Arsenal's Excellent New York Adventure: A Photo Diary

(Note - this post is going to be extremely photo-heavy...fair warning for those on slow browsers. Also, all pictures are my own, except for the 5-a-side shots which are courtesy of Jessica Young)

Unquestionably, Gooners from across the United States as well as many locations abroad were looking forward to Arsenal's New York visit with anticipation as well as expectation. Needless to say, the club - and the efforts of both Kurtis/Brett and others - did  not disappoint.

The festivities began on Thursday with the official fan party at New Jersey's IZOD Center. Formerly the home of ice hockey's New Jersey Devils, the building is mainly a concert venue these days. But, for one day, it became the center of American Goonerdom as a wave of red and yellow descended on the old barn to welcome our boys to the USA.

I had to hustle to the arena straight from work, and by the time I got there the line was snaking around halfway to South America. 

Once the doors opened, the club treated us to two special exhibits as we got our beers and waited for the event to begin. First, a stroll to one end of the concourse led to a table with a brilliant array of memorabilia from throughout the club's history. These included game-worn shirts from luminaries such as Dennis Bergkamp, a program from the 1930s, golden boots, winners' medals, and so on. I could not resist a shot of this one, though:

Yes, friends. The man who just might be my favorite Arsenal player ever, Mad Jens Lehmann. Not only that, a game-worn shirt from the Invincibles season. Get in, you beauty!

That done, a leisurely amble to the other end of the concourse held an even greater thrill - the FA Cup itself. Now we're talking! Not only that, but you could get pretty damn close to it. What a sight for sore eyes. It's always nice to win things, naturally. But, for me at least, the FA Cup is about more than one fleeting moment of glory for the team. It is about a brazenly tangible sign that we are moving in the right direction, that we are ready to prove a lot of folks wrong and start seriously challenging for major honors. It's sort of a weird angle, taken from the side as half the world were taking selfies at the same time, bit here I am with the famous pot.

That done, it was time to take our seats for the evening's main event. The big screen welcomed us as we settled in with a thousand or so of our closest friends.

Youtube sensation Hugh Wizzy was our emcee for the evening, along with someone from the club that I didn't recognize. A few shirts were given away, a few Gooners were interviewed in the stands, and then it was on to the first Q&A session with Faye White and another player from Arsenal Ladies whose name I didn't catch. Oh, and they didn't come alone - they came packing the FA Women's Cup.  ALL YOUR FA CUPS ARE BELONG TO US.

They answered some fan questions, and gave us their perspectives about the growth of the women's game in both England and as a whole. Here, I will pause and ensure that the Arsenal Ladies side are given their due - they have been absolutely killing it for ages, both at home and in Europe. It is a significant credit to this club that they have seriously invested in the ladies' side for quite a few years, which in turn has had a drastic effect on the game in England as a whole. There are many reasons why I am proud to support this club, but that is high on the list.

Next, the representatives from the men's side came out for their Q&A. First: current stars Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky, Carl Jenkinson and Gedion Zelalem entertained us with their questions. Two particular highlights:

  • When asked what went through his mind when he scored the winner against Hull City in extra time of the FA Cup, Ramsey replied: "Thank God". My thoughts exactly, mate.
  • When asked which Arsenal player had the worst fashion sense, all five immediately pointed fingers at poor Rosicky. The Czech master took it in stride as the audience roared with laughter.

Later, the living legend that is Thierry Henry came out to join the rest and answer some questions as well. Sadly, all of my pictures of the great man came out blurry and unusable. 

The evening concluded with some fun games that several lucky Gooners were able to participate in - the first a basketball shooting contest, the second a keepie-up contest. I am grateful to say that I was not forced to humiliate myself in either endeavor, which would have always been the end result no matter which of those is in question!

So, it was back home for a nice lie-in before we all came back and did it again on Friday. I took the day off work, as did many others who aren't rookies at this stuff! First, it was off to the iconic Grand Central Station to check out the event held by Puma. Throughout the day, lucky kids got to play in a 3-a-side tournament inside a cage eerily reminiscent of the famous commercials from a few years ago (you know, the one with "A Little Less Conversation" playing in the background).

I watched a few games before moving on, but one moment lingers in even my goldfish memory. Albany, NY (I think?) was the only team to field a female player, and she utterly clowned everyone she was on the field with. She hit a hat trick in the game I saw, the highlight being a ridiculous dragback feint around her marker followed by a rocket shot into the net. That one earned a deserved round of applause from the spectators ringing the cage. Hey, Arsenal Ladies - sign her up already!

Directly across Vanderbilt Hall, the FA Cup made its second appearance of the weekend for those who did not have access to the IZOD Center event. The line here was healthy as well, as plenty of people were willing to brave the wait time to get a glimpse of the trophy. 

I had already gotten that done, of course, so it was just about time to leave. I was just gathering my things to go when I caught a great moment with Gunnersaurus. Our mascot was quite popular, with kids of all ages swarming him for photos. These two here were over the moon to spend a few seconds with the friendly dino. 

The beauty of this leg of the weekend is that Grand Central is exactly one stop on the 4 or 5 train from 14th Street/Union Square, the epicenter of Saturday's street-party festivities. I badly wish that I had taken more photos on the night, but you have to understand that I drank approximately Wayne Rooney's body weight in beer that evening.

My first stop was at O'Hanlon's, which was already rapidly filling up hours before the official start of the event. A bunch of the O's regulars pregamed there as Arseblogger himself arrived to set up for his book signing. I didn't get a photo with him, though.

Another regret I have of the evening is that I spent so much time catching up with friends old and new, I didn't get a chance to spend much time with the Gooners who arrived from all over the country. They were out in force though, the Boston lads parked at the table next to us. 

The relatively cozy confines of O'Hanlon's soon started bursting at the seams as Arseblogger's book signing began, so I took a walk up the block to the spiritual home of Arsenal NYC, the Blind Pig. Again, I wish I had taken some photos of the general atmosphere along the way, but it was astonishing to see 14th Street as awash with red as it was. Many took advantage of the Upper 90 truck parked across from the Pig to get their new Puma kits, myself included. I don't think they were quite prepared for the rush, as the wait was a bit long and my first choice customization of Per Mertesacker was unavailable (come on, how funny would it be for the 5'5" guy to sport the name of our Big Fucking German on his kit?), but Laurent Koscielny's # 6 is not a bad consolation prize!

As you can see, the Pig had no shortage of people within its walls either. I spent a good session with some friends who were in town from Utica, NY. But, wanderlust eventually struck and it was time to make the short trip over to The Winslow. 

Here, I ran into some Arsenal NYC OGs from the Nevada Smiths days (speaking of which, a quick sidebar - there's a lot that I do miss and perhaps more that I don't about that place, but it is special in my heart even if only for the fact that I was there for the Leicester City game when we clinched the unbeaten season...we continue). Many beers were consumed as we caught up. It's funny how people who you have that kind of bond with can immediately slip right back into old times, no matter how many months or years passed in the interim. I know that all of this isn't the only facilitator of a bond like that, but it's hard to beat it...that's for damn sure.

Some time later, I headed back to O'Hanlon's to close out the evening. A brilliant time was had by all, but I did leave a while before closing time as the next day was all about the centerpiece of the weekend - the chance to see our heroes in action against the local boys from the New York Red Bulls.

Again, hours before the fact, Gooners from far and wide converged on our bars to get into the proper spirit for the match. Knowing what was to come, I stopped off at IHOP for the big artery-clogging brekkie. Somehow, I didn't have 37 consecutive heart attacks after eating this bad boy.

From there, it was off to O'Hanlon's again for a fair few ciders and good company while we awaited our bus to the stadium. There was that one and also the bus leaving from the Blind Pig, but there were also others who marched with flags aloft and songs at full voice towards the PATH train. No matter what the form of transportation, the Red Army was representing on the way to the game. 

That said, the O's crew? We roll in style. 

Boom. That's right - a yellow school bus! We piled on in childlike glee (seriously, this may be the first recorded incidence in my life of being ecstatic to get on one of these things), and set to work on the beers provided to us by the bar. Sadly, they lasted a few nanoseconds before the stock was depleted.

I have to say, the trip over was interesting to say the least. We got caught in horrible traffic leaving Manhattan, which combined with the beers led to several people abandoning the bus in search of restrooms. However, we were crawling along at such a glacial pace that every single one was able to make it back on. Then, as we arrived in New Jersey and neared the stadium, we were forced into a bizarre circuitous route because the bridge we were going to use had an active jumper situation on it. No, really.

As that was happening, the skies opened up with a furious deluge of rain. We closed all the windows and the top vents, but in doing so someone tripped the emergency alarm. Combine that with our roundabout detour, and we were all the beneficiaries of 30-40 minutes of the most annoying sound imaginable. By the end, we were willing to admit to sinking the Lusitania if it meant that the torture would stop. Oh, and some more bathroom-seekers left the bus right before the biblical rainstorm happened. Timing is everything in life, isn't it?

Thankfully, nature's fury subsided just as we were pulling into Red Bull Arena. It's quite the visual if you've never been there - imagine aliens parking their spacecraft in the middle of a bunch of old condemned factory buildings and you begin to get the idea.

We got to our seats just as the teams were coming out, a raucous roar greeting the Arsenal as Red Bull Arena essentially became Emirates West for the day. That said, tremendous credit goes to the Red Bull faithful for this outstanding tifo:

Brilliant work, ladies and gentlemen.

That said, admittedly I don't remember too many details from the game itself. Arsenal played without a recognized striker in the first half, though some big names such as Ramsey, Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla were handed starts. The Red Bulls, in midseason form, were able to match the Gunners and then some. Actually, the best chances in the opening stanza all fell to the home side, and they managed to bury one on a corner kick for the only goal they'd need on the day. You can go ahead and insert the usual "shite marking on set pieces" rant here. 

Come halftime, my friend Rob and I got the brilliant idea to refresh our beer supply. Not bad in theory, but the problem was that half the population of New Jersey had the same notion. We missed the first 15 minutes of the second half, including the substitution of Henry (and the resulting ovation from both sets of supporters).

It would be charitable to say that all that much happened in the second half, but Arsenal were at least more threatening and finally managed to test Luis Robles in the Red Bulls' goal. Abou Diaby had a perfectly good goal ruled out by a ridiculous, idiotic decision from the linesman, and Robles did brilliantly well to repel a point-blank shot by one of our guys. Towards the end of the half though, the home team closed ranks defensively and saw out the rest of the match without too much bother.

I have seen some of the more lunatic fringe sections of our support losing their minds about the result, but I think that rather misses the point. Frankly, this was a fun little kickabout with a half youth team against an opponent in the middle of their season. This was about getting some match fitness in while giving the supporters in this hemisphere the chance to show the club some love up close and in person. That's it.

Thankfully, the trip home was less eventful than the sojourn out there, and a quick pint back at O's was a nice cap to the day. I left especially early because I had to be at my best early the next morning. The Arsenal America 5-a-Side tournament was kicking off at Chelsea Piers at 10 AM the next day, and I had every intention of keeping the trophy here in New York City with my O'Hanlon's team.

So, I dragged my ass out of bed much earlier than I would have liked, gathered my gear, and headed to the Piers for some football. O'Hanlon's had the Brazil vs. Croatia slot, opening the tournament against Boston. Now, this is all in good fun, they were a good team and a good bunch of guys. But, there was no way as a born-and-bred New Yorker that I was going to let Boston come into my house and beat us on our patch. It was a tough game, but we managed to come up with a (admittedly lucky) goal in the dying seconds on our way to a hard-fought 3-2 win.

Richmond was next, and we came into it with a lot of confidence. However, they frankly played us off the park and the 5-3 scoreline was a little flattering for us in the end. There was also a scary moment when one of their guys went in a 50-50 with me, and there was a horror collision as neither one of us were giving an inch. Thankfully, the guy ended up being OK and played the rest of their games. Anyway, we needed to sort it out, and fast. Charlotte awaited in the last group stage game, and we likely needed a win to advance.

Thankfully, the Charlotte game is where it came together for us. The excellent hold-up play of striker (and brilliant tattoo artist) Alex McWatt allowed our midfield to get more involved, and we largely controlled the game. Our southern friends were extremely physical, and man was it ever a tough one. The 2-0 scoreline you see in the picture above was the final though, and we were through. Sadly, the Blind Pig squad were handed a tough group and came up a bit short in two of their games. So, it was up to us to hold it down for the Big Apple.

Our quarterfinal assignment could not have been tougher, though. One local rival was dispatched earlier in the day, but an excellent Philadelphia squad was our next challenge. It was not only one of the best games of the tournament, but for me personally it was one of the games I've most enjoyed being a part of in recent memory. I made a few solid saves, but Philly's keeper was a wall. Despite the annoyingly high number of times where he repelled us, we still led 2-1 most of the way. Disaster struck in the last few seconds though, as a crazy deflection gave them the equalizer that they deserved, if I'm being honest. Extra time was required, but thankfully we were able to gut it out and grab the goal we needed to move on. Hats off to them, though...that was a match worthy of at least the semifinals.

Bizarrely, Richmond were the side that awaited us there. Normally you would have group stage opponents on opposite sides of the knockout bracket, but there they were all the same. We were much better this time, and most of the 12 minutes passed in a tense 0-0 stalemate. Sadly, Richmond took advantage of a backpass miscommunication and followed it 30 seconds later with a long-range tracer that I should have done a lot better on. Just like that, we were out. They would go on to win the whole thing, and you have to say that they were the best team. Still, I can't help but wonder what might have happened in extra time and/or penalties if we had held on in normal time.

There was still work to be done though, this time a cross-continental clash against a tough Fresno side in the 3rd Place game. The Californians had impressed along the way, not least with their 9-1 demolition of the Canadian team. The boys (and girl - we were one of only two teams to field a female player, the Blind Pig side being the other) in red were determined to end up on the podium though, and we raced out to a quick 2-0 lead. They got one back before halftime, but we hit back soon after the break. The referee gifted them one with a bizarre foul call on what was definitely not a backpass, which they scored on. We recovered from that though and closed out the game in true Italian catenaccio style.  Third place was done and dusted, not a bad outcome at all given the quality of the other teams in the tournament.

Exhausted but happy with an honest day's work, I headed home. I could not imagine a better ending to a perfect long weekend of Arsenal-themed awesomeness (other than winning the tournament, but a smart man once wrote a song about how you can't always get what you want).

The season is just a few short weeks away. We have Alexis Sanchez. There may be more to come (I'm holding off on the season preview as long as I can in the hope of another signing or two). You excited?

I sure as hell am. COYG.