BY WILL MAGEE
Late last week, I decided on a whim that I absolutely had to watch the FA Cup final in a live and social setting. Whether it was that â€œthe magic of the cupâ€ clichÃ©s had got into my head or whether it was that my crushing fear of loneliness compelled me, I suddenly became determined to watch Arsenal play Aston Villa with a load of other, proper humans in a location beyond my living room. The final is, after all, a collective moment, a once-a-year event and a contest which always guarantees to make grown men and women quiver with great, wracking sobs of sheer joy â€“ or profound loss, but thatâ€™s always fun to watch too. It felt remiss to miss out on the spectacle. I was going to make a day of it.
I couldnâ€™t attend the event itself of course; I really, really donâ€™t like Wembley Stadium and, more importantly, it was officially sold out. Even had I been willing to venture within Wembleyâ€™s lifeless corridors, it wouldnâ€™t have taken much investigation to realise that an unofficial ticket to the match might have been really quite expensive. I needed another option. I quickly found one.
I was informed by Arsenalâ€™s official Twitter account that the club was offering a live screening of the Wembley action from the Emirates; tickets to this cost Â£5 only. Admittedly, the thought of watching footage on a giant screen within the Emiratesâ€™ vast and part-empty carapace was initially quite unsettling, mildly evocative of a mass brainwashing in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic super-state of the future. Plus there was a strong chance that it could lead to me being trapped in an endless vortex. I mean, all it would take would be for one person at Wembley to be watching the Emirates live screening on a tablet and weâ€™d all be stuck within a mise en abÃ®me â€“ an infinitely recurring set of images within images, cup finals within cup finals, Wembleys within Emirates within Wembleys. Thatâ€™s not my idea of fun to be honest. Even so, I eventually got over my misgivings and bought myself a print-it-yourself admission slip. I was taking that chance.
Matchday arrived and, as I trotted down the Holloway Road and along the side streets to the ground, I was promptly struck by something other than my deep fear of vortexes. The atmosphere around the ground was, well, really great. It was cup final day in North London, of course; with crusty Irish pubs and trendy glass-fronted bars spilling out all the way from Archway to deepest Islington, the feverish mood was clearly not entirely down to people heading to the live screening. Nonetheless, the stadium crowds were remarkably lively. As on a proper matchday, I soon found myself in a steady slipstream of fans in club colours. As on a proper matchday, by the time Iâ€™d got to the stadium steps, there was an absolute clamour of chanting and shouting around me. This was all prior to us communally watching a big television. It was brilliant, but it also felt a bit weird.
It was positively febrile inside the ground. At roughly half its 60,272 capacity, the Emirates was at least as noisy as usual; fans clustered together by the bars to belt out the tunes about Santi Cazorla, yellow ribbons and their unifying hatred of Tottenham Hotspur before everyone moved out to the seats with their beers. Gathered in front of the four enormous TVs facing the respective stands, four standing walls of away-strip support cheered on the players as they emerged from the Wembley tunnel. Nine miles away. Again, this was brilliant â€“ and weird.
A football pitch broadcast from a football pitch. What does it all mean?
For the duration of the game itself, I couldnâ€™t help but think about how self-referential it all was. Fans roared their team on at Wembley and, with a split-second broadcasting delay, fans at the Emirates were compelled to roar at a massive telly. The Wembley spectators chanted â€˜Theo! Theo!â€™ as Theo Walcott ran the Villa defence ragged and, moments later, their Emirates counterparts cried the same â€“ but only at a digital image of Theo. At one point, Prince William â€“ an avowed Villa fan â€“ appeared on the screen, only to be met with loud boos from the Emirates and a mixed assortment of rude hand gestures. But Prince William wasnâ€™t at the Emirates. He couldnâ€™t hear the boos, or see the gesticulations. Really, his antagonists were motioning contentedly into the void â€“ waving at an uncaring monitor. Altogether, it was as if somebody had distilled every odd aspect of a day out at football â€“ shouting at people, singing with strangers, arbitrary swearing et cetera â€“ but removed the football itself. All that was left was the compulsion to play the customary day out, each supporter somehow self-aware. Still, everybody seemed to be having a good time. Maybe I was overthinking it.
The game itself couldnâ€™t have pleased the live screeners more; Arsenal outclassed Villa from the first moment to the last, essentially winning the cup by the fifty-first minute when Alexis Sanchezâ€™s wonder strike left Shay Given looking like Private Joker at the end of Full Metal Jacket. Come time added on, the strange experience then became sublime. Whoever was in charge of stewarding for the day had clearly underestimated just how much fans love a pitch invasion, players on the pitch or not. As Olivier Giroud stroked home Arsenalâ€™s fourth and final goal, the immaculate Emirates turf was flooded with supporters. Red smoke bombs went off. Beer went flying. People clambered up the screens, much to the stadium announcerâ€™s impotent ire. This was actually one of the best things Iâ€™d ever seen at a Premier League football ground, and there wasnâ€™t even any football being played there. It was all down to some televisions. It was legitimately great.
The pitch invasion, set to the background of a stadium within a stadium.
At the finish, as I left the ground with the crowds, passing the statue of Tony Adams, his outstretched arms draped with shirts and scarves, I realised that it was also sort of sad. It wasnâ€™t the chanting at screens or the oddness of it all that saddened me; those peculiarities only added to my enjoyment of the whole bizarre occurrence. The sad thing was that the live screeners were not your usual match-going fans.
A lone steward watches on as his world falls apart.
The cheapest adult ticket to the FA Cup Final cost Â£50; thatâ€™s not including parking, food or incredibly expensive drink once there â€“ the day itself might cost twice that. Likewise, an individual adult ticket to watch Arsenal host Villa in the Premier League would set a spectator back Â£37.50 at the very least. Both are painfully pricey, and only more so if someone wants to take their family. By contrast, Â£5 for a live screening was totally affordable. The ground was consequently filled with a proper mix of committed fans, loads of youth supporters included â€“ if there was a more-than-everyday atmosphere for a mere screening, that might have been because itâ€™s not every day that top-flight fans get to watch live football at such a modest price.
This doubtlessly left the live screeners with a bit more cash to get a round of drinks, get a Rollover hot dog and be entertained without the resentment of seeing an average dayâ€™s wages disappear on a single football match. As an added bonus, with the seating unallocated, people seemed to be watching the match in large groups of friends and family. This did wonders for the atmosphere. It felt like a real throwback to community football â€“ or a real parallel to other countries, countries where the footballing authorities prioritise affordable tickets, cheap refreshments and unallocated areas to great acclaim.
I was pleasantly surprised by my weird and wonderful experience of the FA Cup Final, while also very relieved that I departed the ground without my fears of a recurring football vortex being realised. At the same time, the experience was tinged with a slight melancholy; regret, perhaps, that the same collective enjoyment is rarely realised in front of an actual top-tier game in this country â€“ regret that it couldnâ€™t be more like this every matchday, every week.
YOU CAN FOLLOW WILL ON TWITTER @W_F_Magee