London, Birmingham Away Days and Boring, Boring City

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome to another edition of The Modern Gooner. It's been a bit of a while since last I posted, but my absence must be excused as I was away visiting my pals in London and making another pilgrimage to The Arsenal. While I won't bore you all with every detail of the trip (by the way, if your girlfriend wants you to go see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, pretend to be deathly ill or break a bone just to get out of it. Trust me), I'll focus on those things Arsenal-related, which is primarily why I expect you spend your theoretical entertainment dollar here.

The plan was this: I was to fly out from Newark Liberty at 9pm on Tuesday the 28th, landing at London Heathrow at approximately 9am local time on the 29th, dash to the hotel and check in, drop bags and shower, meet with our man in London, Gareth, to co-pilot the rental car up to Wigan and see Arsenal thrash the Latics. This seemed a reasonable expectation after our lads had dismantled a full-strength Chelsea side on the 27th. But I'm sure you all know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. Due to the heavy snowfall blanketing the eastern seaboard of the US and the flight cancellations it caused, my flight was delayed from a 9pm departure to a 1:40am departure, and again to a 7am departure. Effectively, this put paid to my Wigan trip, as my flight landed at about 8pm GMT, just as the match kicked off. By the time I reached the hotel and flipped on the TV, Match of the Day began showing our performance. Who would have thought, a lackluster showing from an Arsenal team against a team they assumed they could beat just by showing up. A 2-2 draw in the end (although we were denied a late penalty which would have given us all three points). Luckily, we would certainly learn from such an event for the future, wouldn't we? Okay, okay, I'll shut up.

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One match down, but I still had New Year's Eve to look forward to, as well as a hungover trip to St. Andrews to see Arsenal take on Birmingham City in the league. Gareth had sorted us out tickets on a party boat up and down the Thames for New Year's Eve to drink and dance and see what turned out to be a rather impressive fireworks display near the Houses of Parliament. It was a brilliant time, drinks flowing, Gareth chatted up a pair of Mancunian girls--well, women, really--dancing and watching colorful explosions in the sky. Definitely a great time, a great many drinks consumed and passed out almost immediately after my head hit the pillow.

I don't need to tell you all about New Year's Day hangovers, but I woke bleary-eyed, dehydrated and with a terrific headache. I managed to neck a few pints of water and then get some breakfast in me, which certainly helped. I then had to dress myself (no easy feat in that state) and meet Gareth at Euston station for the train to Birmingham. I picked up a Lucozade for the trip, and by the time the train reached the station, I was feeling okay. That was until I got a look at Birmingham. I almost wish I had taken pictures at the urban decay going on around the city. It really is the English version of so many Pennsylvania coal-mining towns that have gone to hell after that industry dried up. While I don't think mining was the primary industry in the town, it appeared that any industries based there had up and left some time ago. Gareth and I got a good look around at the dodgier areas of the town on our walk from the station up to the ground courtesy of Google Maps being a dick. I honestly saw as much Yankees gear on the young folk there as I would on a daily basis in NYC, and I doubt any one of them could identify a baseball if you hit him in the head with it.

Despite the rough-looking areas, we managed to reach St. Andrews, where we could hear the Arsenal supporters present already in good voice, singing loud enough for us to hear them clearly from outside the ground. It was a sign of things to come, as we stood in the concourse with the other travelling fans, singing along, 3,000-4,000 Gooners creating quite the atmosphere while the home support remained silent, perhaps expectant of the eventual result. If you've never been to an away match for Arsenal, it's a completely different atmosphere from a match at the Emirates, mostly in that there IS an atmosphere. Stewards generally leave the away fans to themselves, meaning you can stand without someone telling you to sit, and sing without a prawn-sandwich-muncher (read: VERY casual Arsenal fan) asking you to quiet down as they're trying to watch a football match. I don't have time to tell you the reasons why I think our home support is lacking; suffice it to say we don't have the same issue on away days. The only negative regarding this level of passionate supporter maifested itself in one of our fans popping another in the face, and before kickoff!

The away fans, myself and Gareth among them, were very loud, compounded by the virtual silence of the home "support." Apart from numerous outbreaks of the Samir Nasri song (which really is a brilliant thing when a large group of Gooners are belting it out) and a few old favorites, we spent a good deal of the time winding up the home fans. We sang about how we'd forgotten they were still in attendance, how their town was a shithole (it is), and how, in comparison to our good fortune at having Cesc Fabregas, they were blighted with the likes of Lee Bowyer. RvP opened the scoring off of a free kick in the first half, and our boys dealt well with the few opportunities afforded the opposition, despite the dirty tactics employed by Brum (Bowyer and Cameron Jerome in particular). By the 66th minute, we were ahead 3-0 and the match was well in hand through a great goal from Nasri and a Roger Johnson OG created by Cesc. For those of you with Arsenal TV Online subscriptions, I'm very visible celebrating the OG in the crowd to the left of Cesc around the 9:50 mark in the match highlights.

A great first away day under my belt, I looked forward to Arsenal hosting Man City the following Wednesday. Evening matches are a bit different of course, as people have to make it to the pub after racing home from work for a few pre-match pints, but I eventually met up with Gareth and two other former Nevadas visitors, the inimitable Richard Dunmall and Niki Morris, as well as Gareth's pal Simon. Gareth and Rich assured me that Simon was a quiet, unassuming sort, who was on occasion capable of feats of sudden madness, sort of like a housewife who lives a simple life and one day out of the blue steals a cop car and robs a bank. My kind of guy.

We filed into the Grove, and the sight of that green pitch always kind of takes my breath away. There weren't many sights after that which would do the same, however... City arrived with one intention, to deny us a goal without even bothering trying to score one themselves. Arsenal played quite well, but despite being denied several times by the woodwork and a few times by a stalwart Joe Hart, we were unable to get a ball past the 200 million pound bus that Mancini had parked in front of the City goal. The most notable occurrence was probably the simultaneous sending off of both Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta due to a butting of heads, a rare heated moment from our right back, but understandable after being stamped on by Lee Bowyer (no whistle) at Brum and with Sagna saying that Zabaleta had been less than cordial to him for the preceding 80 minutes. The final was an uninspiring 0-0 draw, which gave the cynical City their point but left them no plaudits from anyone in the football world. It also meant that I had now seen the last three home fixtures against Man City, and the only two goals that had been scored were put in by Emmanual Adebayor in a 2-0 Arsenal win in April 2009. I don't think I'll be seeing the next clash between the two.

Mother Nature was kind enough to allow for my homeward journey to go off without a hitch; perhaps she'd seen the City match and took pity on me. Regardless, I had seen Arsenal win and draw, and retained an undefeated record as a supporter in attendance (3-0-2). There was plenty more to my trip, and plenty of pub time as well, but I won't bore you with the non-pertinent details of my trip. I do, however, encourage you all to make your own pilgrimage when you get a chance. There are plenty of memories of your own to make. But if I might pass on a small bit of advice: avoid Birmingham in general and matches with Man City in particular. I know that the NHS offers to cover visitors to UK should they require medical attention, but I don't know if "dying from boredom" is a legitimate reason for being in hospital.

As an added bonus, here's a clip from comedian Jim Jefferies, who I saw perform while on vacation. If you don't think he's funny, I hate you. I keed, I keed, I love you guys.

Apologies for the lack of a preview of West Ham on Saturday, but with the way the last 2 matches have gone, it was all I could do to type THIS up. Anyway, I've missed my NYC Arsenal boys and girls, and I'll see you all at the Blind Pig on the weekend. Until then... COME ON YOU RIP-ROARING RED AND WHITE BEAUTIES!!!