By 12:30 I was getting worried. Borehamwood, by bus, is a little over an hour from me, the match would begin in ninety minutes and the friend I was meant to be going with had been incommunicado since ambling off to Shoreditch the night previous. Ten minutes later, bleary-eyed and hungover, he emerged from the spare bedroom, where he’d been asleep since sneaking back in at six-o’clock.
The timing crisis mitigated by the arrival, at this point purely physical, of my friend, who a) had been celebrating his birthday and b) — this is important — is an Arsenal supporter, we arrived at Meadow Park a little before kickoff and installed ourselves just behind one of the goals.
It would probably be fair to say that I’m not much of a supporter. At games, my default is “quiet stress”, ramping up to “gentle clapping” when I’m feeling particularly excited. Fortunately for the atmosphere, most of the 4,000 other people in attendance had a rather more robust approach to football-watching: I stewed in silent dread of a Kim Little/Vivianne Midiema-powered counterattack; the fans around me boasted loudly of the Red Army’s powers.
Before I’d cracked even one Stalingrad joke, Beth England had punctured both Arsenal’s defence and the fans’ chanting. I had what would be called front row seats to the Chelsea attack in the first half had Meadow Park not been standing room only, which meant I had a very clear view of England annihilating Louise Quinn and curling left-footed into the top corner.
On television, it looked like this:
One of the main differences between watching in the stadium and through the cameras, at least for me, is the role of time. On television, the clock is constant, a gently-ticking reference point which dominates one’s perception of a match almost as thoroughly as the score. In person, one’s relationship with time is slightly more abstract.
England’s goal, for instance, was both breathtakingly slow and extraordinarily quick. When Guro Reiten played her into space, the game went into slow motion, allowing Arsenal to retain structure and shape, with Quinn coming out to close and Katie McCabe to plug the gap at centre half. But then England moved, and the clock unstuck.
I’m not about to measure how long it took for England to shift the ball past Quinn with her right foot and then past Manuela Zinsberger more spectacularly with her right, but I can tell you that in real-time I was barely able to raise a muted ‘oooh?’ before England wheeled off to celebrate.
Celebrating with her was Sam Kerr. Widely considered one of the top players in women’s football, Chelsea’s big winter signing had yet to get off the mark in the WSL but was merrily terrorising Arsenal’s defence, who were desperate not to give her any space. All eyes should probably have been on the Australian ... but they weren’t. Instead, Zinsberger was staring at the sun.
Not that that was her fault. From Zinsberger’s perspective, Reiten’s cross came straight out of the winter sun, glaring low in the south. As the ball looped gently towards the six-yard box, the goalkeeper performed an absurd stuttering dance before finally giving up entirely, allowing Kerr what was essentially a free header from close range.
At this point my Arsenal-supporting friend began a monologue about how Helios had betrayed him and that Chelsea were obviously cheating by harnessing the cruel power of the sun, which made the goal even better. Said monologue was still in slurred progress when Sophie Ingle hit one of the best volleys I’ve ever seen in person.
Remember how I said I’m basically silent during matches? It turns out it’s something like impossible to stay quiet when this happens:
Ingle hit this shot with enough power and backspin to actively defy gravity. Had she put her foot straight through the ball, it might have strayed low enough for Zinsberger to save it. Instead, it described a teasing arc over the despairing goalkeeper and made its new home in the top corner.
Zito, my hungover and increasingly grumpy friend, complained that the sun was in Zinsberger’s eyes for this one too. We might have moved at halftime but I was afraid of upsetting his mental equilibrium still further, which meant I was unable to give Reiten’s 68th-minute header the appreciation it deserved. But I did get a close view of Arsenal’s attempts to get back into the match, and they were mostly pretty funny.
Take, for instance, Mediema’s attempted chip after being sent clear down the Gunners’ left, which drifted well off-course and merely vexed the side netting. “Where is your Goddess now?” I asked Zito, who mumbled something about her having been murdered by the fell machinations of Apollo.
Even their goal was funny. Beth Mead, thrown on as Arsenal chased an impossible result, blopped a tame header towards Ann-Katrin Berger’s near post, and the usually-reliable Chelsea keeper, taking pity on her rivals, decided to let them have a little bit of hope as a treat by scooping the ball into her own net.
The crowd, briefly forgetting the score, roared in appreciation. It was the last happy noise they made all evening, if we exclude the travelling Chelsea support, which was in fine voice throughout.
By the time the referee blew the whistle, it was clear that gifts from Berger were the only way Arsenal were going to get anywhere near scoring. Fifteen minutes plus stoppage time had passed without much incident, and Chelsea were well on their way toward controlling the Super League once more. The hosts had been systematically demolished inside the first half hour and held at arm’s reach from then on. All told, it wasn’t a bad day out.
Well, at least not for me.