Football: Highbury's screen on the green: Nick Hornby is underwhelmed by the experience of Arsenal's stay-at-home experiment

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The Independent Online
THERE is something special about watching your team win away, especially in a Cup quarter-final; a pity, then, that the experience involves so much time, effort, money and discomfort.

Watching your team win away at home, in the stadium they have deserted for the afternoon, would appear to offer the best of both worlds: all that heroic backs-to-the-wall, us-against- the-world drama in the comfort of your own stand. That, at least, is the theory behind the video screen installed at Highbury on Saturday afternoon. The reality was slightly less satisfying.

The 'giant' screen itself was a giant disappointment. Certainly at 30 or 40 feet high it was bigger than anything you could comfortably accommodate in your own home, but it looked a little forlorn at Highbury, like a portable television stuck at the end of a particularly large cathedral. The fact that it took most incoming punters several seconds actually to locate the thing suggests that its magnitude is mostly in the minds of its manufacturers.

If it had been placed on the centre circle, this would have been less of a problem; for some reason, however (perhaps somebody had forgotten the extension lead) it was right over in the corner where the East Stand meets the Clock End. The picture was grainy, and John Motson's commentary was absent altogether for the first 10 minutes, inaudible for the next 30. We had paid pounds 7.50 to watch a portable with no aerial and the sound turned down.

But still. It was better than the radio, and the few thousand gathered in the West Stand made more racket than just about any home crowd at Highbury this season.

The problems with the PA system provoked an irrefutable burst of 'Can you hear the Ipswich sing? (No, no)' and for the first few minutes there was a new kind of football crowd noise: the response to the close-up.

Many of us were ignorant of George Graham's team selection, and were unable to recognise the tiny, scratchy figures a pitch- length away. So the first full-frontal of Jimmy Carter resulted in a collective sharp intake of breath; a screen-sized portrait of the dissident and much-loved Paul Davis, who has been under house arrest for over a year, was met with a round of warm applause.

There were special replay noises, too. The groans as Kiwomya put Ipswich one up were standard, but the murmur of disapproval when we were shown the goal from a different angle was now in effect the sound of partial analysis of a defensive cock-up. Football fans do not necessarily think that every goal that their team concedes is always due to bad luck and demonic refereeing.

Replays of the Arsenal goals, of course, were simply an excuse for more noisy glee. The standing ovation at the final whistle was as heartfelt and unselfconscious as it would have been if the players had burst through the screen to celebrate with us.

There were dark rumours circulating Highbury that the measly allocation of 2,000 tickets for Portman Road had been given to holders of the Arsenal Bond, that season-ticket holders and other regulars had been ignored. The chances are that as grounds get smaller and the culture of football changes, Saturday afternoons with your feet up in front of the screen are likely to become more commonplace.

I enjoyed myself because of the result, and because I had an opportunity to be with the people who understand me best on Cup quarter-final afternoons; the experiment worked because there are thousands of people who care so much that they will suffer any indignity, and tolerate any rip-off, to see even a blurred second-hand version of their team in action.

Yet the more football clubs alienate these fans, the more the need for such screenings will be obviated; if I have seen the future, then it stinks.

(Photograph omitted)

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