‘Brilliant’ Afternoon at Emirates Stadium

How do you describe a perfect afternoon? “Brilliant,” was all Declan said when asked to describe our experience Sunday at the Emirates Stadium watching The Arsenal take on Manchester City. Billed as one of the top matches of the year, Manchester City continues to play good football, while our beloved Arsenal has stumbled of late, dropping four of their last five matches and dropping out of the top four in the English Premier League.

We got there nearly two hours before kickoff, to take in the atmosphere both inside and outside the stadium. The stadium is in a residential neighborhood you walk through from the Arsenal tube stop. Vendors of all sorts lined the street selling merchandise, sweets and street food such as hot dogs, hamburgers and BBQ. It looked tasty, although we’d already eaten. Declan bought a scarf commemorating the match that was half blue and half red.

Friends in the right places

We had club level tickets, thanks to my Arsenal friend Jan, who I met in San Antonio in the fall. She was with a group of UK and Irish people on a week-long tour of Texas. We kept in touch, and she offered us her tickets for this match because she was spending the Easter holiday in the States.

That’s the beauty of football. Even with people who support teams other than ours, a team jersey can create a common bond and spark a lively discussion. The cabbie who brought us home last night was a Liverpool man and repeatedly tried to get Declan to convert during the trip. There’s no chance of that, however.

Our tickets were fantastic, just beyond one of the goals. The grass glowed in the afternoon sunshine, razor sharp criss-crosses where the grass was mowed in different directions. We watched officials check the goal line technology of the balls before retreating to the club lounge to watch TV and watch the fans make their way toward the stadium.

We returned for warmups, with Arsenal right below us and Man City in the distance. The practiced fans know when to show up, because half empty turned into nearly full during the last 10 minutes before kickoff.

Header past the goalkeeper

Although the Gunners fell behind a goal early, they clawed an equalizer as halftime neared, only to concede a second goal right before the interval. Fortunately, the home team scored the tying goal in the 53rd minute, a smart header by Mustafi that snuck past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper. That moment, and the ensuing celebration, was Declan’s favorite part of the match, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

The entire match was intense, with the head official waving five yellow cards (and he could have waved more). In person, you can much better see the flow of the game as momentum shifts from one side to another. From our vantage point at one end, you could see plays develop much better than you can see on TV, the ball quickly moving from player to player.

Following the match, it was back to the club lounge to watch the crush of fans flow over the bridge back to the tube station and watch pundits discuss the match on TV. Although we waited 30 minutes after the match ended to start home, there remained a decent crowd at the tube station, but we were quickly on our way.

Our thanks again to Jan for the great tickets and to the stewards and club staff who made our visit so enjoyable. It was a perfect afternoon, indeed.

Conferences, Book Launches and Pilgrimages, Oh My

Marilynn left for the states this morning, Kansas City to be precise, for the American Conference for Irish Studies. Which leaves Declan and me on our own until Monday. Heh, heh, heh.

She is a plenary speaker for the conference, which is academic-speak for Really Big Deal. Business folks would be more familiar with the term keynote speaker, and the rest of us would have no clue.

Academic conferences are full of panel discussions and similar papers on a theme because institutions are more likely to reimburse a professor attending the conference if she is giving a paper. That means there are usually several tracks running at the same time, cutting the audience size for each panel. So a plenary is a single-track talk, with an undivided audience in attendance.

Despite being an excellent speaker, Marilynn was nervous about this, which underscores the Really Big Deal aspect. But I know she will knock it out of the park, like she always does.

Book launch events coming up

Marilynn edited an uncompleted but still powerful novel that her playwright Stewart Parker wrote about the amputation of his left leg when he was a 19-year-old student at Queen’s University Belfast. He sketched out the story a few years later, in a style reminiscent of James Joyce (but the readable James Joyce).

Stewart would pull out “Hopdance” during times of personal turmoil, tweaking the dialog, reordering scenes and writing new ones. He returned to it a final time in the months preceding his death from cancer in 1988 but never completed it. Marilynn took his original manuscript, much of it hand-written, typed it up and then went through it with a graduate assistant word-for-word at least twice, standardizing the spelling and punctuation while retaining Stewart’s writing quirks whenever possible.

It’s a labor of love and a great read. I’ve read it twice and look forward to hearing what the critics and the reading public think.

But it also means book launches in Belfast and Derry, either in late April or early May. Details aren’t final, but Marilynn, her agent and publisher hope to attract some high-powered help in launching the book in both cities. Fingers crossed that they succeed, but it’ll be a blast in any event.

Worshipping at the Emirates

So what will the boys be up to while Marilynn’s at her conference? By a happy coincidence, we’ll be in London this weekend, seeing our first competitive English Premier League match, our beloved Arsenal vs. Manchester City (boo hiss!).

Declan became an Arsenal fan in 2013 for reasons he still can’t articulate. But I got dragged into it, too, and became a fan of “real” football. This is one of the top matches of the year, and we were very lucky to score tickets from an Arsenal season ticket holder I met in the strangest of places.

But that’s a story for another day, which will be next week.

About the photo: We toured the “glorious” Emirates Stadium in 2014 while Marilynn was giving a talk in London. The certificates we received after the tour touted the stadium as “glorious,” and it stuck.