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For The Very First Time

BY ANNA LVOVA / @MadRuskiGunner

Living in Moscow my relationship with live Arsenal performances has been complicated (by which I mean non-existent) for years. Despite barely missing a game on television during the 14 years I’ve been a Gooner, I’d never actually watched a match in the flesh. That changed though on one overcast April afternoon in 2012.

I’d come extremely close to watching Arsene’s men once before, back in 2006 when we drew CSKA Moscow in the Champions League group stage. Watching the draw I let out a scream so loud that my family looked at me as if I’d gone nuts. I went through hell trying to find tickets for that game and after paying a small fortune I finally got my hands on them.

They sat on my work desk for days staring at me seductively. I could barely think of anything else, the excitement was overwhelming. Then, three days prior to the game my boss called me into his office and instructed me to fly to Budapest at the break of dawn. There was a work emergency and I had to sort it.

I remember standing in his office trying to listen to what he was telling me but feeling numb. I returned to my desk and broke down in tears to the astonishment of my colleagues. Even seven years later, and well aware that it wasn’t really his fault, I still hold a bit of a grudge against him for what happened. 

By spring 2012 I’d decided enough was enough. And while the whole family made a real big deal about my upcoming 35th birthday I made it a clear that I wanted nothing other than a trip to London to watch The Arsenal. I begged them for it and thankfully found no resistance. It was really about to happen. The closest game to my birthday was our home game against Manchester City, which sounded like a perfect option.

Arsenal’s burgeoning social media savvy fans made trip arrangements so much easier. A good Twitter pal, Wendy, took care of my match ticket and all my other Gooner acquaintances on social media made clear their excitement at the prospect of finally meet face-to-face, watching the game together and sharing a few pints while chatting about the one thing we all had in common. Spirits were high, anxiety was building up. Little did I know…

As a Russian citizen I’m unfortunately subjected to the relentlessly humiliating process of applying for an entry visa wherever I travel in the world. The UK is no exception. Not wanting to take any chances I filed all the necessary paperwork more than a month before I was due to fly to London.

By the time of my birthday six weeks later I was overcome with stress. I was due to fly the next morning but I had no visa nor had my passport been returned to me. I think it must have been the gloomiest birthday out of all the 35 I’d had. I remember thinking I was cursed.

Two days after the Manchester City game my visa was finally issued. After little hesitation (about 5 seconds or so) I decided I was still going to take the trip. Arsenal were due to host Chelsea so it seemed worth making another effort.

Again Twitter came to my rescue. It took just five minutes before someone offered me their season ticket. Bizarrely, the reason why he couldn’t make the match was that he had a business trip…to Moscow! A few days later I found myself in the centre of my home city borrowing an Arsenal season ticket from its owner. Surreal but true. Thank you Christopher, you’ll be part of my personal Arsenal history forever.

The game was a 12.45pm Saturday kick-off so I arranged with a few London based Gooners and to start the day in style with a full English breakfast. Meeting fellow Arsenal supporters for the first time had never felt more natural, it felt like we’d all known each other forever (well, theoretically we had thanks to social media, but still). Conversation flowed, there were laughs and giggles everywhere; it was absolutely brilliant.

I was then taken to the heart of North London where I passed the stals selling merchandise, soaked up the matchday smells and gazed at everyone walking with their scarves and kits. My heart skipped a beat when I passed Highbury and although I never had the honour of being inside the ground my awe for its legend knows no boundaries.

The Gunners Pub was the next stop and what a venue it is. From the crowd to the décor it gives you no other choice but to start dancing and singing along. The Away Boyz were keeping the atmosphere pumped and I met more familiar faces. The day just kept getting better by the moment.

My phone kept buzzing constantly as another gang of supporters awaited my arrival at The Tollington pub. On my arrival I was greeted with more hugs, introductions and smiles and I remember as I stood with a beer in my hand and scarf around my neck that: “This doesn’t feel like the first time at all, it’s like I’ve been here before”. It was special. And it was also time for something absolutely new and unique: a live Arsenal game.

I had barely slept the night before such was my excitement and when the time came to walk to the stadium, I was in a total daze. I barely remember buying a programme or trying to locate the entrance and figure out how the season ticket worked. The only thing I recall is a constant, ‘this is actually happening’ thought circling in my head.

I had imagined it many times like many of you have I am sure. How monumental and beautiful the whole stadium is, how green the grass is, how loud the crowd is. Now that I have experienced it let me tell you. You are never ready for it.

All my expectations were exceeded the moment I walked through the turnstile. I think I walked to my seat on auto-pilot and then just froze when I looked out on what was before me. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed (and I have seen the Taj Mahal, Red Square, the Sagrada Famiglia and many more worldwide famous wonders of the world). I remember being afraid to breathe. I looked around at this massive state-of-the-art arena, the greenest grass I have ever seen and I felt tears burning my eyes. It had finally happened. I was finally home. In any other situation a 35-year-old woman bawling her eyes out in public might have been a call for help. I think the guys in the nearby seats were extremely amused. 

“Hey, are you okay?” they asked.

“Yes, thanks. It’s my first time here,” I replied.

“Oooooh. Bless you. Hope it’s a great match for you.”

It wasn’t. It was one of the most boring 0-0 draws of that season. Did I care? Absolutely not. As I said to someone that day even if it was 2-8 that day I wouldn’t be pulling my hair out. I’d finally made it to the Emirates.

I spent the entire 90 minutes singing, cursing at the ref and despairingly throwing my hands in the air at missed chances. I talked to people I had never met or known before and we all spoke the same language. The language of love. Football love. Arsenal love.

After the match it was back to the Tollington for more beer, more introductions, smiles and hugs. I was particularly amused when people approached me directly asking: “Hey, are you Anna? MadRuskiGunner? I follow you on Twitter, it’s so great that you finally made it to the game!”

There were cheers for the players as they pulled up at the traffic lights outside the pub on their way home, a chance to play fangirl, and the chatting lasted for hours. It was strange and yet so real. I truly belonged despite it being my very first time. And I thank each and every person who made me feel welcome and loved throughout that whole trip.

I am writing this a year later (better late than never, right?) with a huge grin on my face and memories still fresh in my head and my heart. They will stay there forever, just like some of the people I met through supporting The Arsenal. It’s an honour and privilege I’ll carry with me throughout the years.

Despite yet another visa fiasco and a failed trip this season one thing I know for sure. I’ll definitely be back!


Picture courtesy of @RasDamAFC

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