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A Stylish Cathedral For A Modern Kind of Worship
Emirates Stadium (Arsenal)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Emirates Stadium (Arsenal)
Date: 30/08/09, updated on 30/08/09 (880 review reads)
Advantages: Excellent design. Top class facilities. Great sight lines.
Disadvantages: Getting away takes ages. Mediocre food. Long queues.
Three years ago, Arsenal FC left their hallowed Highbury home of 93 years and moved across the road into a brand new, state of the art stadium at Ashburton Grove. In keeping with the modern trend for selling naming rights, Arsenal did a £100m deal with Emirates Airlines in October 2004, meaning the new ground will be called "The Emirates" for at least the next fifteen years.
The traditional Highbury, with its listed Art Deco East and West Stands, and the proximity of the crowd to the pitch, was always going to be hard to emulate. With a capacity of just under 40,000, and no further expansion possible, a move away from Arsenal's spiritual home was inevitable. Various options were explored, including sites near Kings Cross and a possible ground share at Wembley, but eventually, the club were able to secure a site within shouting distance of the original ground.
After the labyrinthine planning process was exhausted, the builders - led by construction giants Sir Robert McAlpine and architects HOK Sport - finally broke ground in July 2003. Building work was completed on time and to the £400 million budget, and the stadium opened its doors to paying fans in July 2006. In contrast to Highbury, it has a much increased capacity of 60,000, with 150 executive boxes, a dedicated "Club" level, and 250 spaces for wheelchair users.
Due to its close proximity to Highbury, travel arrangements have not changed much. The best way in is still on public transport. A concourse runs around the whole of the new stadium providing clear access regardless of the direction of your approach, but depending on where you are seated, you may want to plan your arrival according to which one of the three tube stations that serve the ground is closest to your allocated entrance. All are pretty much within 10 minutes walk from the ground. More detail on these below.
Holloway Road (Piccadilly Line) is a five minute walk, but as it's a small capacity station, eastbound trains do not stop there for at least an hour before kick off, and then the station is exit only from the end of the match for at least an hour afterwards. However, westbound trains do stop at Holloway Road before kick off, so if you prefer to alight there and time allows, it's easy enough to get off at Arsenal on the eastbound service and walk over to the westbound platform.
Although Drayton Park station (serviced by the Overground from Moorgate) is right next to the ground, it is closed completely at weekends and is only usable before weeknight matches (it is closed for the return after the game ends).
You would be either very brave or very foolish to attempt to drive into the area on a match day without knowing where you are going to park. The draconian parking restrictions, rigidly and vigorously enforced by a phalanx of overzealous traffic wardens, extends a fair distance from the ground and, coupled with high traffic volume and narrow streets, it makes speculative parking nigh on impossible.
If you are coming from outside London, consider parking further up the Piccadilly Line (Arnos Grove and Cockfosters offer ample parking opportunities) and taking the tube in.
The Emirates is split into four colour-coded "quadrants". As part of the process of "Arsenalising" the ground (the club's terminology - not mine!) these four quadrants will be renamed this year from the impersonal Green, Blue, Orange and Yellow, to something more club related. Highbury & Islington, on the Victoria Line, is closest to the southern Yellow and Green quadrants, while Finsbury Park (Piccadilly & Victoria Lines) and Arsenal (Piccadilly Line) are closest to the northern Blue and Orange quadrants. Access to the east side of the ground is via two massive bridges (the creatively named North & South Bridges) which span the railway lines beneath.
If you approach the ground from the South Bridge, you will see ARSENAL in huge free-standing concrete letters on the Drayton Park side of the bridge. Across the South Bridge, and mounted on the back of the scoreboard, facing out, is the Highbury Clock - which gave its name to the famous Clock End stand at Highbury. This will soon be re-located inside the ground as part of the "Arsenalisation" process.
Straddling the entrance to the North Bridge (the one closest to Arsenal tube station) is the modern-looking and green panelled Highbury House, which acts as the club's corporate offices. The building also houses the Arsenal Box Office and the "All Arsenal" shop, which also hosts a "Supporter Services Centre" where you can book stadium tours and apply for Club membership.
Arsenal's larger and better stocked flagship store "The Armoury" lies on the west side of the stadium, and is situated under the concourse, just off Holloway Road. It gets extremely busy on match days, with crowd control restrictions often limiting the number of people allowed inside. Leave plenty of time if you intend to visit. Although there are a large number of check outs which are (surprisingly) efficiently operated, sheer volume means you can queue for anything up to ten minutes to pay.
> Around the Ground
The area around the ground is a hive of activity on match day. There are several excellent souvenir stalls selling everything from old match programmes and signed player photos, to scarves, badges, irreverent T-shirts, and official merchandise of every type and description. Food is in plentiful evidence, with my favourites being the jerk chicken and curry stands on Drayton Park opposite Highbury House, and the sweet stall selling bags of favourites at "twofer a pound". There are also fanzine sellers peddling the excellent "Gooner" and "Up the Arse", and official stands where you can get the Arsenal Magazine, the Arsenal Yearbook and the £3 match day programme.
Tickets used to be notoriously hard to come by, with a season ticket waiting list measured in decades instead of years, and a hierarchical and over-subscribed membership scheme that meant that casual fans or football "tourists" would rarely see tickets go on general sale. However, the high ticket prices have taken their toll during the credit crunch, and whilst key games against Spurs, United, Liverpool and Chelsea are still impossible to get tickets for, you will have better luck for Carling Cup games (which are not included in season tickets) and ties against opponents in the lower reaches of the Premier League.
Ticket prices for Category A games range from the expensive (£47) to the eye-wateringly ludicrous (£92) - and Category B fixtures don't fare much better (£32.50 to £62). Details of fixtures and ticket availability are on the website (www.arsenal.com).
> Local Drink
The local area is served by a number of very good pubs which are usually closed to away supporters on match days. Everyone has their favourites, but the old haunts on the Blackstock Road, near the old ground remain very popular, with other establishments on Holloway Road starting to gain in popularity due to the proximity to the Emirates.
From personal experience, I would recommend The Gunners - unmistakably Arsenal with all of its club memorabilia, and the Highbury Barn, which is bigger and has a larger outdoor area. Others of note include The Woodbine and The Bank of Friendship on Blackstock Road, The Seven Pins (near Finsbury Park tube), and the Plimsoll on St Thomas' Road.
> Local Food
The area around the ground (especially Holloway Road to the southwest and Blackstock Road to the northeast) is chock full of restaurants, café's and eateries of every possible cuisine and description. There are kebab houses, pizza joints, chip shops, and fried chicken emporia - all reasonable priced and within easy walking distance of the ground - as well as a veritable army of burger vans lining the well travelled routes into the stadium.
There is no reason to even think about eating in the stadium with the sheer variety and quality available on the way there. I particularly like the Happening Beigel Bakery on the corner of Seven Sisters Road and Blackstock Road which does an extensive line in filled freshly baked bagels for around £2 each.
The perceived lack of atmosphere is a real bone of contention amongst fans and the club have launched a number of initiatives to try and liven things up. In a bid to have an anthem as iconic as Liverpool's "You'll Never Walk Alone", last year saw the launch of Elvis Presley's "The Wonder of You" as the song that preceded the players entrance on the pitch. It has been a controversial choice (Port Vale claim we nicked it from them) although it is starting to catch on, especially now that the words are displayed on the screens for fans to sing along to.
The stadium DJ does his best, and goes through the much derided routine of announcing the first name of the players starting the match, with the crowd expected to shout back the second name. This doesn't quite work with players with one name (Denil.....son?) and you get the feeling the fans are only doing it to avoid the embarrassment of failing to respond.
There is also a "Red Section" in the lower tier of the North Stand (Orange Quadrant) - directly opposite the away support - where supporters who have expressed an interest in singing all match are housed together and tend to generate most of the atmosphere.
Noise levels at bog standard league games can be fairly tame, with the crowd often waiting to be inspired by something on the pitch rather than vice versa. However, Arsenal fans can be a quite self-deprecating lot (remember "Boring Boring Arsenal"?) and often launch into "We Only Sing When We're Winning" when taunted by away fans at the lack of noise. Evening matches tend to be more spirited, with the night making the arena seem more compact.
> Access & Seating
Entry points are clearly labelled on your ticket and signposted around the stadium. The club operate electronic turnstiles. You insert your ticket into a scanner, wait for the light to go green and push on through. Lots of staff are available to help if there are problems. Bags are allowed into the stadium as long as they can fit under your seat, and they will be searched for security reasons.
Although I am a season ticket holder with an assigned seat, I have managed to swap seats with friends in other parts of the ground to get a different perspective. My seat is in the lower east stand (Green Quadrant) near the halfway line in the 14th row, so the action feels quite close, although you do lose the more "strategic" overview you get the upper tier.
There are two jumbo screens at either end of the ground, at least one of which is clearly visible from every seat. They display the match time, player names (against which cards and goals are noted), goal highlights and notable incidents, although penalty incidents are not shown under FA rules. The seats themselves are very comfortable, well spaced and with plenty of leg room. Sections, rows and seats are clearly numbered and signposted, making finding a seat a doodle.
The stadium is no smoking and all seater, and both standards are rigorously enforced. I have yet to find a steward who is not courteous, professional and helpful, although I have heard anecdotal evidence from other parts of the ground where experience has been very different. Standing has been a "problem" in some parts of the ground and fans have found a clever way of frustrating stewards who look like targeting individuals (They sing "Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham" ensuring that the whole section stand).
Excessive foul language and abuse is not tolerated, and the club have instituted a text message "whistleblower" scheme so that you can anonymously alert stewards if someone is acting out of order or persistently standing. Details are published in the match programme.
> Getting Away
Getting out of the stadium and onto the outside concourse at the final whistle can take five or ten minutes due to the crowd congestion. With Holloway Road station closed, you will need to walk up to either Highbury & Islington (if exiting from that direction) or one of Arsenal or Finsbury Park. There are crowd control measures in place at all of these stations, so expect to queue up for AT LEAST fifteen minutes before you are allowed into the station.
When crossing the North Bridge, you can either go left or right at the end. If you go right, you are directed to Finsbury Park - you cannot rejoin the queue for Arsenal. If you go left, you are given the choice. Crossing the South Bridge gives you an option to go to either Highbury & Islington or Finsbury Park. My preferred option is to keep on walking the half hour to Angel tube at the other end of Upper Street, where there are no controls and little in terms of crowds.
However, the policing is efficient and orderly, so if you have the patience to wait, its not really that bad. I would allow half an hour to forty minutes from the time you leave you seat to the time you get to the platform at any of the three main stations (subject to seemingly ever present tube delays of one sort or another).
STADIUM TOURS & MUSEUM
As mentioned, stadium tours can be booked at the All Arsenal shop. I have never taken the tour myself, so this is for information only. Tickets are £15 during July & August, and on Saturday & Sunday, or £12 at all other times. The Arsenal Museum is included in the tour price, or it can be booked separately for £6 per person. The club also offer an on-line booking facility on their comprehensive web-site (www.arsenal.com).
There are plenty of catering points throughout the stadium on the internal concourse, offering mediocre food at high prices. Burgers, pies, hot dogs and burnt pizza are the house specialities, or for the more liquid minded, Fosters and John Smiths are the brews of choice. I tend to avoid this fast food like the plague - not only because it's not worth the money, but because you have to spend ages queuing for it. There are much better options outside the stadium.
I have never quite understood the logic of chowing down on junk food before or during an afternoon match. Soft drinks and teas tend to be flat and tepid respectively, and everything is served in Arsenal branded cups and holders, with even the bottled water re-branded with the Arsenal logo. For reference, expect to pay £3.50 for a beer, and around a fiver for a burger or hot dog.
There are plenty of toilets, which straddle the internal stadium entrances, as well as two large toilet blocks on the outside concourse near the Bridges. These are generally fairly clean, well maintained (that is, until the mad rush starts and the fans get into them) and plentiful, but - parents of young kids (and lagered up lads) take note - it can still be a challenge to get back to your seat before kick off if you decide to "go" at half-time.
The internal concourse is interspersed with large TV screens, which carry a combination of SKY Sports and a feed from Arsenal's own internal TV channel. There are also various Ladbrokes betting offices who will be only too happy to relieve you of your hard earned. Commentary is piped into the toilets, and screens are handily placed above the catering points so you don't miss any of the action. The stadium, as you would expect from a new construction, is extremely wheelchair friendly, with well placed ramps, lifts and facilities for disabled access.
After three seasons of bedding-in, the Emirates is now starting to feel more and more like "home". With the promised "Arsenalisation" (which will include external decoration of the concrete on the stadium exterior, and Arsenal "shrine" in the stadium, and various murals and artwork capturing the club's glory moments) this can only get better. The stadium is a magnificent example of modern design and is lovely to look at. There are no obstructed sight lines for spectators and you get an excellent view from every seat. The pitch, which recently won an award for the best in the Premier League for the second season running, is like a snooker baize.
However, what it has bags of in look and feel, it lacks a little in atmosphere (a criticism that paralleled by the team that plays there - often derided for being all style and no substance). As a young stadium, which is new for everyone involved, it has yet to see a truly defining match - Arsenal have yet to win anything since moving in.
As such, the feeling is, that until that happens, there will be little in terms of an emotional link to the place for the fans and players alike. It also suffers in comparison to the atmosphere capable of being generated at Highbury, which despite its derogative "Library" moniker often used by opposition fans, was often a cauldron of noise for big games. Despite this, it's a superb stadium, and arguably, the best in London. Then again, I would say that wouldn't I?
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: Probably the best dedicated football stadium in London.
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