I heart Arsenal

We woke up to a strange sensation. The sun was shining brightly, transforming London into something somewhat unrecognizable in our very brief but numerous experiences. We had never before attended a day match, and rarely attended one in which it was not precipitating.

leic ticket2The lobby of the Hoxton was unusually subdued and quite empty. We headed out for breakfast at The Breakfast Club, an 80s-themed establishment recommended by the Hoxton. 80s ambience and music. Although it was sunny outside, it was still quite chilly, a fact with which we became very familiar during our time in the restaurant as we were seated near the door, which opened and closed many times as people in the queue outside were able to come in and be seated. It was a long time until we were visited by a waitress to place our order, and a long time before our juice and hot chocolate were delivered to the table. Although people seemed to be coming, ordering, being served, and leaving, it was so long before our breakfast came that I started to get nervous about getting to the match on time. We flagged down our waitress to ask if she could check in on the kitchen. It became somewhat clear that our order had never quite made it in the queue.

It was delivered to the table ultimately. My husband had ordered an artichoke hash dish and I had ordered the fried chicken on waffles. Yes, I came to London to try, for the first time, a soul food dish born in America. What I was waiting for is a puzzle, because it was amazing. Waffle with a small amount of fried chicken, with gravy liberally ladled over the top. It was served with a grilled lemon slice and maple syrup on the side. Although I am not a big fan of maple syrup, I decided to eat the waffle as The Breakfast Club apparently intended, with a squeeze of lemon and a dousing of maple syrup. Oof, so yummy. Salty, sweet, savory, sour. My husband enjoyed his hash as much as I enjoyed the waffles.

With absolutely no prompting or complaining from us, the manager came by our table and apologized profusely for the wait and insisted on covering the entire cost of the meal. Really an unexpected and lovely gesture. Yes, we would go back.

The mucho upgrading that had begun the previous day clearly had legs.

But leaving the restaurant, I started becoming even more nervous about the match. How many awesome surprises had we had over a more than 24-hour period that were obviously adding up to an exchange for an Arsenal win?

We headed over to the Emirates to learn our fate.

In my post before we came to London, I mentioned that the Leicester City fans had planned to protest Sky’s alteration in the day of the match. Many, many out-of-town visitors had to rebook travel and accept rescheduling charges when the match was changed just three weeks out. We had to pay $1,000 to cancel our air tickets and have them reissued because our original tickets would have had us leaving right about kickoff time on the new schedule. Many Arsenal fans were speaking of protesting as well. The protest was to take the form of staying on the concourse until 5 minutes of the match had passed.

The protest never materialized, as far as I can tell. When we arrived at the stadium, the visitor’s section was packed with Leicester fans. We thought perhaps they might plan to leave at kickoff, similar to the protest the Liverpool fans staged earlier in the week. But that, too, did not happen.

Sky owns our souls in one way or the other, and we fall in line.

When the tannoy announced that Martin Atkinson was refereeing, my heart sank. No Arsenal fan could have felt good about having the match under the control of someone who has so often ruled against our interests, not much provoked by realities on the field. But what choice did we have? Ours is but to do or die.

The match was terrifically exciting. My sense was that Arsenal had the better of it for most of the first half, and that Leicester presented very little danger. Knowing that this is Leicester’s game, to show very little danger and then pounce, I had no lack of nerves despite what seemed Arsenal domination. (Note that more objective viewers have said that their sense was that the match was quite evenly balanced.)

Martin Atkinson lived up to his reputation. An obvious Leicester handball in the box by Riyadh Mahrez went unpunished. I say it was obvious, but note that it happened in the South end of the stadium. I sit in the upper level of the North end. Such is the prerogative of the fan: we are barely on the same planet as the field of play, but we see it better than the official who is trained and paid to be on point. Martin Atkinson also missed a number of foul calls that all present thought should have gone Arsenal’s way. And before the half was over, he got the biggest one of all wrong. Leicester’s Jamie Vardy more or less flopped in the box, intentionally running into Monreal’s legs and diving theatrically.

Atkinson pointed to the spot, and the ensuing penalty kick went in. We treated Atkinson to a heartfelt round of “What the f***!” and later, “You DON’T know WHAT you’re doing!” We had a few words for Jamie Vardy as well.

Arsenal was down 0-1 at half time.

valentines
Flowers outside the Embankment tube station

Did I mention that the match took place on Valentine’s Day? Here’s how you could tell: there was a out-the-door queue in the women’s restroom at halftime. Usually, there are two or three ladies in line, if there even is one. I can only guess that the guys feel guilty on Valentine’s Day attending the match without their significant other. “Honeykins, I would just love to spend the day with you…..at the Emirates.”

The second half began. Leicester City was motivated to waste time, and they did quite a lot of it. Danny Simpson fouled Alexis Sanchez badly, and was booked. Not long after that he grabbed Giroud’s shirt as he was running down the field. An obvious second yellow. Even Martin Atkinson had to give it. Leicester were down to ten men. Simpson wasted tons of time getting off the field. Leicester’s manager Claudio Ranieri was forced to remove his creative midfielder Riyadh Mahrez who had been so instrumental in Leicester City’s amazing season and replace him with a defender to try to shore up the back and keep Arsenal out. Mahrez also wasted much time leaving the field. Kasper Schmeichel, the Leicester goalkeeper wasted time like nobody’s business, never receiving a warning from Atkinson.

In response, Arsene Wenger removed Francis Coquelin, our defensive midfielder. Arsene was determined to win the match and he rightly detected that with Mahrez out, Leicester would have to bypass the midfield and jack the ball long to Vardy if they got possession. Wenger replaced Coquelin with the more offensively-minded Theo Walcott. It was a gamble, for sure. Second-half substitutions are often made around the 60-minute mark. By the time these substitutions were made, it seemed that there had been almost no play at all in the second half with all of the time wasting that had taken place.

Arsenal again saw most of the ball, and after so many attacks followed by misses or shots into the goalkeeper’s hands, Theo Walcott finally made one count. 1-1. There were about 20 minutes remaining. Against 10 men, we should have been able to score another one, but Leicester was organized, and they were determined to get the tie.

We started losing hope. People around me were moaning that it was like the Southampton match, where we had so many chances and just couldn’t score. We were down and out. So ready to cheer and so often having to groan, and time running down, down. A 1-1 tie was not what we needed to make up ground against Leicester, who’d been 5 points ahead of us going into the match.

Finally, Wenger made his last substitution in the 83rd minute, Danny Welbeck in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Danny Welbeck hadn’t stepped onto the field since last April following a seemingly-minor injury that somehow turned into one thing after the other, and required surgery. Until Wenger put him on, in nine+ months he’d only played 45 competitive minutes of an Under-21 match, a week ago.

Before we knew it, the full 90 minutes was gone and somehow the fourth official showed that only 4 minutes were to be added on. A travesty after all the time Leicester City had wasted. At the stadium, the clock stops in extra time and the fans don’t have a clear sense of the time remaining. When you need the extra time, it goes by so quickly. When the extra time can only harm and not help you, it goes by so excruciatingly slowly.

We didn’t know how much time had passed when Wasilewski cleaned Nacho Monreal’s clock, but we knew the ensuing free kick had to be among the last moments of the match. In came the ball from Ozil, nowhere near our best hope, Olivier Giroud. Somehow, just somehow, there was Danny Welbeck and he headed it expertly. More than nine months off the field, Danny Welbeck was ready to have the baby. It was only his third touch of the match. And it landed in the back of the net. 2-1, by God.

A million pounds of weight came off. Relief and then joy, but maybe not in that order. Except for one quiet, blue section containing the Leicester City fans, the entire stadium was dancing and whooping. I was hugging the man on my left, who happened to be my husband. I was being hugged by the man on my right, who happened to be nobody I knew.

My husband, notoriously thrifty, turned to me and said, “That was worth the $1,000.”

The ball was touched only a few times after the restart when the final whistle blew. Mesut Ozil jacked the ball into the stands.

We learned afterward that the foul by Wasilewski that caused the free kick occurred with only seconds remaining in the 4 minutes of extra time. If you’d like to see the moment, it’s here.

Normally, everyone runs for the exit when the last whistle is blown, but almost nobody left at the Emirates this time. We stayed in our seats, chanting and cheering. Several of the Arsenal players, including Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott, came around the field to be cheered. We obliged them lustily.

There were a few loose ends to tie up, and every Arsenal fan knew it. As the referee and assistants left the pitch, three abreast, we booed them with great passion.

Then we turned our attention to the Leicester City supporters, those upstarts:

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

 

 

3 thoughts on “I heart Arsenal

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