“I am so jealous of you, Gautam” said a text from a friend on the 13th of December, 2010. He had every right to be for at that time I was standing outside the visitors’ end at Old Trafford with just half an hour left for kick-off.
The match itself was not particularly exciting - Park Ji-Sung scored the only goal of that game to give Manchester United all three points - but I will always remember the events that surrounded the game.
It was Wojciech Szczesny’s first ever league game for Arsenal, and on a grander scale, was the stage for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to wave adieu to the Old Trafford faithful. Soskjaer had just been signed on as manager of Molde, the club he played for before making a name for himself at United.
But that game was special for another reason too. The miners who had been rescued from the Chilean mining collapse a few weeks ago had been invited, and it was an honour to personally witness one of those beautiful occasions at which humanity superceded football.
On such a night, I could not help but be overwhelmed by all that was around me. The temperature must have been in single digits, and that meant my woollen jacket was accompanied by leather gloves.
On that night, however, they would stay in my pocket: wearing them meant I could not take pictures with my phone easily, and I wanted to capture as much of the experience as I could. I was giddy with excitement throughout the four hours I was at the Theatre of Dreams and just couldn’t stand still.
For Indians, going to the UK and watching a live football game brings home just how grand the game is. I wasn’t just going to watch a live football game; I was going to watch a live football game at a stadium, seeing in the flesh those that I had idolised for so long.
I got to see them at Old Trafford, I got to greet them at the City of Manchester Stadium.
I had no plans to see another game but a friend had a spare ticket. I don’t quite remember what happened between the time I woke up that Saturday morning and the time I boarded the train to Manchester because I was going to see the Arsenal play live. Had I known then that I had been allocated seats right behind the Arsenal rearguard, I would have gone bonkers.
Once again, it was not just the game that contributed to the matchday experience, but everything around it. Travelling through the rolling green fields of Derbyshire, being introduced to some of the away regulars, singing derisory chants about Emmanuel Adebayor before the game, dodging the cops that tried to keep us quiet because we were being too noisy and the home fans didn’t like it, booing Adebayor when he warmed up on the touchline, cheering Lukasz Fabianski whenever he saved from Carlos Tevez, and cheering oh-so-loudly at the final score on the Jumbotron: Manchester City 0-3 Arsenal.
Being enveloped by the atmosphere that washes over you like a wave as you travel with your fellow supporters is an experience that is truly exhilarating and is one that you cannot help but be drawn into.
And it’s not just pure ecstasy that you experience on matchday, but some very solemn moments as well. One that I will always remember is the silence of 40,000 football fans, which in a moment can turn the atmosphere in a game from raucously enthusiastic to oppressively silent.
City’s legendary manager Malcolm Allison had died a few days before the game and the entire stadium observed a minute’s silence. It was surreal to be surrounded by so many completely silent people at a football game.
Also, every stadium I went to in the UK was always reinforced with a very large complement of police officers, fire teams, SWAT forces and ambulance brigades on match day.
We’ve all heard about hooliganism but never quite seen it, and although I had never witnessed acts of hooliganism personally, the security around the stadium showed just how seriously they took combating the problem.
When I went to both the City of Manchester Stadium and Old Trafford, the roads leading to the stadia were patrolled by police officers armed with tasers and coshes and clad from head to foot in riot gear.
Outside Old Trafford, every entrance was manned by a row of mounted police and ambulances gleamed fluorescent green in the cold British night: scuffles are quite common at high profile games and it was quite clear that nothing was left to chance.
When I went to watch the Gunners take on Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, you had little choice but to get on a double-decker bus manned by four police officers and guarded by police motorcycles at its front and rear as you were transported to a stadium that has been officially labelled as Britain’s loudest.
Walking into the away end at Stoke is an experience that is quite intimidating, with every single home supporter chanting in unison at a level that is so deafening you have no choice but to keep quiet and look on in dazed wonder. Arsenal lost the game 3-1 and I was very glad I was on the bus.
But the excitement and exhilaration at all those clubs paled in comparison to when I watched an Arsenal home game for the first time at the Emirates Stadium.
It was Wigan Athletic in the snow, and walking across the Herbert Chapman Bridge along with tens of thousands of Gooners, all clad in Red and White, you couldn’t help but burst into a loud, spontaneous boisterous rendition of ‘we love you, Arsenal, we do’ and get lost in the moment.
A more gorgeous sight I had not seen, and judging from the architecture that makes the stadium so attractive and the carpet-like quality of its surface, there are few places that can compare to the aesthetic beauty of Arsenal’s home.
I sorely miss those days, and I have every memento from the year I spent travelling up and down Britain to watch football carefully stored with me. At the centre of my collection are the four tickets I collected at the Britannia, at Old Trafford, at the City of Manchester Stadium and – most memorably – at the Emirates Stadium.
And all of them were free.