Through The Looking Glass
I suppose there`s a small contrariness to the fact that I will only see one of the first team`s pre season friendlies due to other commitments, yet I will have made it to every Reserves pre season friendly this summer by the time Chesham comes around tomorrow. The summer is the two months of the year that I like to give my other interests the sort of oxygen I so cruelly starve them of for the other ten months of the year. Blur, The Specials, New Order, The Cure, The Stone Roses, Lisbon, Dublin and the new Batman film will all have taken the place of the first team`s ventures abroad this summer.
Make no mistake, if I were monied enough to be able to splurge £3,000 to get to Asia and Germany without missing it, I would likely do so. But first team pre season friendlies have long since ceased interesting me. The only reason they are shown or publicised at all nowadays is for reasons commercial. As a result, the excursions are often taken too seriously simply because everybody sees them and has an opinion on them. In reality, they`re souped up fitness exercises. (The last friendly before the season starts is the only one I`d be inclined to pay any sort of attention to).
So why then the insistence on watching the Reserves` pre season? Surely, by definition, these games are even less important? Well, they are. No doubt. But the Arsenal XI friendlies hold a different interest. Following a club like Arsenal makes you something of a footballing aristocrat. You pay aristocratic prices too- some clubs appear to assume the wealth of a club is directly reflected into its fanbase. Following us home and away sees you get invited to all the right parties. Old Trafford, Anfield etc are just par the course. The San Siro, Bernabeu, Olimpic Stadion Rome and Nou Camp have all been done, seen and conquered darling.
Following Arsenal XI allows me to see life from the other side of the coin. Go to enough away games over enough years and you begin to cut into the 92 League Grounds at a steady rate. It`s why we cross our fingers and hope for Torquay away in the F.A. Cup. It`s somewhere different. You get to enough grounds and you naturally develop a trainspotterish air. Arsenal XI`s friendlies give me the chance to see grounds I wouldn`t otherwise get a chance to visit and imbibe non league or lower league culture. It`s class tourism.
Saturday sliced further into my climb towards the 92 with the trip to Stevenage`s Lamex Ground. The game finished 0-0, contained two shots on target and might well have been the most tedious game of football I have ever seen. But it didn`t really matter, because there`s another tick on the list. (For the record I`m up to 47 league grounds. It would be 51 had Cardiff City, Coventry City, Colchester United and Doncaster Rovers not moved grounds). This Wednesday past produced the fixture I was most excited about. Dartford F.C`s recently renovated Princes Park stadium has earned many a column inch.
It`s supposedly one of the most ecologically sound football grounds in Europe. Costing a cool £7m to build in 2005. Its features include; a sedum roof blanket aiding natural air filtration, solar panels on the roof, two ponds at either end of the ground that collect rain water for reuse, condensing boilers and its pitch is lowered to limit noise and light pollution. Despite this, it retains its non league charm. It holds 4,100 but only 600 seats. (There is also, inexplicably, a large wooden model of a man in the West Stand. It looks a bit like the Wicker Man. I am all for this, football needs more surrealism). Fans still largely mix and swap ends at half time based on which end their team is attacking, which maintains the atmosphere.
Those of you familiar with non league grounds will know there is one area in which they outstrip all others. The club house. Whilst Premiership grounds rely on shifting units, shovelling pre poured pints into your mits in a cold, concrete concourse, non league grounds go the extra mile. Their clubhouse facilities are always top of the line no matter how ramshackle the ground. The personal touch, the extra customer care, serving decent beers (!), it`s their USP. (Plus, if the football`s going to be a bit gash, you might as well be able to get a good pint of Deuchars).
Tim, Terry and I made the rush hour dash to Kent and arrived in pleasant early evening sunshine. The outside of the ground was wood panelled, adding to the air of eco friendliness. With the Malt and Shovel a pub a good mile away, we settled on entering the turnstiles 90 minutes before kickoff, walking the perimeter of the stadium to make our way to the club house, which was almost like a large executive box. The ground had a sports ground feel to it when empty, with a flat pristine looking pitch. Tastefully arranged terracing on either side. The ground offered good views (albeit all at pitch level, you`ll not get many upper tiers at this end of the pyramid) from each side.
As it turned out, the slightly sterile "leisure centre hockey pitch" feel evoparated as more bodies appeared. The pitch cut up like a bastard the second the game kicked off and a loud monotone drum from the Dartford fans behind the North goal made it feel more like a football ground. (Those fans also swapped ends at half time). The club house was set back on the East Stand, and you could watch the players through the windows as they warmed up whilst nursing a nice pint of premium ale. That said, they do put the shutters down on the windows and stop serving ten minutes before kickoff. Party poopers!
The game itself wasn`t much to shout about. It was a strong looking team with Asia tourists Thomas Eisfeld, Kyle Bartley, Ignasi Miquel, Nico Yennaris, Chuks Aneke and Craig Eastmond in the starting line up. Aneke played behind Sanchez Watt and the Gunners lacked a cutting edge. They have only scored one goal from open play this pre season (a last minute effort from Olsson at Borehamwood). Between the two boxes, the build up play was excellent, with Gnabry especially looking very bright. But over-elaboration was the by word. Dartford scored with their first real effort of the half from a bread and butter cross. Ignasi Miquel hasn`t ever really looked much above reserve level and Blue Square Premier Dartford frankly ran rings around him all night.
Sanchez Watt`s refusal to use his right foot when through on goal invited a challenge which saw him win a penalty. He stepped up to convert and you expected Arsenal to go on and win the game. But Sead Hajrovic`s poorly weighted header back to his own keeper let the Darts in to grab a late winner. "Are you Tottenham in disguise" came the chant from the locals as the heavens opened. The world`s least self conscious man stood chuntering away behind us, his replica Dartford shirt struggling to mask his bulging belly, leaving the lower half of his gut on show as he stuffed a calorific hot dog into his mouth.
It`s the sort of eccentricity that is staple at non league football and makes these games so attractive. So even if we had witnessed a humbling 2-1 defeat, it didn`t much matter as we drove home. The experience was always what we were in search of and it left a much richer reward than a meaningless friendly win ever could. It's why we'll go to hesham United on Saturday too. I often wonder if I ought really to have been a non league fan. Away from the garish commercialism of the top flight, locked away with the eccentrics where I belong. Where the experience of the game means more than the result. Ultimately however, you don't choose who you fall in love with. But following the Arsenal XI every summer gives me a month to indulge that fantasy. LD.
There are plenty of pictures of the ground (and the bar!) on my twitter feed @LittleDutchVA