Sunday, 25 November 2007

Not Your Prawn Sandwiches

I went to a football match on Saturday. At the Arsenal. And I was in the Directors Box! As an official member of the Prawn Sandwich Brigade.

My Dad plus one had been invited by one of the directors who has done a lot of work with him. They get on well and respect each other, and it's complicated work, so I suppose that's why we were there. They have various lists and can invite whoever they like. Mr Director was rightfully proud of his lovely new stadium and took us outside to point out the design and details. It was delivered on time and under budget, project management at its best. Not like Wembley; but at Arsenal, you can get a sensible, definite decision about anything important by asking at most three people. I don't see how that could happen at the FA. And I know from experience that not having the senior people really in charge is what kills serious project management completely.

It seats 60,000 which I think is a good size. They can sell out every match and have another twenty-odd thousand in the season ticket queue. On the outside is the sponsor's name in huge letters - EMIRATES STADIUM - and their rather pretty logo in Arabic script, a pleasant sign of the peace of nations when everybody has the chance to get their heads down and concentrate on money. Inside, it feels big but not cavernous. There is an elegant curving roof with an uneven hemline designed to let the air circulate and dry the pitch. And I'm sure that works because in my seat, I noticed the smell of mown grass. Most of the roof is translucent to let in the light - good for the pitch (a very brilliant green, under pale grey sky) and nicer for the people.

The sound system is always audible, but never deafening. The big screens are of astonishing quality, but not at all distracting or intrusive. The noise of the crowd is beautifully focussed and intense; a very important point for a football ground, and the architects seem to have known what they were doing there, too. The floodlights are a very pure white. I noticed some nice and thoughtful details, like the silhouettes of trophies round the middle tier with dates, and the little perspex fences at the bottom of each stairway so that if you trip over on the stairs, you can't fall off the edge.

Around the pitch itself is a narrow strip of the latest LED advertising. Mr Director said that in some European stadia they have ads where a car or something zooms right round the pitch, but they tried it and the players hated it so much they banned that sort of thing. I can see why - if you go to all that effort training your body and brain to pay attention to things that move fast along the ground, it must be horribly distracting. It would be like being a greyhound with rabbits going in all directions. So it just shows ads that move in place.

It's all done with taste. There's nothing pretending to be what it's not. Concrete is concrete and wood is wood and glass (or perspex) is glass (or perspex) and it's all there for a reason. We asked who the architects were, Hok Sport.

The directors' box seats 98 people at tables laid out rather like a nice restaurant, without feeling like a restaurant in the least. At one end is a bar in very nice striated stone, and when you come in they serve you a proper drink; I had a gin and tonic which was stronger than I expected. A nice lady takes your coat and points out where it's going before it magically disappears into the wall of hidden cupboards along the back. It's a remarkably well-designed, classy and comfortable room. The other long wall is glass, and glass doors, leading outside to the seats where you watch the match. They're padded red leather with the Arsenal crest and of course they have a magnificent view.

Another little detail; in the Ladies loos there is not only a bit of sofa where two or three women could sit down and deal with a problem, but also a long mirror with a shelf and some bar stools so you can fix your hair and makeup without getting your handbag wet or being in the way of people trying to use the sinks. It's cleverly worked in at one end, a top quality use of space - full marks to the architects there.

At the opposite end from the bar in the box is the food. You go up and collect a course then take your seat and eat at leisure. I started with some very nice little pieces of sushi, an oyster in its shell, and bacon and whatnot from the cold table, then I had the pink roast beef and two little Yorkshire puddings with carrot puree and crunchy green beans and a really delicious glass of wine. There were banoffee things in glasses like liqueurs to finish, but I just had fruit; fine strawberries (in November), raspberries and two kinds of melon, all full of their own flavours, the best of everything. Not your prawn sandwiches, I can tell you. I wouldn't expect anything less because this should be one of the finest stadia in the world and it's in a city where the best is available on demand, but just the same I was impressed - it's an extremely professional operation. And it finished off with a nice cup of coffee.

Mr Wenger appeared very briefly before the match and I shook his hand. My Dad hadn't expected to see him because of course he's busy with the players, but presumably he wanted a word with some of the directors about something; they're all thoroughly at work on a match day. He just shook hands and said Hello, pleased to meet you; he has a nice voice.

At half time they served up scones, cakes, coffee and tea. The tea was strong and hot and the scones and cakes were delicious.

I won't tell you much about the match because my opinion's of no value and if you want to know you can read the reports elsewhere. The crowd did its stuff but Arsenal were missing Fabregas and peppered the target end in the first half without really getting any shots on target. They left it late to score two goals and Theo Walcott was stretchered off. He's very good, but small for the English game. I wonder if the Premiership will just kick him to bits, like Ossie Ardiles. Perhaps he'll fill out, he's very young.

Afterwards Mr Director chatted to us again for a while and took us upstairs to show off the Diamond Club lounge. I don't know whether the name has anything to do with one of the major shareholders' connections to the London-Antwerp diamond trade or whether they just thought it sounded good, or both. But this is where you eat and watch if you pay fifty thousand pounds for your pair of seats in your first season, and twenty-five thousand per season thereafter. The food and staff are under the supervision of Raymond Blanc and there's an air of quiet busyness and luxury. It's marble and red leather and wood of various shades, with beautiful inscriptions and inlay work in stone and wood. There's a bronze head of Arsene Wenger, and a bronze head of someone else. In the wooden wall of the stairwell on the way up is a lovely inlay of diamond-shaped pieces in a golden wood like a a shower of rain, or a portrait background by Klimt; a thing of remarkable elegance and beauty.

The whole place seems slightly Art Deco, which Highbury was, without being retro; perfectly modern, luxurious, and comfortable. Everything of the best, but nothing vulgar, silly, or ostentatious, and no noise. Just the roar of the crowd, like a giant lion curled up in a giant basket.

And what do you know, there was Mick Jagger surrounded by numerous grandchildren in Arsenal shirts eating their tea. I thought he only did cricket, but there you are.

Anyway, the whole afternoon was an extra special treat. I was super-lucky and I don't s'pose I'll get the chance again. That's what it was like.

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