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Thursday
Sep202012

The Magic of A Highbury Debut

BY PAL-DIDRIK HOFF ROLAND / @Somestupidnick

One of the gifts I received after finishing six months of compulsory training at a hospital pharmacy was cash to buy an Arsenal ticket. It was a kind gesture from friends and colleagues who, being Norwegian, had no idea how to actually get a ticket. At the time neither did I. All the same, to celebrate the completion of my training and to honour the gift, I travelled to London, never having been there before, with a friend (a Liverpool fan).

On match day we got on the tube and got off at the Arsenal station, naturally, where we rather quickly were offered tickets at an inflated price. It all went rather quickly for two newbies, as we ended up paying £45 a piece for two tickets together on the lower tier of The North Bank. Face value was £18. The name on the ticket (pictured above) has nothing to do with me or my friend, it just identifies my first seat at Highbury.

The match was Arsenal-Bolton, September 13th 1997. Having been a Gooner for 18 years, I finally stepped on to the terraces of Highbury for the first time. The sanctity I felt at that moment cannot be put into words; you simply have to experience it. It is one of those things you really only get to do once – and usually you have built it up in your mind for quite a while.

Arsenal were kind enough to mark the occasion by serving up a comfortable 4-1 win, with Ian Wright going the extra mile by scoring a hat-trick and in the process becoming Arsenal’s all-time top scorer flashing us his “179 Just Done It”-shirt. He did it twice in fact, he was a bit too eager after the first goal and displayed it when he’d only equaled Cliff Bastin’s record of 178. It’s fair to say that this first time didn’t mind too much! Another vivid, and weirdly fond, memory from goal 179 is of a Gooner at least twice my age in the next seat bear hugging me and taking me for a pirouette there on the terraces. I never got his name…

Since then a lot has happened on the ticketing front. Not only have Arsenal moved to a new and bigger stadium, but we also have the most expensive tickets in football. What we paid to the touts in 1997 would be considered cheap today. I would not encourage anyone to buy tickets outside the official channels, or for more than face value. I know a lot of you still would, and I would myself, especially considering that for me travels and accommodation would far outweigh the ticket cost anyway. The only thing I can say is that if you have to sell a ticket to a fellow fan, do not charge more than the actual cost to you. For the match below, we got our tickets through Arsenal Norway.

Seven and a half years later, I extended Dennis’ career by a year! That isn’t a lie, but as the night later proved Dennis did, I too had a trick up my sleeve: I brought two of my closest friends as Highbury debutants to what was very much assumed to be Dennis’ last Arsenal match at Highbury against Everton May 11th 2005.

One of my three-man army wasn’t a man at all, but my wife to be. She’d heard stories (not to mention being forced to sit through a whole “Centurions” DVD) about this man called Dennis since we had met some three years earlier. She missed him at her first Arsenal match which was in our home town (Trondheim, Norway) seven and a half months earlier, on which I have written another memory. She might have added some skepticism/realism to my rants, but was well aware that this man was something special. My other friend was very much aware of both The Arsenal and Dennis, having been a Gooner for decades.

As the tickets said, we were seated in the uppermost row on the upper tier of The North Bank. One might think that were bad seats, but as Gooners we all know: they were seats at Highbury, how much better can seats get? They were all the more appreciated given all three of us lived abroad and that Arsenal coverage was limited to a couple of hours on Pay TV and a basic match report, usually copied from an English tabloid, in the newspaper…thankfully the world, and more specifically the internet, has moved forward since 2005.

I probably don’t have to remind most of you, but in this match ALL my ranting about Dennis, was underlined – and vindicated, as if it needed vindication! Personally I don’t think I have ever seen a game so dictated by one player. It’s almost as if he knew this was his “interview” for his last one year extension. We sang “One more year!” with the Highbury crowd throughout the match, and Dennis showed us (not to mention Wenger) why. I’d have given him five years. Six if he’d wanted it.

Allow me to summarize (or watch for yourself here):
8’: 1-0 van Persie (assist by Dennis)
12’: 2-0 Pires (attack started by a brilliant Dennis pass to Reyes)
37’: 3-0 Vieira (assist by Dennis)
Henry played through by Dennis, fouled for a penalty – not given.
50’: 4-0 Pires (Henry assist, from pass by Dennis)
70’: 5-0 Edu (penalty for Henry’s lob-to-hand)
77’: 6-0 Dennis
85’: 7-0 Flamini (Reyes assist).

As this list shows us, everyone involved in the goals from that match have since hung up their boots or left for pastures new. Actually that goes for the whole Arsenal team that night, including the substitutes. There was one player on the pitch who currently wears the red and white – Arteta was playing for Everton that evening!

Anyway, in keeping with the examples above, I’d heartily recommend that all Arsenal fans encourage supporters coming to their first match. Perhaps all the more so if they are coming from a good bit away...

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