THERE’S a certain irony that on the same weekend Liverpool take on Arsenal at Anfield, one plan for an extension of the famous old ground is hopefully abandoned for another.
Arsenal, of course, ditched their traditional home of 93 years – Highbury – for the all-singing, all-dancing Emirates Stadium in 2006.
With its circles of hospitality spiralling towards eye-boggling investment at the very centre, it was the state-of-the-art cash cow that would be milked to the max to keep The Gunners firing at the very top level.
Only it hasn’t really turned out that way.
Instead, with some paying the highest face-value ticket price in the land, Arsenal fans have been served something far from their aspirations in recent years. Three FA Cups since the move from Highbury has not sated their appetite for success.
Now into a third year of Europa League participation, after 19 consecutive years playing in the Champions League, supporters were so dismayed that just a few short weeks ago 16 supporter-group representatives signed an open letter to the owners.
It included a section that read: “On a matchday the Emirates Stadium can be a soulless place. The atmosphere is poor and there are thousands of empty seats blighting almost every game.
“If Arsenal really cared they would make sure seats weren’t left empty by investing in an improved ticketing system and actively supporting initiatives like safe standing. The club uses the strapline ‘Always ahead of the game’. It would be good to see action to demonstrate this.”
There has been only full season played since Arsene Wenger left after 22 years in charge. But you wonder what he would have made of the scattergun signings of the summer, which, despite the claims to the contrary, look very much like the work of a club board desperate to impress frustrated fans.
Arsenal director Josh Kroenke tried to spin things as a “rethink” that was sparked by Arsenal’s collapse in the Europa League final with Chelsea.
“As the second half of the match unfolded, understanding the position we were in and some of the targets as we headed into the summer from a transfer standpoint, we had to rethink some of our strategy based on that last 45 minutes,” he said.
It doesn’t seem the best strategy.
Any big game like tomorrow’s at Anfield brings with it an inevitable glance over the fence at the opponent’s grass. It’s human nature. And that look at Arsenal right now brings to mind the ill-advised soundbite from the one-time chief executive of Liverpool FC, Ian Ayre.
Three years ago, as supporters geared up to make history by walking out of Anfield for the first time in the lifetime of the club, Ayre came out swinging regarding the protest at the prospect of £77 tickets.
“People should be careful what they wish for,” said Ayre.
It was the wrong statement at the wrong time, a dismissive-sounding swat away of supporters’ concerns.
Yet those same words – if they were uttered in the context of present day Liverpool v present day Arsenal – wouldn’t look quite so inflammatory.
Liverpool now – whatever happens regarding the Anfield Road – are here to stay; on the original site, at the original ground. Yes, the old place needs to be bigger. Hopefully it will soon be. But Liverpool’s 41 Premier League game unbeaten run in front of The Kop, dating back almost two-and-a-half years, is no coincidence.
Stands have evolved, things have changed. But it still feels like ours.
Romance almost lost to business when plans were drawn up, several times, to leave Liverpool’s home since 1892. It was progress, it was sense, it was what was needed to allow the club to kick on. And yet, look at those who have made the same journey, including Arsenal.
The Reds stayed. And now, whatever your vintage as a match-going Liverpool fan, you can view the Anfield pitch and pinpoint where a moment of magic happened. Whether it was Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes or Steven Gerrard, you can allow yourself a moment of retrospective joy before snapping back to the present.
That colour, that magic, that soul just doesn’t exist in the surrounds of The Emirates or The Etihad, it just doesn’t.
Get an Arsenal fan to take you to what remains of Highbury and while you’ll enjoy the memories and marvel at what lives on of the art deco stands, coming to a residents-only garden where the pitch once was doesn’t quite cut it. There’s a sadness there. It’s still worth it, though, to try to work out just where Steve Nicol scored *that* header from.
Anfield, meanwhile, still feels like home, still feels like ours. Yes, it’s changed. But Flagpole Corner, The Kop, The Shankly Gates – even the pubs, the roads, the route to the match. They all make it feel right.
As Wenger said of Highbury: “It’s a cathedral, a church. You could smell the soul of every guy that played there. So it was special. It will always be special for me.”
The same can’t be said of the ground they moved to, no matter how hard they try to make it so.
The story surrounding the future of Anfield Road will rumble on. There are infrastructure issues to tackle, questions of ambition to answer, the cold hard reality of cash in and out to face up to, not to mention simply making the ground more accessible to the fans left on the outside.
But whatever happens, it will still be Anfield. And given what’s unfolded at Arsenal, that’s something to be thankful of.
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We’re doing a live show in @OnAirLiverpool this Saturday before the Arsenal game 🍻
🎫 Make sure you get your tickets before they sell out 👉 https://t.co/kjlmgCNz6k
Here’s what happened after the last one… 🎶 pic.twitter.com/mOjlq46Wy7
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) August 22, 2019