Football and I aren't really friends. I don't hate it, I've just never really got it: I'd rather be doing other things. So until a week ago, I'd never been inside a football stadium. Then I got to go on a tour of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and I very nearly became a fan.
Emirates Stadium at dusk. Credit: Ed g2s
The place is a massive monument to loyalty and sport. The pride is palpable, everywhere you turn is a nugget of information, a fact, statistic that reinforces Arsenal's position as one of the greatest football teams ever. As you cross the forecourt to the shop, thousands of tiny plaques record the fans undying devotion: imagine having to walk across it as an away team fan. The psychology of the beautiful game operates off the pitch as well as on. Inside the shop, models of the team stand to pre-game, National-Anthem attention in the smart, undoubtedly expensive, new season strip. There is something here for every purse from a striker's salary to pocket money. i
Inside the stadium, the tour takes you to the director's box, nice comfy seats and a restaurant, the away team's changing room - small and clean but unremarkable, past the Community Shield, to the home team's luxury accommodation a palace of showers and hot tubs, pampering and physical perfection. I couldn't help thinking of big glossy racehorses as I stared at the jerseys hanging in the locker room: Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, Tony Adams, Alexis Sanchez. I leanred Arsene Wenger speaks six languages: French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.
Back out in the tunnel lined with a montage of crowds and giant cutouts of the team, I faced the (empty) stadium and, like a million schoolkids before me, imagined running onto the pitch to the cheers of the fans. A buzz, I reckon, that might be worth even more than a footballer's weekly wage.
The tour winds on along the through the press conference room, the press room, the TV studios and back through the carpark (they need to do something about their drains), and on to the small but beautifully-formed museum. Here you can learn about Arsenal's glorious past. There are videos, and score cards, tickets and programmes, Michael Thomas' boots from Anfield '89, Charlie George's FA Cup Final shirt from 1971. And a machine that will press a pound or a penny into a souvenir medal.
Combine all this if you can with a visit to the old Highgate Stadium, a five minute walk away. It's teeny tiny. Even in its day it was famous as one of the smallest pitches in the professional game. But it's intimate and atmospheric, too, even though it's been turned into flats and the pitch is a fenced off garden where well-to-do residents walk their dogs.
What Arsenal's done is impressive. There's no other word for it. The club may not have made a fan of me, but it gave a glimpse of the beautiful game I'd never seen before. And I was well impressed.
Arsenal tours are £20 for adults, £10 for children under 16. The museum costs £7 (or £4 if included as part of the tour). Discounts and concessions available. For details and opening hours go to arsenal.com