The Beautiful Game: Northern Soul experiences the highs and lows of match day
With trepidation, my companion and I ventured to Merseyside following the Arsenal. After navigating the coach system due to a fallen wall just outside Lime Street, we found ourselves with tinned G&Ts for the mystery tour on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. The journey was uneventful but it did take us back to Uni days when a student coach card could take you cross-country for a few pounds.
The match in question, one of the most historic in English league football (I may be biased), was Liverpool v Arsenal. For both of us growing up in North London during the 80s, it felt as though Liverpool won everything (they did). Then, Sir Alex arrived and changed all of that. Liverpool has not been able to regain its former gory.
Recent trips to Anfield have meant pain and misery for an Arsenal fan. A sobering 5-1 defeat in 2014 still haunts me. I stood, wearing three hoods (don’t ask) in the pouring rain as my beloved team were humiliated.
But back to the game.
My usual match-day buddies (travellers from far and wide) were in high spirits having started their libations at noon. As usual, our craft beer scholar had found a lovely little pub in which to meet up, this time just on the outskirts of the city centre. One hopeful – albeit rather drunk (having travelled up on the 7:07 from Euston) – chap had placed a £10 bet that Arsenal would win 1-3, even going so far as to name the goal scorer for the third goal. The odds of 160/1 had me convinced, and he agreed to pay for the post-match beers.
A positive improvement in modern football is the introduction of team news. We only wait an hour before kick-off for the club to tweet the chosen 11. There are a few strange selections: a striker starting who once went five months without a goal, our top scorer beginning on the bench (with rumours of a training ground bust-up), and two ‘calamitous’ defensive midfielders. Fortunately, we have our first choice back five. It’s clear that the beleaguered manager is trying something new. We head off to Anfield, quietly confident that a win can turn our season around.
Part of what I enjoy most on a match day is catching up with people I only ever see at Arsenal games. I’ve made some real friendships at the ground – simply striking up a conversation with someone who looked lost at Selhurst Park and couldn’t find her seat. We’re all very different and the only connection we share is a love of the boys (and girls) in red and white. For 90 minutes the real world doesn’t exist, and those 11 men mean more to you than your own children. Sorry, kid.
We easily found our seats, with a prime third row vantage point. Arsenal were playing towards the legendary Kop Stand which meant we hopefully wouldn’t see any goals as we waved at our helmet-clad Goalkeeper. Waiting for kick-off means taking pictures for my friend in Miami and my son, then trying unsuccessfully to get enough signal to send them. Phone safely away, it was time to concentrate and channel all my positive energy towards my team. Yes, I’m one of those supporters who believes that what I do on a match-day influences the game. The new line-up looked to be working with the ball zipping around. From the kick-off, we were reborn and inspired…for a total of nine glorious minutes. Then Liverpool’s Firmino opened the scoring for the home side as the ball flew towards us – the whole ground erupted, expect the Arsenal fans. One away fan on the front row produced a tiny banner (a tiresome product of modern football) telling the manager exactly what he thought.
The next goal, just before half time, seemed to seal our fate and was particularly painful as we were still stood behind the now mocking goal. My first thought was of my pal ripping up his betting slip. At half time, I met up with a few regular, grimaced faces in the concourse and grabbed us a cuppa to spur on the final 45 minutes. A quick check of Twitter confirmed our thoughts. We were being outplayed, substitutions were needed. But we were buoyed to see the benched top scorer joining the game straight from the break – a decisive act from the manager. His introduction had an immediate effect and Arsenal played with far more urgency and created a few chances, one which led to a goal 12 minutes later.
After that, it was more balanced with both goalkeepers having to make saves. With time ticking on, the manager made his final two substitutions (the lesser spotted ‘Arséne Wenger double-sub’) and brought on direct forward players, including the under-played Lucas Perez. The best chance came from the newly purchased Mustafi from a free-kick which caused Juergen Klopp to make a switch of his own.
Tensely, I looked at the stadium clock. Ten minutes remained. Arsenal pushed further forward but seemed unable to penetrate a cluttered penalty box. We held our collective breath. Further shots from various Arsenal players only seemed to find Liverpool players. Frustration mounted as we entered the final few minutes but the fans found new vigour as three minutes were shown for extra time. A chance from Alexis was painfully blocked. Then, the horror. Liverpool moved the ball deftly to the other end of the pitch and scored. We waited (prayed) for an offside flag but no. With two minutes (plus the goal celebration) left on the clock, we’d run out of time.
As soon as the whistle was blown my companion insisted we hastily leave the stadium, lest we be pictured anywhere near the offending banner calling for the manager’s head. A very disappointing result in the context of the season and more pressure on the manager who is ageing before our eyes, more dissent among the players who are not meeting their full potential, and more polarisation of opinion from fans about the club’s direction. We made our way to the rendezvous – which turned out to be a proper old school boozer on the other (better?) side of Stanley Park. The regulars all looked around as the two of us stumbled in. It felt as if the music stopped and every pair of eyes was fixed on us before a roar from a familiar face introduced us to the locals and the mood changed. Two trays of chips with bread and butter welcomed us at the bar, and selecting a couple of cans of cider (for £2.70) improved our temperament. Then, the post mortem began. Whose fault was the loss? Why had he dropped Alexis? How much more could we endure with 12 matches left to the end of the season?
As we said our goodbyes and set off to meet our coach back to Manchester, we figured it hadn’t been such a bad day. We’d both supported Arsenal since the 80s, and suffered much worse defeats, but the accumulation of these seemed like many tiny cuts. We were weary but looking forward to the next match set to take place at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
By Michelle Nicholson, Sports Correspondent
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