipped past another defender, got near the box, and passed back, and forth, and so on, and so on, and so on… the only worthy chances they had came from set pieces. Villa on the other hand harried and hustled and when opportunities arose went direct for the jugular. “Show some mettle!” screamed a man behind us. In many ways it reminded me of the Worcester Park / Guernsey game I’d seen a few weeks back. One teams plays to their strengths the other, whilst being technically better, struggled. Ironically the first goal came as adverts flashed around the ground encouraging children to “Play The Arsenal Way” when Richard Dunne rose commandingly above the defence to head home from a Keane/Petrov corner. The second came, just prior to the break, whilst Arsenal were trying to get even. Villa cleared their lines and Stephen Ireland set up Darren Bent who crashed the ball home at the second attempt. The away fans celebrated wildly, the home fans either trudged off to the bar or beckoned pundit Martin Keown to get his boots on. It’s at times like these that you appreciate The Cup’s worth to supporters. Statisticians will probably prove Arsenal were unlucky to be behind, but they were trying to walk the ball into the net, and in reality were lucky to go in only two down.
Warnock & Keown wax lyrical
Something must have happened over the break as a mentally different Arsenal team emerged afterwards. For opening exchanges they were awesome. No, they didn’t defend any better, but en masse they attacked the opposing goal better, faster, deadlier. Fifteen minutes later they were 3-2 up. Two good Robin Van Persie penalties and a Theo Walcott piece of luck where the ball hit him and went in. He had no idea it would happen, but it didn’t matter, the momentum was gathering pace, and the home side were easily in control. Suddenly we had a great Cup game on our hands. Two nil down, three-two up… The North London faithful were in raptures and rightly so. Then when you thought they’d really hammer their superiority home, their foot gradually came off the pedal, and Villa started getting back into the game. When the final whistle blew the cheers were clearly mixed with the relief of Arsenal making it to the next round “proper” (oh, never mind). Of course the fans sung how their team was “by far the greatest team the world has ever seen”** but it was clear Arsenal’s best form of defence is attacking; when they don’t do it well they struggle. They have some outstanding players but they need a strong man at the back desperately; someone to hold them together, a Keown, an Adams.
Side-stepping for a while, a special mention must go to Aaron Ramsey who played well, but his biggest contribution to the game (as a whole) was the way in which, after a really hard second half challenge, he got straight to his feet. No rolling around, no pleading for bookings, just up and run it off. The very thing Mr Atkinson had drummed into us on those Buckinghamshire school playing fields. We really don’t see enough of this in the modern game. This is something that really should be taught in “The Arsenal Way” children’s coaching sessions.
Back to the night and leaving the ground was just as pleasant as our arrival, and this is where I started… The Taylor Report instructed clubs to reconsider the safety of the fans. Arsenal however has taken it even further. They have considered the whole experience of the fans; a stunningly designed stadium, sweeping walkways and wide bridges to access the ground, hygienic toilets both outside and in, well stocked bars (though the queue at ours was too long on the night), friendly stewarding, the skilful bird display team (very entertaining when the game waned towards the end), the wide padded seats with leg room, no-one telling me to sit down, the unobstructed views, and flags and statues and banners everywhere giving a fanfare feel to the purpose-built environment, and most importantly personal space. Yes it feels a little like being at a baseball game in the States, but this isn’t such a bad thing.
Will I swap my allegiances from Vicarage road? No, never. Will I come back to watch football at the Emirates? Without a doubt. It’s a great place to experience football.
(*old money, **a song heard at 14 of the 19 Cup ties I’ve seen thus far)