15 November 2005

Hoosier At Highbury Pt II: Sparta Prague

I've talked about the game already. Now I want to give my impressions from the day — my first at Highbury. My first in London, actually.

The flight in was draining. I arrived in London at 8AM; I spent the morning walking through Regents Park and trying to keep myself awake. I took an hour nap in the hotel, once I checked in, but I was eager to go to Islington, so I left rather early.

I was at the stadium about three hours before the game. That was OK with me, because I wanted to walk around the area for a while. I did a complete circuit of the stadium, taking in both the grounds and the neighborhood. It was dark, so I don't have as many photos; I'll have more for later installments.
There are very few stadiums in the US that are so integrated into a residential neighborhood, at least to my knowledge. Most are either downtown, in an open field surrounded by parking, or (for college stadiums) on a college campus. Wrigley Field is the one exception I can think of, though I'm sure there are others.

So Highbury is a very different experience. The neighborhood is, in american parlance, one of zero lot-line townhouses. On the north and west sides of the stadium, the entrances are essentially gaps in the rows of housing. On most of the west and all the south side, there's no access to the grounds. Only on the east side, on Avenell Road, does Highbury reveal itself in all its glory.

I took a walk around the neighborhood. With so much time before the match, the crowds had not yet arrived, but the area still bustled with pregame activity. Vendors set up their stands; police marshalled themselves; and a few early arrivals found food. The smell of grilling meats hung over the area. At 4:30, the darkening sky was still light enough to glisten off the damp streets. I wandered about, taking it all in, and snapping a few photos. After an hour or so, I headed to the T-Bird, met the Arsenal America crew, and picked up my tickets. After hanging out for a bit, it was back to the grounds for the match.

As I entered the grounds, the teams were warming up; Sparta were in front of me. The fans steadily filled the stands; my impression was that many were relative newcomers like myself, taking advantage of the midweek game. But I only had eyes for Highbury. My seats were in the East Stand, towards the south end. On TV, this would be across from the camera, towards the right side. Clock End to my left; North Bank to my distant right. I'd seen it on TV dozens of times. Now I was there, and not even my sleep-deprived brain could miss the spectacle. I was about eight rows from the pitch, which made it difficult to see the big picture, but great to see the play up close. As things go, it's a fairly small stadium. Usually it holds about 38,000 fans; for this match the capacity fell to 35,000. Evidently the Champions League matches require larger advertising boards on the sidelines, and several rows of seats must be left empty. 35,000 isn't huge — maybe comparable to a small I-A or large I-AA college stadium in the US. All I can say is, it doesn't feel anything like that.

The game itself was reasonably comfortable. Arsenal's early lead gave us a feeling of control, and Sparta Prague weren't able to mount too much pressure. I was immensely privledged to see a fantastic Thierry Henry goal, followed by two good strikes from Robin van Persie. I got to participate in crowd singing — for once I could tell what the words were! — though the East stands were a bit quieter than I would have liked. And finally, I was able to leave knowing that we'd won 3-0. I'm told that Arsenal have never lost in front of an official Arsenal America crowd, and I was glad we could keep that tradition intact. A magical night for me, and one I'll long remember.

I'll add more posts, on the Highbury tour and the Sunderland game. Back soon!

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