For my son and me, it’s been what you might call a week of two halves.
On Tuesday we were at Home Park to watch Argyle play Walsall. It was the usual match day routine. Park up in a side street near the Britannia and head to the ground for burgers and chips from the van outside the Demport. Then huddle into our seats in the Lyndy with hailstones blowing in during a workmanlike win against unfashionable Midland opponents.
Fast-forward to Friday and it was like we’d been beamed up to some alternative football reality. My brother is friends with an Arsenal player and we found ourselves with an invitation to watch their FA Cup tie with Manchester United in his box at the Emirates. Now just to be clear, this sort of thing is not a regular part of my routine. It was my first time in a Premier League player’s executive box and, since the individual concerned won’t be an Arsenal player next season, it’s entirely possible that it was my last.
I’ve been to a few London grounds but this was my first trip to the Emirates. The stadium’s glass and steel façade, behind which sat two or three floors of wine-quaffing diners, makes it look more like a five-star hotel or shiny new Middle Eastern airport than a football ground. We wafted up the escalators to be greeted by suited hosts addressing us as ‘sir’ and directing us to our box with its board-of-directors style table groaning with food and drink. The patio doors at the end of the box slid back to reveal three rows of seats with prime views of the pitch.
I confess that, a couple of beers in to proceedings, it was only the roar of the 60,000 crowd as the teams ran out that reminded us of the imminent cup tie and it was a bit of a scramble to get into our seats before kick-off. More food and drinks at half time and after the final whistle meant we eventually waddled / staggered away from the stadium as they were locking the place up for the night.
Which got me thinking. If it were available to me (which, let’s face it, it never will be) would I want that to be my weekly football routine? I’ll be honest. If I was offered the opportunity to repeat the experience from time-to-time I’d take it in a heartbeat. I’m not going to pretend that being wined and dined and watching football in luxurious surroundings was anything other than hugely enjoyable. And, although we were restrained in our celebrations, it must have been pretty obvious that we were rooting for the visiting team. Despite that, and the fact that their team lost, the Arsenal staff were unfailingly polite.
But honestly, no. I wouldn’t want to watch football in that environment every week. For one thing, you’re a long way from the action. Having what amounts to an aerial view of the action has its merits and you see the game in a different way than when you are closer to pitch level. But at Home Park, sitting three rows back from the pitch as we do, you can hear every crunching tackle. You get a real sense of how fast the professional game moves, of how little time the players have on the ball. You realise that even two levels down from the Premiership, these players are fit, fast and skillful on a level so far above anything that us Sunday morning warriors managed in our primes that there’s really no comparison. I’m not sure you get the same experience watching the game from high up in the ‘gods’.
But most of all, I would miss the experience of sitting among thousands of other fans, all urging the team on and sharing in the tribe’s triumph or disappointment. Football at its best is a visceral, collective enterprise and you simply don’t get that in the rarefied surroundings of a corporate box.
At this point I should probably offer some profound thoughts on the gulf between the upper echelons of the Premiership and life in the third tier of English football, but pretty much everything that can be said about that probably has been. Being a bit of a geek, though, I couldn’t resist engaging in a spot of mental arithmetic. I reckon that the gate receipts for that one FA Cup tie were equivalent to about 50% of the total average annual income of a League One club. And the salary of Arsenal’s out-of-favour Mesut Ozil, who came on as a substitute against United on Friday, is more than five times the total wage bill of the average 24 man League One squad. Crazy.
So it’ll be down to earth with a bump for us a week on Saturday when our Pompey friends make the trip down to Devon. With more than 12,000 likely to be in the ground for that clash, the place will be absolutely bouncing. And the sense of anticipation as we walk up to the stadium and see the ‘PLYMOUTH ARGYLE WELCOMES YOU TO HOME PARK’ sign will be just as great as anything on offer in north London. And you know what, I’m really looking forward to one of those Demport burgers. With onions, please.