The Ritual - Arsenal

The next chapter of my ongoing photo essay for VICE, ‘The Ritual’, sees me travelling north of the river and spending the day with Arsenal fans as they show me around some of their favourite match day rituals. 

From legendary pie shops and threadbare pubs to the ArsenalFanTV stadium huddle, these spots are what match day at the Emirates is all about.

He can’t be sure, but Paul Campbell thinks his family may hold a club record. 

Standing outside Piebury Corner, the Arsenal-themed pie shop he owns on the Holloway Road, he scrolls through his Twitter feed and finds a picture of his son Spencer in attendance at Highbury, aged nine weeks and two days old. Though football clubs don’t keep records of the tiniest babies to have come through the turnstiles, that could well make Spencer the youngest person to attend an Arsenal match. At 18, Spencer can now be found behind the counter selling steaming pies with names like “the Thierry Henry”, “the Tony Adams” and “the Vieiragetarian”.

Piebury Corner has become a pilgrimage site for many Arsenal fans. Originally, Paul sold pies from a stall in his front garden on Gillespie Road, right on the corner of Arsenal’s old ground, Highbury.

“Me and my wife were really keen festival-goers, and we were really impressed with the food on offer at festivals, which was ten times better than anything you could get at a football stadium,” he says. “Football fans were stuck with soya burgers and horse burgers.” So, solidly pissed at 5AM on the Bestival campsite, they came up with a plan. “I said to my mates: ‘I’ve got thousands of fans walking past me every match day, I’m going to sell pies because they’re synonymous with football.’”

From there, Piebury Corner has gone from a makeshift stall with a cult following to a match day ritual for many. On the site of an old pie-and-mash shop dating back to the First World War, a queue snakes out onto the street before kick-off. “We get Arsenal fans and away fans who come from all over the world and want to start their day here,” says Paul. “It’s a ritual, but it’s also a superstition… a lot of fans come and they have to have the same pie, or we’re gonna get beat. If they get here a bit late and we’re sold out, their jaw drops.”

If Piebury Corner has become iconic for Arsenal fans, then so too is the Holloway Road itself. Whether for inner-city fans walking down from Islington, or those streaming down from Archway and the club’s suburban heartlands, past the chaotic carpet shops and knackered old Irish pubs, breathing in the kebab grease and exhaust fumes. Heading to the ground from the direction of Holloway also gives fans a chance to sink a pint at El Comandante, a pub formerly called the Lord Palmerston but now widely known as the Che.

Arsenal and the world’s most famous Marxist guerrilla may seem like a strange combination – the Che is definitely one of the most unique pubs in the area – but given that there’s always been a tension at the heart of the club between tradition and revolution, maybe it’s fitting. “It’s definitely an interesting one,” laughs Andrew Allen, Che regular and deputy editor of Arseblog News.

A few hundred yards down the road from the Che is the Tollington, another focal point on match day, and a favourite of the long-standing community of Arsenal bloggers. Many of them have been writing about the club for well over a decade, though Andrew mentions they recently lost one of their number in David Faber, the Goonerholic. “There have always been this old guard who are quite happy to welcome everybody into the fold whenever you go down there,” he adds. “It’s almost become a tourist destination now. People from all over the world are like: ‘I want to go to the Tollington for a pint.’ It’s surreal, because really it’s just a normal pub.”

With his dad holding a season ticket since the 70s, and his mum starting to go regularly around the time the Emirates opened in 2006, Arsenal runs in Andrew’s family. There have been subtle changes since the club shifted half a mile down the road from Highbury, though as stadium moves go – in terms of disruption to match day rituals, at least – Arsenal’s has been one of the less traumatic.

Where once they might have got their pre-match chips at the Golden Fish Bar – a legendary establishment on Gillespie Road, not far from the original Piebury Corner – they’ll now get them on the Holloway Road as they walk to the ground. It’s a small detail, all things considered, but it’s still a form of family bonding. “It was never a choice [supporting Arsenal],” says Andrew. “It’s like a glue, really. No matter how disparate the family is, it’s the same old story.”

The move to the Emirates has certainly made the club more global, which was part of the business rationale in the first place. “Maybe it’s not quite the small, intimate thing that it used to be, but it’s nice to welcome people from around the world to the club,” says Andrew. “It’s a big family, in that sense.”

On the other side of the ground – on the Blackstock Road, heading out of Finsbury Park – stands an old pub called the Bank of Friendship. During the early 90s, in the George Graham era, when the Arsenal squad had a notorious drinking culture, it was a regular haunt for players as well as fans. Tim Stillman, another Arsenal blogger and regular contributor to Arseblog, has been drinking here with mates since he was 18. He comes for the worn-out carpet, the upholstered seats and the rare feeling of being somewhere that has escaped London’s endless commercialisation. “Plus, there’s very little natural light, which is what I look for in a pub,” he laughs.

Walking down to the Emirates, Tim passes what used to be Highbury but is now a sprawling complex of luxury flats. The Art Deco facade of the old East Stand has been preserved and serves as a striking reminder of what went before. As for his match day ritual, however, not much has changed. “That was the beauty of the move,” he says. “The area has [changed], but I don’t think that is so much down to the stadium move as the area becoming more gentrified anyway.”

If anything, the biggest disruption to match day rituals in recent times has been Arsenal’s slow drift into the Europa League and the variable Thursday-Sunday schedule that comes with it.

“It’s more difficult now, because the games aren’t at regular times,” says Tim. “We’re playing a lot more on weeknights, Monday nights… something I do more often now is just go straight to the game.” Match day rituals inevitably change as fans get older, too. “Part of that is just down to age. I’m in my mid-thirties now,” says Tim. “I was in my early twenties when we left Highbury, so it’s probably a life change as much as anything else. I don’t really fancy getting drunk on a Sunday anymore.”

For many fans, the ground itself is the inspiration for rituals and superstitions. Richard Stubbs, who’s had an Arsenal season ticket since the 60s, always makes sure to walk completely round the ground before kick-off. Depicted on the outside of the Emirates, facing inwards, are 32 Arsenal icons locked in a symbolic embrace with the stadium. Arm-in-arm with Patrick Vieira is Reg Lewis, hero of the 1950 FA Cup final and, as it happens, Richard’s stepfather. 

“It’s really weird for me, because Reg is one of the legends,” he says. “The strange thing is, where I’m seated is literally where Reg is. It’s spooky in a way… I see him before the game, I see him after the game and I always have a little look up at him and say: ‘We were crap today,’ ‘We were good today,’ or, ‘We could have done with you scoring a couple of goals.’”

Uslan Cevet, meanwhile, remembers queuing round Highbury in the early hours as a kid, waiting to get tickets on general sale. “You didn’t have to worry about getting tickets – we didn’t ever worry,” he says. Now, as a season ticket holder, the hour before a match is often spent catching up with the people who sit in his block at the Emirates. “They’re friends – not in the sense that you know them through life, but because they sit around you at a football ground. We have different jobs, we come from different parts of the country, we have different interests, but we are all linked by watching football. It’s a leveller.” Sometimes he’ll even see familiar faces: “When we moved here, I’d still see some of the old crew I’d queue up with at five in the morning at Highbury.”

For a significant number of fans, not least those directly involved with the channel, the first stop on match day is the ArsenalFanTV huddle. While ArsenalFanTV divides opinion, they pioneered the apoplectic vox-pop long before ITV reporters had started going on Brexit safari to chronically neglected regional towns and, as such, they have to be classed as visionaries. 

“I like giving my views on the game, even if sometimes I do go a bit over-the-top,” laughs Claudio Callegari, one of the most recognisable faces from the channel and the man affectionately nicknamed Gooner Claude. There’s also another side to ArsenalFanTV not often seen from the outside: “I’ve met a lot of people through the channel, a lot of friends. I went through a really bad time a few years ago with depression, and they were very supportive.”

“We’re doing something which is appreciated by most fans, though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” says Lumos, a presenter and one of the producers on the channel. It’s hard to deny the dedication of those who, rain or shine, turn up hours before the game and hang around for hours afterwards to interview supporters, with their vox-pops a spectator sport and match day ritual in themselves for those who come to watch. “It’s great when we win… when we lose and we’re out in the cold, then it really feels like work.”

These are the two faces of Arsenal: the side that people see from the outside, the fanbase that has a reputation for being extremely logged on and relentlessly online, and the quiet side, the understated side, which is grounded in pie shops and pubs with threadbare carpets. In the end, maybe it goes back to the tension between revolution and tradition. There are different ways to be an Arsenal fan, but both sides have their rituals all the same.

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