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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Ask a new convert to Arsenal what the club's greatest weakness is and you'll get a variety of answers. You might hear that the players are too young, or that there's no cover in defensive midfield, or even that Nicklas Bendtner is a lumbering oaf incapable of even the simplest of motor skills. Ask an older fan and you'll get a very different response. For the veterans of Highbury, Arsenal's biggest problem today is The Emirates Stadium.

Open since 2006, it's one of the finest arenas in the country, comfortably eclipsing White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge and Upton Park and, depending on who you ask, Wembley as well. Arsenal's owners wisely resisted the temptation to uproot and head out of the city in search of more space, so instead this vast glass monolith lurks in North London's back streets like a visiting alien mothership. But, herein lies the problem. Terrified of being caught in traffic or lost in the chaos of the queue for the Underground, many fans like to leave the stadium early. Like, really early.

In the coming decades, The Emirates will play host to many extraordinary spectacles, but none as disappointing as the sight of thousands of fans streaming out of the exits long before the end of the Champions League semi-final defeat to Manchester United. After a torturously long campaign that began in Holland in early August, almost half of the supporters deserted their team when the end came on that miserable night in April. It is this mystical 'half' that cause the problems. They are the 'half' made up of 'Johnny-Come-Latelys', the nouveau Nick Hornby-inspired fans with high disposable income and only a marginal understanding of the offside rule. They are the 'half' that booed Emmanuel Eboue, the 'half' that never went to Highbury, the 'half' that ruin everything for the real fans. Mind you, you'll never know who this 'half' is, because everyone you ever speak to will be from the good 'half'. Given how many people claim to have been regulars back in the day, Highbury must have had a far higher capacity than originally disclosed.

Inside the stadium, you can see the problem. Pockets of vocal fans struggle to coax a song out of the clustered face-painted families. Groups of boorish young men veer from cheering their players to lambasting them for the slightest of mistakes. People arrive late, chat through the game about their mortgages. I've even seen some fans taking mobile phone calls. Around them, you can see the disappointment in the eyes of the veterans. The ones who would gladly shed the new supporters, kiss goodbye to the new stadium and head off back to Highbury so that they can have a sing-song with their mates.

To their credit, the club are doing everything they can to solve the problem, though their efforts are a little contrived. Every game begins with a chorus of 'The Wonder Of You' with the lyrics flashed up on the Jumbotron in an effort to get everyone involved. The announcer ratchets up the tension, shouting out the first names of the players and letting the crowd finish his job. For this, the first home game of the season, a bright red and white scarf was left on every seat and, on the announcers signal, they were all waved in the air giving the objective observer the feeling that he was trapped in a gigantic jar of boiled sweets. A grandiose project of 'Arsenalisation' has been announced by Arsenal's CEO Ivan Gazidis, which appears to mean that lots of posters will be stuck up in the streets outside, though you wouldn't get that from all the 'phasing', 'quadrants' and 'impactful' quotes in the press release.

Ultimately though, only the fans can change their environment. They are the ones with the power to turn this exquisite theatre of football into a seething cauldron, an impregnable fortress. Ironically, they've only managed to do it once, and that was in the first ten minutes of that ill-fated semi-final. But for all the club-sponsored scarves and music, posters and sing-a-longs, the problems continue. Four-one up against Portsmouth and dominating possession, the Emirates gradually fell quiet again. Food containers were dropped to the floor, programmes were rolled up and put in pockets. From everywhere came the gentle rumble of thousands of fold-down seats folding up. Long before the final whistle, streams of fans poured out of the stadium. With three wins from three and 12 goals to the good, Arsenal were clapped off the pitch by little over half of their fans. The other half, the bad half, were already on their way home.