Claudio Villa - Getty Images
In which I co-opt Travis' excellent series on away stadia for a look at Arsenal's home.
(I'm pinch-hitting for Travis on this edition of the Magical Mystery Tour, because we thought it'd be cool to do one of these for Arsenal's home, and I have had the good fortune to actually go there.)
Emirates Stadium, the home of Arsenal, is the only stadium in English football to have Dennis Bergkamp play in its inaugural match. Opened in 2006 after a three-year construction project, Ashburton Grove (the real name of the stadium, before corporate naming rights came into effect) is the second-largest stadium in the Premier League, behind Old Trafford, and the third-largest in England (New Wembley is bigger than both OT and the Emirates).
In the late 1990's, Highbury was packed every game. There was a massive wait list for season tickets, and the availability of match-day tickets at the box office was as much a myth as a Tottenham Premier League championship or a unicorn. In an effort to accommodate as many fans as possible while meeting UEFA's minimum requirements for away fan ticket allocations, Arsenal played some of their Champions League games at the old Wembley in 1998/99 and 99/2000 (UEFA's ticket allocation rules meant that almost the entire Clock End would have had to been given to away supporters), and this got them thinking about a bigger stadium.
Their original preference was to expand Highbury, which post-Hillsborough held 38,000ish people, but had the disadvantage of being hemmed in on all sides by residential development (think Wrigley Field or Fenway). The fact that the East Stand of Highbury was a listed building (the English equivalent of a historical landmark designation in the US) meant that their expansion options were limited to the West Stand or the Clock End, and Arsenal could not figure out a way to increase capacity without significant disruption to the neighborhood, something that Highbury's neighbors were understandably not in favor of.
Arsenal also made an attempt to buy Wembley, but they withdrew their bid in 1998 and set about buying property closer to home. They settled on the Ashburton Grove site, which was basically a garbage dump (seriously) and a sort-of-abandoned industrial park. Once the few existing businesses left on the site were relocated, stadium construction began on the site in February of 2004. Abou Diaby installed the first seat in the new stadium in March of 2006, and in July of that year, Arsenal held the first match at the Emirates, the aforementioned Dennis Bergkamp testimonial. To get all cheaply poetic, one era closed at Arsenal while another one was beginning.
Emirates hasn't been open long enough to have a significant history attached to it, and as any fan can tell you, Arsenal are 0-for-trophies since 2005. Does correlation equal causation? Did the move to Ashburton Grove unleash The Curse Of Sainsbury's, one of the original owners of the site? Did Arsenal build a new stadium on an old burial ground, like in Poltergeist? Nobody will ever know*, but as of today, Arsenal have not won a single trophy at the Emirates (except an Emirates Cup, but that doesn't count).
That said, Emirates Stadium has had a few memorable moments in its somewhat brief history, but none more so than Thierry Henry's return last year against Leeds in the FA Cup. Already a legend, already a statue outside the ground, that statue had to be re-inscribed after Henry's brief loan spell last winter, and his last-minute winner to knock Leeds out of the FA Cup (why do people insist on calling it the 'third round proper'? It's just the 'third round'. It was already a proper tournament before the entry of the big boys) just added another layer to the amazing awesome layer cake that is Thierry Henry in an Arsenal shirt.
With a capacity of just a shade over 60,000 people, Emirates is one of the elite stadiums in England. It hosts not only Arsenal matches, but internationals, concerts, and in 2015 will host the Rugby World Cup (both group stage games and the third-place game). Emirates has three tiers, the middle of which is the club level, featuring the director's box and about 7,100 seats that are available only by buying a one- to four-year license; in addition, there are 150 luxury boxes. The club seats and luxury boxes alone bring in as much match day revenue as the entirety of Highbury did, which makes it immediately apparent why the stadium was built in the first place.
The undulating look of the upper stand, and the translucent panels comprising the cover of the seating bowl, were designed to promote as much airflow as possible to the pitch; Highbury was widely renowned as having the best pitch in England, and Arsenal wanted to replicate that at the Emirates, even though the stadium was of a completely different design. The pitch itself is 115x74 yards, running north-south; the TV view faces east.
I have had the pleasure of taking a tour of the stadium - sadly, I got married without regard to the fixture list, and we were in London when Arsenal were in Newcastle - and it is pretty breathtaking. I've seen my fair share of stadia in England, and Emirates is pretty much the nicest one I've ever been to. This is no doubt related to its age; the majority of stadia in England are quite old, and while they all have their charms, they were also built in an era where fan comfort was not a priority.
Emirates has all the modern touches you'd expect - wide concourses, seats designed for 21st century people, lots of concessions - and while it might not have the charm of the older stadia in England, it has enough nods to Arsenal's history that it feels older than it is. Part of the tour was also the chance to sit in the director's box, which means I have sat in the same seat as David Dein. This probably means more to me than it does to him.
The pitch is truly amazing - we got to go down and stand on the touchline, and all I could think when I was standing there was "man, this is the greenest green I've ever seen". All I wanted to do was run out to the center circle, but I didn't feel the need to get tackled by a security guard, so I held back. It was not easy.
Getting to the Emirates:
First, get on a plane to London.
Once you get to London, the Emirates is pretty much the easiest stadium to get to in the city. Get on the Piccadilly Line (which, conveniently for the arriving tourist, is the line that serves Heathrow!), get off at Arsenal - Arsenal are the only club in London with an eponymous Tube stop, by the way - make a right out of the Tube station entrance, follow the road and the throngs of people about 1/4 mile, and there you are. This is seen as a major inconvenience by lazy people like me; to get to Highbury from the Arsenal tube stop, you walked 14 steps across the street. WHY DO I HAVE TO WALK ALMOST 1500 FEET TO GET TO THE NEW STADIUM LIFE IS SO UNFAIR
Driving is, to put it mildly, discouraged; to use the Cubs example again, the part of Islington where the stadium is located is as densely packed as Wrigleyville, and Arsenal strongly encourage people not to drive. I don't know if they still do this, but when the stadium first opened, Arsenal would leave the stadium open for two hours after the game ended, leave the concessions open, and play music over the PA (and would occasionally have a band), so if people wanted to stick around to wait out the mass exodus and ease the strain on the Tube (and if you've ever been on a packed Underground platform, you'll know it's not a whole lot of fun) they could. This also had the side benefit of being an extra bump in match-day revenue. Everyone wins!
Emirates Stadium has extensive facilities for away support. Anywhere from 1,500 to 9,000 away supporters can be accommodated, depending on the competition, all seats being behind the south goal. For most league games, the lower tier is the only tier used for away supporters, but for later-round Cup games and Champions League games, the full allocation of 9,000 seats, in both upper and lower tiers of the south stand, is opened to away support.
*I'm sure someone knows