Diary of an American Gooner in Baltimore

Look, I’ll be honest. I took the curves on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at a few miles per hour more than I probably should have. But I was ecstatic. I was finally going to see the Arsenal in person again. It had been quite some time.

My last trip to the Emirates was in 2018. Unfortunately, it was the week before the 2018/19 Premier League season started, so there were no matches to attend. But at the time I had an eight-hour layover in London and some contemplation about personal matters to do, so I figured a pilgrimage to Ashburton Grove was in order. I took the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow Airport into London, got an iced latte at Little Wonder Cafe, and read a novel in the shadow of the Emirates.

The last time I saw the Arsenal play in person was at that stadium just under a decade prior to that. Arsenal hosted Liverpool in a 1-1 draw. I was a teenager at the time, visiting London with my family for the holidays. As a treat for myself and my Liverpool-supporting brother, my father vowed to take us to the clash of our favorite clubs. But of course, he waited too long to purchase tickets and had to scalp them for a grand from a shady Eastern European man. He required us to meet him at the cannons in front of the Emirates just before the match and he freaked out when my dad brandished the cash for everyone to see, but we got our tickets. 

And despite the seats not being great, I got what I wanted. I watched Arséne Wenger pace within his technical area. I saw Robin van Persie slot home a superb strike. I also witnessed Cesc Fabregas leaving the match injured, Emmanuel Adebayor receiving a red card, and Robbie Keane scoring an equalizer, unfortunately. But I got to see Arsenal, The Arsenal, in person.

So that’s why my car rocketed up the interstate on Saturday. My weekend had worked out so that I could only be in Baltimore for a few hours, but I was not going to pass up an opportunity to cheer on my club when they were so close by. And of course, I brought my brother along so he could laugh at Everton.

We arrived at M&T Bank Stadium a couple hours before the game was scheduled to start. As I climbed out of the car, I looked around and observed a sight for sore eyes. There were Arsenal fans everywhere. Gooners were milling about around the stadium, tailgating in the parking lot, and flooding in from the surrounding streets of Baltimore. It had been a long time since I’d been among so many other supporters.

I suddenly realized that in all my excitement I hadn’t eaten in hours, and we popped off for a bite. On the way, we passed by a tailgate put on by Gooners. Across the street from the stadium, perhaps a couple dozen of them sipped out of solo cups while a man in an Arsenal jersey stood busy in front of a grill. A tempting scent of burger patties frying wafted through the air. As a trio in Everton shirts passed by, one of the barbecuers lifted a microphone to his lips and asked, “How confident are we feeling today, Everton fans?”

We chose a sandwich shop a few blocks from the stadium for our meal, where I tucked into a steak sandwich. But before I got finished with my meal, sirens started wailing. Cops on motorcycles thundered by on the street we looked out on. One stopped in the intersection directly in front of us and held off oncoming traffic.

I used to live along the route the Vice President takes from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building back to the Naval Observatory, where their residence is. So I knew what was happening — someone important was coming this way. I shoved the last two bites’ worth of my sub in my mouth and sprinted outside. Sure enough, two charter buses steadily approached. I fumbled through my pocket and pulled out my phone just in time to film them as they cruised toward the stadium. I’m still not 100% sure those buses contained the Arsenal first team and staff, but I figure the odds they did are pretty good.

My brother and I headed back toward the stadium. We eventually proceeded through the metal detectors and ticket scanning stations, and made our way to our seats. And then I sat there for a second and took it all in.

I had made sure to purchase tickets for one of the designated Arsenal supporter sections. As promised by Ticketmaster, I looked out over a sea of Arsenal shirts. Obviously, there were attendees wearing the new home kit. I also spotted a couple people sporting the away kit that would be officially released in a few days’ time. I could have sworn I even saw someone show up on the Jumbotron in the third kit for the 22/23 season.

But there were also shirts spanning the last few decades. There were several of the bruised banana away kits from the 20/21 season. A man showed up in the purple hoop away kit from the 13/14 season. I laid eyes on a home kit that displayed JVC as the shirt sponsor. I even saw the maroon home kit that marked Arsenal’s final season at Highbury. From Saka and Martinelli to Cazorla and Özil to Ramsey and Walcott to Henry and Bergkamp, every era since the turn of the century — and perhaps a couple before as well — felt represented by the names I saw on others’ backs at M&T Bank Stadium.

Interestingly enough, there were more supporters of non-Arsenal clubs in attendance than just my brother. Throughout the match, I observed a few Chelsea shirts and even more United ones. Shortly before the match started, a couple donning Spurs kits sheepishly took their seats in the section next to ours (also a designated Arsenal supporters’ section). This in particular resulted in some quizzical looks among Gooners in the vicinity. It seemed others among the top six were also interested to see how the Gunners would fare against Everton.

About 45 minutes before kickoff, Arsenal gave us something to watch. Matt Turner, Arthur Okonkwo, Runar Alex Runarsson, and some of the coaching staff jogged into the pitch and started their warmups. Turner received an especially large ovation from the crowd, comprised mostly of his compatriots. Turner and Okonkwo made some standard saves for the next several minutes. Runarsson looked alright as well, although the coach he was warming up with did him no favors when they blasted the ball past the Icelandic keeper into the far top corner.

A quarter of an hour after the goalkeepers arrived, the rest of the squad came out to warm up as well. Cheers and applause greeted them. That was the first time that night I was truly starstruck. There they all were: Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Hector Bellerín, and so many others I’ve spent the last two years writing and podcasting about. There they were, maybe a hundred feet away, kicking about in front of me.

One player I was particularly excited to watch was William Saliba. For years, I had fervently hoped he would emerge from a necessary purgatory of loans to be part of the Arsenal first team. I was in the trenches during all the online speculation of a falling out with Arteta. To see him warming up with a group of full-strength starters felt immensely reassuring. 

Of course, Everton were also running preparatory drills on their side of the pitch. Their players had been introduced by the club’s theme as they came out for warmups, which continued to blare for what felt like ages after the squad had entered the field. With every minute of the corny, old-timey theme that passed, my brother’s grimace grew more and more pained.

Soon it was time for the match to start. The Gunners re-emerged in the new home kit as Louis Dunford’s “The Angel (North London Forever)” played around the ground, and were met with even louder cheers and applause than their first entrance had. By this point, much of the stadium had filled up. A quick scan of the arena told me that Arsenal fans greatly outnumbered those of Everton’s. Accordingly, the boos easily drowned out the support when the Toffees stepped out onto the field.

As the players lined up on the pitch an announcer very unfamiliar with the teams, and perhaps even with the sport, began reading out their names. Turner, Saliba, and “Bouquet-o” Saka received probably the most enthusiastic hurrahs. At one point the announcer said “Gabe real, hey Zeus” but I don’t quite know what he was on about. That too was met with a significant roar of approval. The announcement of Dele Alli’s name, of course, resulted in the most raucous chorus of boos yet.

After a rather dramatic performance of the American national anthem, complete with fireworks and a four-fighter-jet flyover, the match finally started. After Cedric, Saliba was probably the player situated closest to me during the first half. The former exuded a composure beyond his years, always dropping back slightly to be available for a pass whenever Gabriel had the ball. In possession, he was calm even under pressure. Defensively, he kept Dominic Calvert-Lewin quiet all night, handling a one-on-one early in the match with aplomb. It looked like had been at Arsenal for years.

Elsewhere, Partey pulled the strings in midfield superbly. Saka was vibrant as usual and just as is the case in Europe, the excitement in the stands was palpable whenever he received the ball in the final third. However, Gabriel Jesus quickly established himself as the star of the show. He put on a clinic in world-class pressing, intercepting a pass between a couple Everton defenders and giving Jordan Pickford a scare with a shot on target. The stadium erupted when he blasted in a goal at the far post off a corner kick to make it 1-0. When he assisted Saka for the second, the celebrations were even louder.

I had searched the warmups for Mikel Arteta and was unable to identify him. But just before the match, I easily laid eyes on him strolling toward his technical area. Even from a couple hundred feet away, an unmistakable aura emanated from him. It once again struck me how amazing it was that I was in the same building as him and the rest of the first team staff. Throughout the match I glanced over at him pensively standing on the touchline, undoubtedly analyzing the performance in front of him.

From kickoff, the atmosphere was class. The fans sung all the classic chants: “Arsenal, Arsenal”; “We Love You Arsenal”; “By Far the Greatest Team”; and “Ooh to be a Gooner” all rang out through M&T Bank Stadium like you’d hear at the Emirates. After the Gunners’ second, “Saka and Emile Smith Rowe” echoed through the crowd. “Are You Tottenham in Disguise?” even could be heard when Everton looked incapable of mustering a response. A handful of players, including Eddie Nketiah, warmed up at our end of the pitch. As Nketiah’s drills took him closer to our corner, the crowd started chanting, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” at full volume until he coolly smiled and put up a hand in acknowledgement.

Between singing as many songs as I knew, booing on the many occasions an Everton player viciously slid in, and celebrating the goals, my voice was hoarse by halftime. I ran off to grab a soda at a nearby concessions stand. After several minutes of waiting, I found myself in discussion with a Gooner from Columbus, Ohio who stood in the line next to me. We were neck-and-neck in our progress to the counter, so we agreed that whoever reached their respective cashier first would order for themselves and the other as well. Funnily enough, he and I both reached the finish line at about the same time and forwent our wager.

The second half brought less excitement than the first did. With a two-goal advantage in hand, many of the starters did not return after the interval. Instead, Arteta made six changes, including bringing on Nketiah, Mohamed Elneny, and Nicolas Pepe. The match lost a lot of the competitive edge, with Everton looking better but ultimately failing to really trouble the Gunners. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the second half was seeing Reuell Walters deployed at left-back, where he put in an impressive shift.

With the game likely decided, a small swath of fans decided to exit early. I couldn’t blame them, I expected the rush out of the parking lot to be messy. But we decided to make our way down to a lower section of the stadium to get closer to the action in the final minutes. We arrived just in time to see a skirmish between Sambi Lokonga and an Everton player after the latter had made yet another poor tackle. I looked on as Gabriel, Rob Holding, Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and others all arrived on the scene, mere feet away from me. As they broke up the confrontation and steered their teammate away from trouble, we booed Everton from close by.

It’s one thing to see them on TV or from the upper sections of the stands. But seeing Arsenal footballers up close in real life like this was riveting. No longer were these players just characters on a screen, like a distant ensemble from a favorite soap opera. They were as real as I was, and I felt all the more connected to them for it.

Soon after, the referee blew for full time. Just like that, it was over. Martin Odegaard in captain-like fashion led the team over to our corner to start a lap of honor. Smith Rowe wandered over to Maitland-Niles and dapped up his countryman. Aaron Ramsdale, Kieran Tierney, Bernd Leno, and Ben White, all of whom didn’t feature, ambled past us in the new travel strip. Gabriel walked by with Jesus and Marquinhos. Martinelli joshed with Fabio Vieira near the back of the crowd. As the last of the squad left our corner of the pitch, one last chant of “USA! USA! USA!” rang out from the section I was in.

At that point, I unfortunately had to take my leave. My brother and I both had early mornings the next day. It was already just after 9 PM and approximately 90 minutes of driving lay ahead of me. We exited M&T Bank Stadium with a throng of chanting Arsenal fans and eventually hit the road.

I didn’t get to party with other Arsenal fans before or after the match. I was unable to meet the great Arsenal writers who had made the trip over from the UK. I didn’t get my shirt signed by a member of the squad. But I had a tremendous time nonetheless. Especially in the first half, Arsenal put on a show. The likely starters looked sharp, an encouraging sign ahead of the new season. And of course, they gave us a win to relish.

The next day, I received a text from my father containing a photo. He had watched Arsenal’s highlight video from the match and screenshotted an image of part of the crowd in the stadium. For a second, I wondered why the old man had sent me this, but then I spotted it. Near the top of the photo, directly in the middle, there I was, applauding Saka’s second goal. There, in front of my eyes, was a memorialization of my connection with the club. It is something I will always cherish.

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