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With the smile on my face following Sunday's result refusing to dissolve, I thought maybe an article of unwavering sentiment was in order. So you may have to excuse the teary eyed pathos that is about to ensue!
Season 2006/2007 is a seminal one in the history of Arsenal Football Club, it is Mark II if you like. The emotional goodbye to Highbury has long since been granted as the grand old stadium is heart breakingly rendered gravel and the aesthetically beautiful Ashburton Grove has had the cellophane lovingly removed. The afternoon of May 7th is one that will be forever bled into my brain, long after the final ceremony had concluded and the clock hit zero, I stood flabbergasted inside the Clock End, my home since childhood, unable to tear myself away, aware that these were the last few moments that I would share with the old girl. In the words of Eminem I wanted to 'take the moment, squeeze it and hold it, freeze it and own it.'
However, most of my emotion and grief for losing Highbury belonged to that day and that day only. The move from Highbury was one that was long overdue, in my opinion it was a relocation we should have undergone ten years ago. On the end of season DVD, a Gooner is interviewed outside Highbury's walls pre Wigan and his phrasology perfectly encapsulates my feeling, 'we should think of this as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.' I think that was how most Gooners did view the move, and the excitement in the ramp up events was tangible. I was privileged enough to have been invited to the members' day, and, with the exception of the shareholders, I was fortunate enough to be one of the first Gooners permitted entry as the curtain was finally thrust aside.
Our early form at the Grove however, was patchy. Frustrating draws against mediocre opposition, the bare concrete rings gave the stadium a penitentiary type feel, the players appeared suffocated by their surroundings and old Highbury regulars like myself became frustrated at the 'new' supporters, who we blamed for bringing a negative atmosphere into the stadium. The mass exodus of fans with ten minutes remaining, the constant cries of 'shoooooot' at inappropriate moments, the pedantic whingeing at a misplaced pass culminated in the players pleading with the fans to become more supportive. Of course in retrospect, Highbury had plenty of moaners, content only to raise their voices in frustration. Anyone who ever looked over to the West Lower at Highbury will reveal that early leavers are not particular to the Grove. With swollen numbers, dissenting voices are always likely to appear exaggerated, in hindsight, I'd say, proportionately, the Grove is no worse than Highbury on this matter. It is a peculiarly British trait to mythologise the past with rose tinted spectacles, for instance, why did all the people whingeing about how huge a mistake the sale of Lauren is ever see fit to compose a song for him?
The fans had to get used to their surroundings as much as the players. The frustrating trial and error procedure of finding the quickest way home, some have had to relocate from their favourite match day drinking haunts (not me, the Tavern is not nearly as crowded nowadays!), we all had to adjust to our new neighbours. One can deliberate the choosing of a new seat in the Appointments Centre, but you cannot choose your neighbours. By mid October, some had begun to pine for a return to Highbury, disenchanted with the changes. A suggestion I took umbrage at, in the long term these anomalies always find solutions, the great William Shakespeare once wrote, 'What a fool is he who has no patience? For what wound did ever heal but by degrees?' The additional decoration of the bare concrete rings has gone a long way to alleviate the eyesore, seeing all of our trophies spelled out in glorious red and white has made the place feel a little more like ours. Particularly as UEFA's autocratic rules on sponsorship have prevented us from painting the seats with Arsenal insignia.
With time, form picked up, at time of writing we have yet to be beaten in our new stadium. The comprehensive win over Liverpool followed immediately by the late recovery against Hamburg gave us our first memorable victories. We have all become more accustomed to those around us (thankfully the people next to me affable and pleasant) and begun to melt seemlessly into our new match day routines. Personally, the last week or so has really cemented the new place for me. The guy behind me has surrendered to my constant mockery and ceased shouting 'shooooot', having undergone the stadium tour last week the arena has taken on a more immediate presence. Seeing it in its familiar nakedness have allowed it to feel a little more like ours. Of course, the great peak arrived this Sunday, trailing our great rivals Manchester United 0-1 with seven minutes remaining, two late goals sealed a breathless resurgence. Everybody sang heartily, everybody stayed to the end and minutes after, absorbing the delight. It was truly our first classic, the first, 'do you remember when...?' moment that we will bore each other with in years to come.
The transition in stadiums, as well as the remarkable progression of this young team, has intertwined with a year of great change for myself. This is my first year out of full time education and into full time work, the move from the pie and pint littered surroundings of the Clock End Highbury to the prawn sarnie and moccachino of the East Upper. It has been my first season writing for 'the Gooner' and for this site. Conducting my match reports for your good selves has become ingrained fully as part of the routine, part of the package, part of the dizzying highs, the crushing lows and the creamy middles of the matchday experience. Concrete is concrete and lavish furnishings or otherwise, a stadium is just a building until you begin to embelish it with memories and familiarity. The last week or so has been like unpacking that last box in your new house, or wallpapering over those unsightly cracks in the new kitchen fittings. It is the week that this particular catterpillar began to sprout wings. LD.