Thursday, 3 May 2012

Highbury Tales

Today, we have a guest blogger. I met Isaac on assignment...I was headed out to Penang for an interview and he was the accompanying the cab over there, on the way to China House (which the cabbie hadn't heard of) I heard about how he ended up a PR...he had started out as a software engineer...but when he won the trip to Highbury to see Arsenal play and wrote up his experiences for the advertising agency, he got two simultaneous job from Grey Advertising and the other from Tiger Beer. I mean, how cool is that?

I asked him if he would send me what he had written and he graciously agreed. And so here it is. And here's Isaac with Matt Lucas (of Little Britain fame)

By Isaac Lee Mathew

On the 3rd of April 2006, my day started just like any other day; get up for work circa 7:45 in the morning, get to the office by about 9:15 for long day of work. You see, I work as a consultant for a Malaysian IT firm, which means that my job pretty much revolves around doing testing, documentation, training and basically servicing support requests from clients. Little was I to know what was in store for me that day…

It about 10 AM, I received an unexpected phone call from someone from Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) telling me that I was short-listed as a winner of the TigerFC/ESPNstar contest sending me to watch Arsenal’s final home match!!! At first it was sheer disbelief and shock at having actually been short-listed…this doesn’t happen to us “normal people”. Besides informing me of my candidacy for the prize, she also wanted to find out if I could leave in two days time (Friday) to England for Sunday’s match.

Could I?? I would answer a resounding yes. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing my team in action. Our short conversation was ended on a high note as she said she will confirm with me shortly. A second phone call from the same lady followed a short while later to confirm that my passport was in order for the trip to England.

The third call came from a certain Mr David Lim, who was the Senior Brand Development Manager for APB in forming that I had indeed won the prize and as such, would be going to London for the auspicious final match @ Highbury!!! That moment will forever be etched in the back of my mind as one of my happiest ever. I was going to HIGHBURY!!!

The next 2 days were a flurry of phone calls and last minute preparations for Thursday night’s flight to London. I learned that there were 2 other winners, one also from Malaysia and the other from Singapore.

I had actually graduated in London in 2003 and worked there for a short while, so it wouldn't be my first time there, but boy was I looking forward to going back to Ye Olde England. My flight would be at 11.40 pm from KLIA direct to Heathrow Airport, London.

Fast forward to 10.00 Thursday night and I’ve just checked in @ KLIA for flight number MH0002 to Heathrow. I’m sitting @ McDonalds with my family enjoying a late meal and still wondering to myself…how did I manage to win this amazing opportunity of a lifetime!?!? Many an Arsenal fan would give his left arm to get a chance to go to visit the hallowed ground at Highbury and here I was, going there for their last ever home game. Would they win their last game at their historic ground? Would they be able to overhaul their bitter rivals Tottenham in the race for the coveted 4th spot? Would Thierry Henry stay with the club that brought him from being a relative unknown at Juventus to (arguably) the world’s greatest striker? Well, most of those questions would be answered in the course of the next 4 days, and I would be there!!!

Anyways, I boarded the plane with 15 minutes to spare and found myself seated to this charming English lady by the name of Kate. She is a property salesperson operating out of Islington and was just returning from a surfing holiday to Bali (transit in Malaysia). We talked about many things, in particular football (but of course), London and South-east Asia. I was glad that not only did I have company for the 13 hour flight (yes, there’s a TV with tonnes of programming, but it does get a little tiring on the eyes after a while), as I was definitely too excited to sleep. In the end, I did manage to get maybe 2 hours of sleep.

We arrived in London early Friday morning (5.05 to be exact). Going past immigration was a breeze and I soon found myself in the Arrivals hall, awaiting pick-up by a representative from the organisers. While waiting, I managed to locate the other Malaysian contest winner. We had checked in and boarded the airline separately at KLIA, so this was my first time meeting Mr. Francis Lye.

We were there for about 10 minutes when I spotted a burly man holding a placard with our names. I introduced myself and he told us he was a cab driver tasked with picking us from the airport. We followed him to the car park, onto his cab, which was a Fiat Ulysse and thus began the 45 minute ride to central London. The weather was very pleasant (as far as England goes) and it was a good thing we arrived as early as we did, because we managed to beat the traffic jam into London. We may be on our dream holiday, but the rest of the world still has to work on Fridays J

Day One – Welcome to England

We arrived at the Cumberland hotel at Marble Arch after a pleasant journey at 6.15am and proceeded to check in. However, there weren’t there weren’t any rooms ready as our check–in time was at noon. We left our luggage with the concierge and proceeded for an impromptu tour of the surrounding vicinity. Because our hotel is so central, I was pretty familiar with the area around it from my university days. There was so much to see the moment you step out of the hotel, and we went to Oxford Circus, which is like the centre of the shopping district, and just up the road from our hotel. We also went to Trafalgar Square, took pictures outside the National Gallery, walked through Hyde Park and went by Leicester Square (and Chinatown). Phew…all that in the first 3 hours of arriving there.

At 11.30, we returned to the hotel to check in and meet up with our host for the duration of our stay, Mr. Neil Callaghan. We also met with the other competition winner, a Mr Shi Min. After a quick briefing on our itinerary and getting our tickets (including THE ticket to Highbury) over light refreshments, Francis and I checked into our respective hotel rooms. The rooms were well furnished and pretty luxurious with all the amenities expected from a four star hotel and then some. After check in, all of us gathered in the lobby for lunch and the tour.

We had decided during the briefing that we would want to go for the Highbury tour on the first day and have the London tour only on Monday (essentially a swap), as the football ground would not be open come Monday.

As such, after a hearty breakfast at the PrĂȘt-A-Manger (excellent sandwich and coffee joint) next door, we hopped on a cab to Charing Cross Train Station, where we got on the London Underground, more commonly known as the Tube (using the Piccadilly line) to the Arsenal station. When we arrived at the station, we were pleasantly greeted by long mural depicting the milestones and highlights of Arsenal’s illustrious past. After a 2 minute walk from the station, we could already see the grounds. It was a beautiful, steeped in history. Although not the biggest stadium, it still looked imposing as it rose above the surrounding buildings (residential mainly). We were finally here…at Highbury!!

There were already many fans milling about snapping pictures at every opportunity as even though there was no event today. After taking bucket loads of pictures ourselves, we proceeded to the Highbury gift shop for an hour long session of souvenir shopping. Although, there were still tonnes of merchandise to purchase, a large number of the high-demand items were sold out in anticipation of the upcoming game. Nonetheless, we managed to score some excellent deals and the store personnel were most helpful.

After purchasing our merchandise, including jerseys, photos, trinkets and other keepsakes we proceeded to the Arsenal museum for a short history lesson on Highbury and Arsenal. While there wasn’t a lot of exhibits, those available were very intriguing indeed, most notably Vieira’s autographed jersey and boots from the FA Cup final last year (his last penalty kick of the game secured the trophy, but it was also his final action in the club colours). Although we didn’t get much time to wander around the museum (due to it being about to close for the day), it was still an enlightening experience from a club with a rich historical heritage.

From Highbury, we proceeded back to the hotel via the Tube again to get freshened up before we headed to the Haymarket area, near Soho for drinks at a trendy bar called Tiger, Tiger. There we met up with some of our host, Neil’s colleagues and shared a good laugh over some bottles of Tiger while chatting over everything from work, sports (not only football, mind you), girls J and so on.

After about an hour, we departed from Tiger, Tiger to a nearby Indian restaurant, called Soho Spice. The cuisine there was excellent, with my Chicken Tikka Masala having the perfect combination of spice and flavour to go along superbly with our Tiger beers. After the scrumptious dinner, Francis and Shi Min wanted to get some rest in anticipation of our trip to Birmingham the next day. I however was still excited about being in London, and wanted to meet up with some of my friends from my days as a student at the University of Greenwich.

As such, after getting a cab back to the hotel for the other two, Neil and I went to meet up with my friends at Zoo Bar in Leicester square. I hadn’t seen them in almost 3 years, but it felt like only a couple of months as we were soon talking and joking about the old times and catching up on the new ones. After a few more drinks (Tiger, of course), and an “interesting” bar top dance by some of the other patrons, Neil and I left the bar for other engagements. Neil was going to meet some mates, whilst I was going to meet an old friend from Malaysia, Adrienne who was currently working in London.

We met up at about 10:30 in Leicester Square and went to Haagen Daz for some drinks (non-alcoholic for a change…J). We had a great time catching up and ended up talking till past midnight. At about 12:30, we finally parted ways and I took a long walk back to the hotel, remembering the times gone by. Honestly, I really miss the life in England…

I finally reached the hotel at about 1.30 and needless to say, slept like a baby through the night.

Day Two – Birmingham Fight Club

On the second day, we were scheduled to go to leave for the train station to Birmingham at about noon. As such, we spent most of the morning shopping and taking pictures nearby the hotel. At 11:45, we took a taxi to the Euston train station, where we boarded the 12.37 train direct to Birmingham International for the Seni Exhibition.

The Seni Exhibition is basically a yearly martial arts exhibition, which also happens to be the largest in Europe. With Tiger beer as the main sponsor to this event, we were given VIP passes for the duration of our sojourn to Birmingham.

Anyways, after a 1.5 hour long journey, during which we got to see much of England’s countryside, we arrived at the Birmingham International station, which is unique in that it’s attached to the Birmingham Convention Centre at one end and the Birmingham International Airport at the other. A very strategic location indeed.

We were met at the station by 2 representatives of Tiger Beer UK, Graham Charlton and Bennett Neo. From there, they took us straight to the convention centre, which was actually in the same complex as the station. There, we were given the opportunity to have a look around the exhibition area and see martial art equipment as well as live demonstrations. After that, we had a photo opportunity with the martial artist/actor, Gordon Liu (Jia Hui), who has starred in many Eastern and Western movies, including the Kill Bill movies. I also managed to get him to autograph my exhibition programme.

We then proceeded via cab into the heart of Birmingham city, where we walked around for a bit before having an early dinner at a stylish eatery known as Zinc. The food there was excellent, blending English cuisine with Mediterranean flavour. I especially enjoyed the carpaccio appetiser which was served there. After the delicious meal, we stopped by some other bars like Wetherspoons and Vodka Revolution for some beers (and vodka shots) before heading back to the exhibition centre for the main event, Pain and Glory.

When we arrived, we entered the arena, and were pleasantly surprised to find that we had rind side seats for this martial arts fight night. The event started off at about 7.30 and we were treated to 10 separate bouts featuring proponents from the mainstream martial arts disciplines like K1 kickboxing, muay thai, boxing and MMA (which is kinda like grappling).

The fights were mostly very evenly matched, with the best match-up being a muay thai bout between 2 very even opponents, Micheal Showers and Richard Cadden, which lasted all 5 3-minute rounds before ending in a well deserved draw for both sides.

Whilst going for a drink break, I managed to meet Danny John-Jules, a veteran British TV actor, known best for his time on the sci-fi comedy classic, Red Dwarf. He was a very friendly chap and was more than willing to pose for a photo opportunity with us.

Back to the fight night, the main event was a K1 bout between an Englishman and Japanese contender which was pretty brutal and was finally won by the Japanese exponent, albeit by a slim margin. Overall, it was a very entertaining evening and I was glad to have gotten the opportunity to witness this unique event. We left Birmingham at about half past 11 in Bennett’s SUV to head back to London.

Besides a short stop for coffee and refreshments, our 2 hour long trip to London was uneventful and we arrived back at almost 2. After a long and eventful day, sleep was a most welcome companion.

Day Three – Henry Is King, Arsenal Wins…A Fitting Tribute, A Fond Farewell

Ah, the day we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived…Highbury beckons!!! After a hearty breakfast and a little bit of morning shopping (yeah, can’t seem to stop buying stuff), we got on the Tube to Highbury at about 11.30. Because we were Hospitality guests, we were expected at the stadium by 12-ish to have lunch and an address by some notable Arsenal fans.

When we arrived, the stadium was already buzzing with excited fans, media and police alike. The police were maintaining a cordoned off walkway to the stadium for ticket holders only and once within the cordon, there were hundreds of Arsenal fans in full gear milling about, sampling commemorative merchandise, posters, and so on. The atmosphere was already so lively, but there was still more to come. We made our way to the South Stand entrance, where we were taken to the Hospitality lounge and the Mezzanine suite. The suite was done up very nicely with Arsenal-themed table numbers, napkins, drinks and so on. We were served refreshments before a 4 course meal with our choice of red or white wine. The meal was great, and so was the camaraderie between all the fans in the suite. They also presented all the hospitality guests with a miniature Highbury replica as a memento of this momentous day.

At about 2 o’ clock the guest speakers, Matt Lucas and Ian Poulter took centre stage. For those of you not in the know, Matt Lucas is the creator of the comedy series Little Britain and a livelong Arsenal supporter. On the other hand, Ian Poulter is a fellow sportsman, albeit in the arena of golf. However, his Arsenal supporting credentials should not be questioned, as his support of this great club include wearing the maroon home jersey at the Abu Dhabi golf championship earlier this year. They engaged in some entertaining light-hearted banter for a good 20 minutes before ending the session.

At about 2.25, we were all ushered out of the Mezzanine suite and to our seats via the South Stand reception. We had great seats, smack in the middle of the West stand, where we were able to catch a very central view of the pitch. There was also a commemorative T-shirt for the last match @ Highbury taped to our seats along with a request to wear the t-shirt for the entirety of the game. This is because there were both red and white t-shirts placed in alternate columns of the seating so that when all the spectators wore their shirts, the stands would be draped in Arsenal’s red and white colours. A novel approach and an effective one at that.

Both the Arsenal and Wigan players were already on the pitch warming up and practicing shots and passes. The atmosphere was amazing as once the fans started to come in at about 2.50 pm, the stadium was filled with a buzz. The buzz reached a crescendo the moment the announcer started commentating about the upcoming match and introducing the teams from either side. Needless to say, both Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp received the loudest cheers as Arsenal captain and their longest-serving player respectively. This match would also be Bergkamp’s final competitive match for Arsenal, with the possible exception of perhaps the Champions League final in Paris on the 17th of May, so he was given a fitting round of applause when his name was announced. They don’t call him the Dutch Masterclass for nothing.

Anyways, after the team announcements were made, the game started to much fanfare and anticipation. Seated at the West stand, we got to see a lot of the midfield action, with Arsenal’s central midfield and wingers proving a constant threat to Wigan. The wall of sound coming from the supporters was deafening, especially from the North End. Clearly, we all wanted a goal fest from Arsenal and we didn’t have to wait long. In the eighth minute, Pires scored a goal in the confusion at Wigan’s goalmouth. Add to that the fact that news had been trickling in about how Tottenham, our hated derby-rivals were a goal down to West Ham, and Highbury was in raptures.

That however was not to last very long. Wigan weren’t planning on letting the Gunners just waltz in and take all 3 points. We were going to have to work for it, after Paul Scharner scored off a David Thompson free kick in the Arsenal half. To make matters more frantic, they doubled their score in the 33rd minute with another early free kick from David Thompson finding the goal. The shot was taken early and as such caught Lehmann unawares as he was organising the defence. However that is of little consolation, in a must-win match. Could King Henry press his youthful troops to stage a comeback? Why, most certainly yes, as Henry himself raced clear on his favoured left flank just 2 minutes later to score a vintage Thierry goal. This was the lifeline Arsenal needed to get back into the game, and the game went into half-time at 2 goals apiece. However, news that Tottenham had equalised at Upton Park before the break also was a cause of much consternation among the Highbury-faithful. The positions could not have been more finely poised, even if they were scripted. A nail-biting second half awaited us.

I’m not sure what Arsene Wenger might’ve said to the players in the dressing room over the break, but when they returned, they seemed to have more purpose about them. Maybe it was also us fans, who had been rallying and chanting ever louder in support of our beloved club. They took control of the match and the midfield was breaking up Wigan’s strafing runs with greater authority now.

However, our third goal came out of the blue about 10 minutes into the second half. David Thompson, who had been the architect of the two away goals thus far inexplicably performed a back pass to no one in the 56th minute, and you do not make that kind of mistake with Henry lurking around. With consummate skill and pace, Henry collected the ball, rounded the keeper with unbelievable ease and slotted the ball home to send the stadium into a frenzy of songs not only praising Arsenal and our talismanic captain, but also taunting Tottenham (can you see us, can you see us Tottenham!!! J) . Arsenal’s comeback was complete in the 76th minute when Ljungberg was brought down in the penalty box allowing Henry to slot home the resulting penalty and complete his hat-trick. After that, he bowed down to the ground and kissed the pitch, a fitting farewell perhaps. The game ended at 4-2 to Arsenal and minutes later, when it was confirmed that our rival from White Hart Lane had lot to West Ham, our celebrations were complete, as we had clinched the final Champions League spot.

The atmosphere was sublime and this being my first English football game, it was an eye-opener, especially to the traditions of the club as well as their bitter rivalry with Tottenham. When watching the match on the TV in Malaysia, you miss out on so much of the Arsenal experience. I will definitely remember this day for a long time to come.

After the match, there were a number of presentations and performances, including a marching band, a tribute song sung by Roger Daltrey from the Who, and a tribute to former Arsenal/Highbury legends such as Charlie George, David Rocastle Ian Wright and so on. Besides that, there was a presentation highlighting Arsenal’s achievements throughout the years as well as the evolution of the club crest. Also, Henry was presented with the Premiership Golden Boot award, which is given to the most prolific EPL striker every season. What was interesting is that most of us in the crowd though that he would also sign his club contract extension, which has been the cause for much speculation in recent weeks. Lastly, Arsene Wenger led us all in a countdown to set off a fireworks display during which streamers also rained down from each of the stands. Goodbye Highbury, we will miss you dearly.

After the game, there was a sea of currant, red, white and the occasional yellow/blue as the fans streamed out of the stadium and into the Tube stations. Because I’d stayed on a little longer then the rest of the competition group, it was almost impossible to get to the station with all the traffic. As such, I walked to Finsbury Park (the next station) along with what must be thousands of fans and took a bus to Angel station. There I boarded the Tube to Gloucester Road where I had a pre-arranged appointment to meet my aunt and uncle there for dinner.

They met me at the Tube station, which is just a stone’s throw away from their apartment and we walked down the road to an upmarket Italian restaurant for dinner. They were very excited about the match, especially since they purchased an apartment in Highbury Square (the apartments which will be built in the Highbury stadium). We had a good meal, talking about family, work and the like. After dinner, I adjourned to their apartment for a brief tour of the place before hopping on a bus back to Marble Arch.

It was an eventful day, and I don’t think anyone of us could’ve wished for more. Long live Arsenal.

Day Four – Can I Not Go Home?

It has been a great 3 days and as they always say time flies by when you’re having fun. Today was the first day where we had typical English weather. Read: Rainy. Nevertheless, there was last minute souvenir shopping to be done (some of my co-workers would never forgive me if I returned empty handed) so we braved the rain. We checked out before leaving for lunch and left our luggage with the concierge.

For lunch, we met up with Neil at his office and went to Garfunkel’s for lunch. We had a most filling meal there, before going for a short walk around Trafalgar Square the surrounding area. It was there where Neil bade us farewell and left us to see London at our leisure.

We walked around Piccadilly Circus, Bond Street and found our way back to Marble Arch. Along the way, we made a long stop at Lillywhites, a sports warehouse kind of store where we picked up a lot of sports gear, Arsenal or not. When we finally arrived back at the hotel, I recharged my camera for a bit before going out for one last romp around the parks in the vicinity to take more pictures.

When the cab came at about 645, we were pleasantly surprised to find out it was a Mercedes E-class. Now that’s being ferried about in style. Anyways, we reached the airport within about an hour and checked in without a hitch. Before our separate flights, we said our goodbyes and exchanged contacts so that we could keep in touch. The plane touched down in Malaysia at about 5.15pm on Tuesday.

It was good to be back, but one can’t help missing Highbury.

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