Football: Horse manure, peanuts, frying onions and flying Dutchmen - another night at Highbury

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON an ENGLISH FOOTBALL MATCH
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The Independent Online
Suddenly the Tube train was out of the tunnel and station signs saying "Arsenal'' were gliding past the windows.

"Who have they got tonight?" a passenger enquired of a father and son in red and white colours. "Coventry in the Coca-Cola," Dad said. "Nothing spectacular.''

The long incline to the entrance became dense with supporters - surely they hadn't all been on that train? Must have been... walking briskly towards their common goal.

Outside, the night air was one part cigarette to two parts frying onion. Perhaps by way of concession to changing modern tastes - this, after all, was Highbury - the food bar outside the little lair that serves as the Arsenal supporters' club was offering spicy beanburgers alongside its more traditional material. But the onions remained strictly non-PC.

And people were shouting. All over the place.

Either side of Gillespie Road, fanzine sellers attempted to divert the course of those streaming towards the lights in the sky.

"One nil down, two-one up" shouted the man on the right. "November issue.''

The chirpy lady on the other side had a less comfortable form of words to deal with as she plied her wares through the evening. "Get your latest Up The Arse. Fifty pence worth of slagging off Spurs... Up The Arse. Your latest Up The Arse.''

Every now and again she looked at her young female companion and started to giggle. Which was fatal, really.

A youth carrying chips cut across me, bawling out to his mate on the other side of the road: "It was a chicken bone!" "Was it really?" I thought. "Fancy that.''

Over the way from the burger bar, an old boy in a cap appeared to be having some kind of a fit. "Nuuurrr" he barked out. "Sted ee nuuurrr."

His large hands were clasping plump paper bags. Of... roasted peanuts. Of course. But I'd already passed him; and I didn't want roasted peanuts anyway.

By now the street was beginning to evidence the unmistakable sign of police activity - archipelagos of horse manure which caused a large amount of sidestepping and a small amount of cursing.

The floodlit glow was brighter and larger now above the roofs of the terraced houses which have gridlocked the Arsenal stadium into an expansion- free zone. Marbled halls? Or shopping malls? Let the club directors agonise about that choice...

The attentions of a group of men had been distracted by a smaller floodlight in one of the front gardens illuminating a row of binders ranged along a brick wall.

They stood beside each other without speaking, lost in their own private worlds amid the plain wrappers.

Not that I usually did that sort of thing myself, but I couldn't resist checking what all the interest was about.

It was as I thought. A mixture of standard fare - Arsenal v Chelsea, 1970-71 - and the more unusual: Charlton Athletic v Arsenal, Les Gore Testimonial.

Not only were there programmes for all tastes. T-shirts of varying degrees of rudeness were also being energetically espoused by a succession of vendors.

Alongside the conventional assertions - "Marc Overmars - Flying Dutchman," "Dennis Bergkamp - Living Legend" - there was a little number for the angrier Arsenal fan involving Beavis and Butthead in red and white kit, proclaiming "Tottenham Kiss My Ass." The supine figure of a white cockerel was pictured doing as he was bid.

Near the corner with Avenell Road, somebody knocked over a sign with a bang. For a moment, conversations ceased as little surges of adrenalin pumped in a streetfull of veins.

There had been trouble at this spot earlier in the year before Arsenal's friendly with Rangers - the visiting fans hadn't taken kindly to being baited by an infiltrating north Londoner wearing a Celtic shirt.

But this was a false alarm. An accident. And the onward progress resumed.

Boyfriends striding ahead, girlfriends keeping up and doing the conversational work. Lads taking their last swigs of lager before passing through the turnstiles. Young boys in scarfs and hats, reading their programmes.

You could hear the commentator's routine hysteria now as the big screen in the corner showed goal highlights from earlier matches. The visiting fans were chanting something indistinguishable but almost certainly insulting as the remorseless video show went on.

Quarter of an hour until kick-off, and the imperishable question remained, for everyone present: what was about to happen?

An English football match on a damp autumn evening. Nothing spectacular.

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