Club Class Or No Class?
Feature by Bernard Azulay
Updated Thursday, 14th April 2005
My dad was always having a pop at the fact that I've champagne tastes, with beer money. Yet when it comes to Highbury I guess he's largely to blame for my appetite for the high life, after introducing me to the wonders of the West Upper as a wee lad.
As a result, ever since the new stadium was first mooted, I've had extremely mixed feelings about leaving our ancestral home. If it wasn't for the move I might have already sacrificed our two season tickets. Since for the past few years I've been selling myself into financial slavery in order to stump up the renewal costs. But with such a finite time-frame on our fabulous view of some of the most wonderful football it has ever been my privilege to witness, whether by hook or by crook, there was no way I was going to relinquish our posh Highbury pitch.
According to the club, when the tearful time comes, we are going to be offered equivalent seats. Sadly the old man has long since shuffled off this mortal coil. So where in our spanking new stadium am I going to find a pitch which conjures up the images of my pop, holding court with his comedic patter, behind a cloud of smoke from his untipped Senior Service. Or memories of him blagging his way into the 100 club at the break, sliding onto the red leather bench seats for a complimentary cuppa beside B-list celebs like Pete Murray, who'd happily autograph my programme, only for the innocent child to embarrass one and all, by enquiring loudly as to his claim to fame for the sake of my bragging rights in the school playground come Monday morning.
Unfortunately there won't be any seats at Ashburton Grove which incorporate the unique sentiments and memories of the same spot which has been warmed by my backside for so many years. Even setting aside this highly emotional aspect, there still won't be an exact equivalent in a strict physical sense. With the angles of the terracing required for decent sightlines in a 60 thousand seater stadium, where will they find me a seat which is close enough to the pitch to hear the crunch of an Ashley Cole tackle (if not the tap on his shoulder from Chelsea!), or to give the lino such an earful that I'm able to kid myself I can influence his decisions, yet high enough for a proper tactical appreciation of play?
If I sound a little bitter it's probably because I am, but after the affluent queue-jumpers who stumped up 3 grand for their bonds only last season, have had their pick of the plum seats in the new stadium, assuming there are plenty left, I imagine we'll be offered seats somewhere near the front of the upper tier. Although in truth the closest thing to our current seats would be the centre sections of the "unique opportunity" that is Club Level. I'm astonished at how many there are, but sadly I can't include myself amongst the Gooners who have a spare £38 grand lying around for a couple of these.
Nevertheless on the off chance of winning the lottery, or fobbing them off with a couple of cases full of Northern Irish bank notes, I registered my interest on the Arsenal web site as soon as the details were announced. I honestly can't afford the cost of our current seats. I'm still paying off for a couple of seasons back, which was only possible as a result of the Premiership Barclaycard's zero percent interest offer. However while I'm prepared to put ourselves into hock up to our eyeballs for these particular seats at Highbury, I couldn't possibly justify the expense for a seat, which has no such meaning to me.
And even if I could, there's a fairly convincing argument against wanting to watch my football surrounded by suits and other assorted members of the prawn sandwich brigade. Although according to the highfalutin bumph, it's more likely to be Eggs Florentine fans at Ashburton Grove (Arsenal's corporate bods might not have been able to see our birthright for the bundle of banknotes being waved, relinquishing the right to give our ground its proper "The Home of Football" moniker, but a certain Middle-Eastern airline will have to show me some moolah before I'll be prepared to participate in this pillow biting party!), This is another 'x' in my Club Level cons column.
Personally speaking a cheese bagel has been a perfectly adequate cure for any half-time hunger pangs in recent years. I'm no reverse snob, I don't resent haute cuisine but I watch the Arsenal to be entertained by the footie, if I want a 3-course meal I'll go to a restaurant!
Nevertheless, despite all my reservations and the financial limitations which will ultimately deprive me of "a fantastic match day experience with unrivalled hospitality" (unrivalled footie would do me for starters!), having duly received my Club Level appointment, I set off eagerly for a spot of window shopping at the Arsenal Reservations Centre, to see how the other half will live.
Right from the off it feels as if there's something underhand this operation. I neglected to take down the address but I know the area around the Cally like the back of my hand. Although my route takes me past the all-weather pitches on the parallel Market Road almost daily, I was sure I'd find the Reservations Centre easily enough on Brewery Rd. Amongst all the lorry depots and loading bays, you'd have thought a location where footie fans are expected to part with a lump sum of 18 grand for a mere pitch on a football terrace, would stand out like a sore thumb?
I drove the entire length of the street 3 times without finding the place. Eventually I got through on the phone and was given directions. Tucked in the corner of a nondescript redbrick office complex is a pair of motion sensitive glass doors, which open into a corner of the Cally that feels like home. Just walking in brought a smile to my face, as over on one wall is a huge installation listing all the matches in our magnificent unbeaten run. It is the sort of place where you're only too pleased to be asked to wait to be taken care of, as it gives you time to wander around the open plan area on the ground floor, which is littered with lifesize representations of some of the greatest Arsenal images. Those unforgettable pictures which are permanently engraved in every Gooners' grey matter.
However assuming this is rented accommodation, I couldn't escape the feeling that there's some shady conspiracy going on? You'd have thought the club would be screaming out the fact that they're flogging the most prestigious seats in our amazing new stadium, in foot high letters, emblazoned across the Marble Halls themselves. However this discrete operation in a none too salubrious industrial sidestreet suggests to me that the "unique opportunity" that is Club Level is being sold off as quickly and as quietly possible, in the hope that all the seats will be bought and paid up long before anyone thinks to question the ethics behind it.
Far be it from me to suggest the club is hiding its embarrassment in a Kings Cross back street because they know full well that if they were rubbing it in our faces we might be outraged to think that so long as you have a minimum of £2500, you can walk up tomorrow and buy a seat at the new stadium, whether an Arsenal fan or not. Should you want to buy half a dozen seats as a company perk and write it of as entertaining costs, you can do so today, months before most long standing Gooners get a look in.
Those of us whose not so broad, but loyal shoulders have borne the Arsenal's financial burden with our season ticket renewals through thick and thin (remember the thin!) for decades. Those of us who've waited patiently for donkey's years, long since giving up hope on an annual letter received every summer which only confirms how many tens of thousands are ahead of you on a waiting list for season tickets, which had become so massive and unwieldy that the club had to farm out its management. Those of us who've never been fortunate to get a sniff of a precious season ticket at THOF, who've spent the past few years on the ticket registration scheme, wearing their index fingers down to the knuckle, needing military planning, three phone lines and a super fast redial if they've to have any hope of being successful getting tickets on the two month deadline before each game.
Consequently I walked in with a massive chip on my shoulder thinking it's just not right that so long as you've the necessary spondulicks, someone who's not even a "member" of our Arsenal family, can have his pick of the best seats in the house long before us. And don't even get me started on how dismayed I am to think that the entire dumper load of dough I've dished out to the Gunners over decades doesn't buy me my seat in the new stadium until months after those who made a measly 3 grand investment only last year. These bondholders will be sitting comfortably in their chosen seats at Ashburton Grove long before the likes of my uncle who's literally had his season ticket almost since before the old King died!
However such seemingly immoral decisions weren't made by the person who was tasked with dealing with me and I was soon taken upstairs and sat down before a computer, so I could be given the full Club Level spiel. From what I gather from the pictures I was shown, the fact that it's been designed by the same architects means that our stadium will look very similar to Benfica's new Estadio De Luz, but with knobs and whistles in the form of the marble and costly finishing touches that are intended to give it a much more grandiose look than its blander brother.
One of the main reasons for going was that I'd been looking forward to checking out the virtual reality tour. In truth there was little more to see than has already been shown in the promo pieces on our membership DVDs. There was a great facility on the computer system to pick any seat and then to demonstrate your virtual view from that pitch. Yet in truth as clever as these computer images are, at the end of the day they're nothing more than a complicated compilation of zeros and ones, which can't possibly convey anything other than a token approximation of what the seat will feel like on a match day.
No computer programme can answer one of the questions at the top of my list. Which is how far the seat I am likely to be offered in the upper tier, is going to feel from the action on the day. I don't think I'll be able to afford what I'm offered but I'm not sure I can afford to refuse it because we're told I'll have to go right to the back of the queue for a cheaper option. Sure it'll be nothing like being up in the gods in the Nou Camp, where it feels as if you're watching a colony of ants at play - although one gets such a brilliant feel for where there's space appearing on the pitch below, that I'm amazed more managers don't sit up in the stands for at least some of the match, Especially when you compare it to the view from the dug-out at Highbury, where the camber on the pitch means you can't even see the feet of the players on the opposite side of the pitch!
I suppose it's why Barca stick the opposition fans up there as it doesn't matter how much noise you make because it all just dissipates in the night air, with the players on the pitch not having a Oscooby' that you are singing your heart out. Football stadia are the equivalent to modern day temples, where congregations gather to join in prayer, I find little more frustrating than knowing there's no chance ones prayers will be answered because the gods down below can't hear your supplications and at Barca I just gave up and shut my gob.
Our temple at Ashburton Grove will be only two thirds the capacity of the Nou Camp cathedral, so hopefully I'll still be able to make myself heard with my loudest holler. But it would be another nail in the new stadium coffin if I can't. Heaven only knows what woes I'd find myself taking out on poor Treacle our mutt if I end up sitting in silent appreciation, no longer able to vent a week's worth of frustrations on the lino and any other unsuspecting victim, who I can kid myself is in earshot at Highbury.
I assumed it was all moody, unfounded optimism from the club that their Club Level sales were going so swimmingly, I was under the mistaken impression that they were basing their assumptions on the numbers who like me, had registered their interest. However it's no wonder Arsène is rumoured to have his biggest transfer budget yet. As I was shown block by block on the computer screen the various seats still available, I was flabbergasted to discover that they'd already sold around 50 per cent in every section bar one, which is directly above where the away fans will be in the South-East corner,
Having taken up enough of the kindly reservation centre staff's time and having established that they couldn't possibly be of any help in bagging my regular season ticket seat before anyone else, I made sure they were under no illusion about a potential Club Level sale, as I couldn't afford the £250 quid deposit, let alone two and a half grand for spiffing 3 course banquet only to come out and watch the match from a crap seat behind the goal.
I lingered in the lobby area on my way out taking a few more moments to bask again in the glory of wall long representation of our unbeaten run and found myself caught up in a typical discussion about the relative merits and demerits of Arsène's defensive selection for the forthcoming match. The Gooner I was chatting to was positively glowing with good cheer, having just paid up in full for his first ever Arsenal season ticket. Obviously he'd yet to actually receive his microchip style exclusive Club Level pass. It's positively bizarre thinking of his frustration in having to wait until August 2006 to get his grubby hands on it
It might be many moons back but I can still recall the quasi-religious experience of receiving my little red booklet of coupons for the first time, knowing I would never again have to scrabble around for a ticket to every game. So I could empathise with his feelings at that moment and actually enjoyed sharing them with him.
This wasn't a strange suited creature from the planet corporate. He was a regular geezer, relatively affluent (although everyone's relatively affluent compared to me right now!), whose well paid work had brought him to London a few years back, since when he'd started coming to Highbury on the rare occasion when he managed to find a ticket. Considering he hadn't a hope of a season ticket prior, as far as he was concerned, three and a half grand for a midfield Club Level pitch which guaranteed him a pukka seat for every single home game in our first season at the new stadium was a bargain.
This bloke deferred to my more thorough knowledge when he discovered I was amongst the loyal lunatics who schlep all over the country (Europe!) following the Gunners to most every match. Yet despite feeling absolutely green with envy to have met this relative nouveau Gooner who had a guaranteed pitch at Ashburton Grove, I certainly couldn't hold it against him personally. It dawned on me that in his shoes I probably would have jumped at the opportunity to do exactly the same. What's more underneath it
all, in the Gunners we share a common bond which is far more of a uniting factor than any trivial differences in our status.
I'd arrived at the Reservations Centre despising everything it stood for, the plague of posh entertainment at premium prices which is pricing all those who make live football such an attraction, out of the game. The folks who come to participate as opposed to spectate, who create the atmosphere, without which corporate punters wouldn't be prepared to pay 18 grand for seats to impress their clients. My opinions hadn't changed by the time I left. I am still dreading the day when we leave Highbury for the last time, terrified I'll find a homogenised new stadium where we'll be watching football, but not as we know it.
However ignoring all my selfish concerns, my heart had softened slightly having experienced first hand the pleasure this new opportunity can bring to so many others. I just pray that on the day, I can still afford to be there to share it with them!