I began attending live football in 1992, at the outset of football’s gradual chrysalis into gentrification. I only visited Highbury once before it became an all seater stadium and that brief sojourn was spent safely cocooned in the family enclosure. (A 1-1 draw with Leeds United in March 1992 since you asked). As such, I have very few ‘war stories’ when it comes to attending Arsenal games. Certainly Arsenal games that I have attended in England.
I’ve watched Arsenal play in unforgiving foreign territories, Rome, Istanbul, Kyiv and Naples and over the years, I’ve experienced the occasional compromising situation. The natives were none too friendly outside Old Trafford after Martin Keown decided to piggy back Ruud van Nistelrooy. Following Lauren’s late winner at Stamford Bridge in 2003, I vividly recall ducking a slew of Carlsberg bottles en route to Fulham Broadway station. But by and large, my shelf is rather bare when it comes volumes on football violence. And that is just fine with me. Confrontation is not something I enjoy, or that I am good at.
In the refurbished, glossy bubble of Premier League football in 2015, for which Arsenal’s home games are the exemplifier, Tottenham away remains an outlier. Some love it, some hate it, but there’s no challenging its originality against the tapestry of domestic away games in the 21st century, where it’s perfectly safe to wear a replica shirt and enjoy an untroubled view in an identikit arena just off of the motorway. To say Tottenham away has “an edge” for a visiting Arsenal fan is to understate the case. “The edge” has been sanded down to a chiselled point.
The tension really sets in at around the time the tube pulls into King’s Cross (I travel from the South). The tube carriage is predictably crammed with match goers. Packed in tightly on the Victoria Line, you suddenly become aware that you are literally shoulder to shoulder with the home supporters. Prior to making the commute, I have adopted a ritual of ensuring that no Arsenal insignia is visible on my person. This means checking that my lock screen on my phone is appropriately neutral, that when the time comes to brandish my oyster card at Seven Sisters station, all Arsenal branded appendages in my wallet are hidden from plain sight. Ordinarily, we’ll have our pre match drinks a few train stops away from Seven Sisters, well away from the match day hoi polloi for fear of identifying ourselves. One misplaced “we” could chance upon the wrong set of ears and turn the day sour.
The tension begins to become palpable as you scramble free from the confined masses on the underground and spill out onto the Tottenham High Road. I am not a spiritual person at all, but I vividly recall walking out onto the High Road for this fixture in 2001, for Sol Campbell’s return. What I experienced is difficult to forge into words, but there was just an atmosphere, or an undercurrent of ill feeling. The air was thick with it, almost like an invisible smog. As I exited the station, it hit me like a backdraft.
The long walk to the ground from the tube station always provides a sensory assault. The sounds begin to invade your consciousness, as what Paul Weller lovingly described as “the smash of glass and the rumble of boots,” become audible. The sound of police helicopters whirring overhead, an endless sea of neon green police jackets and parked wagons. The occasional menacingly low rumble of “Yid Army!” off in the distance. As you approach the ground and the braying bodies become packed more tightly again, you’re acutely aware that you are very much behind enemy lines. Keep your eyes forward, but in a way that does not suggest you are intimidated. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, hold your tongue at all times.
Spurs fans have a charming song about Arsenal with the lyrics, “When I was just a little boy/ My Mother Gave Me a little Toy/ An Arsenal fan on a string/ She told me to kick it’s fucking head in. FUCKING HEAD IN, SHE TOLD ME TO KICK ITS FUCKING HEAD IN!” It should be pointed out that Arsenal, obviously, have some equally ‘uncharitable’ songs about Spurs fans. As you approach the ground, your pace subconsciously quickening, groups of young men move confidently between you, craning their necks towards the away turnstiles to jeer at the enemy.
Inevitably somebody jostles past you and you’ll catch a blast of “KICK ITS FUCKING HEAD IN!” at close quarters as they move through the crowd. Then you part with the Spurs fans and make for the away turnstile. You do so quickly and without looking back to see who might be tracking your movements. Once inside the ground, the atmosphere becomes electric in a much more agreeable way. The singing is loud and hostile. Every goal is greeted with air punching ferocity. There is always a gap of around two seconds after a goal is scored before the celebrating fans turn towards their stony faced foes to gesticulate furiously.
As the final whistle sounds, the urgency instantly changes in the away section. People move quickly towards the exits, coats are zipped up, hands stuffed steadfastly into pockets and game faces are painted on. The single most challenging aspect of escaping this fixture unscathed is to doctor your facial expression in immediate contrast to your emotions. If Arsenal have lost, you cannot afford to look too miserable outside, as the two sets of supporters mingle. If Arsenal have won, you are advised to quickly dispense with the grin that is etched onto your features, which can be very difficult, believe you me.
When you exit onto Park Lane, the police form a line to separate the two sets of supporters. As you make your way onto the Tottenham High Road, insults are hurled. You have to strike a delicate balance between keeping your wits about what is going on around you, whilst being careful not to make eye contact with anyone unfamiliar. Then, as you calmly make your way to the High Road, where the two factions mix, you are at the mercy of fortune for about 5-10 seconds as you intersperse with the home fans. A home fan is going to see you run that brief gauntlet, you just have to hope against hope it’s not the wrong sort of home fan.
That 5-10 seconds is like riding a ghost train, as pitbull faced boogeymen leap out seemingly from nowhere. “Where’s yer colours, Gooner?” they sneer, as you walk off quickly, wiping their spittle from your jacket. Your eyes remain forward, trained on nought but that neon jacketed horizon. Once the guard of dishonour has been negotiated, one can relax a little on the High Road as you make the interminable walk to the station. But your wits still need to be razor sharp as harsh whispers of “Oi, GOONER!” greet you. It is an unsubtle, but effective trap, turn to acknowledge it and a fist or bottle awaits.
Once away from the High Road and its hall of mirrors, the tube ride home is an easier affair. Much of the animosity of the game has evaporated and by now, you are expertly drilled in the art of not talking about the game or imparting your allegiance in any way. Sometimes, when Arsenal have won, I have to seek refuge in the train toilet to punch the air a few times, just to release some of the joy I had spent my journey supressing. (Get your mind out of the gutter, you filthy urchin). Only then, as I begin to edge towards my sleepy corner of London, can I let my features relax and as my body begins to relax, my pulse slows and my muscles feel amorphous, as it dawns on me just how long I have been tensing them for.
My body has merely been a skin and bone prison for the emotions inside. Every tendon and ligament has spent several hours as a kind of baton wielding warden, stewarding the frothing cell block of fraught feelings that have longed to boil over. I am firmly in the camp of people that do not like this fixture. Many of my friends stopped attending it some years ago, deeming it too unsafe and just plain not worth the hassle. I entirely sympathise with them, and I would say I go (almost) reluctantly, out of a sense of duty. But it’s difficult to deny that the ordeal leaves me with a weird kind of adrenaline rush. As somebody not predisposed to confrontation, I feel a sense of solidarity with this circle of conscientious objectors, but I know I will be back in the N17 trenches the next time hostilities are renewed. Against my better judgement.
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