It is a wonderful thing to live next to a football ground. Every other week my road, bordering the Emirates Stadium, would become transformed and a palpable, fleeting feeling of community would blossom. Groups pouring out of pubs, singing or huddled in conversation; parents skipping down the road, just as excitable as their wide-eyed sons and daughters; a few older figures in hats and scarves that might give you a nod before shuffling off to get in their seats, nice and early.
From my bedroom window I could even hear the Arsenal crowd, as well as the increasing regularity of celebrating in the away end, although my first visit to the stadium in 2012 didn’t feature much of that. My Blackburn Rovers lost 7-1, with manager Steve Kean deciding a high line was a good idea against Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was a cold and miserable day in the away end.
Those were particularly bad years to be a Rovers fan. Venky’s had taken over, promises had been broken, that advert released, as was a chicken on the pitch at Ewood. Things would get worse before they got better: relegation would follow, as would the arrival of Shebby Singh, the club’s global advisor who oversaw six different managers in seven months. So when we were drawn away at Arsenal in the FA Cup fifth round in February 2013, I’m not sure why I was so desperate to go back.
I had started at the Guardian just a few months previously and was enlisted to work in the office that Saturday, but my boss kindly allowed to me clock off early. I cycled from King’s Cross and was at the Emirates for just after kick-off, where I bought the first ticket I could find; in the rafters, among the home fans – the away end, remarkably, was full. What transpired made me forget those months of torment as a fan as wave after wave of slick Arsenal build-up play was thwarted.
It was a beautiful dance, of sorts: Arsenal would build from the back, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky taking turns to cut our midfield into ribbons, before either a skewed Gervinho shot or a magnificent toe from Grant Hanley would kill the move. When Arsenal did muster a shot on target, 22-year-old stand-in keeper Jake Kean was mesmeric, making a string of saves.
This – before the FA Cup triumphs of 2014, 2015 and 2017 – was peak Wenger 2.0. As beneficiaries, it was a glorious watch, eyes and cameras flicking between the latest Scott Dann clearance and the image of the Frenchman in that black jacket on his haunches, like a dark, deflated Michelin Man. Rovers offered next to nothing for 72 minutes: 28% possession, five shots on target to Arsenal’s 20. But then came the decisive moment.
Walcott, thrown on by Wenger to win the game, failed to track a Martin Olsson run. The Swede optimistically shot from a tight angle and Wojciech Szczesny kindly spilled the ball out towards Colin Kazim-Richards. The former Arsenal academy graduate scuffed his effort into the ground, but it looped over Szczesny and in off the post.
Sitting opposite the away end, the sight of thousands of blue and white limbs flailing was a magnificent one. Arsenal would lose the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich four days later.
The Rovers manager Michael Appleton was sacked the following month, replaced by Gary Bowyer. Blackburn would predictably go out in the next round at Millwall, where somebody claiming to be Kazim-Richards’ cousin tried to sell me a ticket outside The Den . We finished 17th in the Championship, an appalling first season back in the second tier.
I watched the highlights back that night. They were awful to watch as a sporting spectacle. “This is an extraordinarily one-sided contest” remarked ITV’s Peter Drury, midway through the first half. When asked about the boos at the final whistle, Wenger replied: “It’s normal.”
Perhaps scrappy smash-and-grab wins are the best wins. Lifting a trophy means more of course, and I’ve been lucky enough to see Rovers do that a couple of times. A 4-0 thrashing has its merits. But it’s also a lovely feeling floating out of a stadium, listening in on the gripes and groans behind enemy lines, knowing your team got away with one.