London’s Arsenal Football Club paid a visit to New York this past weekend and it was the team’s first visit to the United States in 25 years. Making the trip even more special was the fact that the club had scheduled a pre-season exhibition match with Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls. Henry was a star with Arsenal for many years and holds the legendary club’s all-time goal scoring record.
The anticipation for Arsenal's pre-season visit to the area had been building for months since the announcement came in late March. Over the past few months, supporter clubs Arsenal NYC, Arsenal America, Arsenal Canada and Arsenal Philly put together a weekend that can only be described as an "Arsenalpalooza".
It began on Thursday evening as Arsenal held a party for its supporter clubs at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was an opportunity for Arsenal fans from all over North America and beyond to meet each other and see some of the clubs’ players on American soil.
Upon arrival at the arena it was amazing to see hundreds of fans in Arsenal jerseys everywhere. While many were from the tri-state area, it was incredible to meet fans that came from places such as Orlando, Winnipeg, Seattle, Alabama, Toronto and even London. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of meeting Arsenal fans from all over North America and beyond.
The event itself was pretty special. Arsenal players Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky and Gedion Zelalem were joined on stage by Thierry Henry. As each player was introduced the cheers were deafening. German youngster Zelalem was serenaded with shouts of USA, USA as his father is in the process of obtaining US citizenship.
The players answered questions from fans and participated in basketball and soccer competitions with lucky supporters. Also on hand was the actual FA Cup which the team won in May. The trophy was on display during part of the ceremony and was paraded around by the players for every section of the crowd to see and photograph.
On Friday, the FA Cup was taken around New York City to sites such as Time Square and Columbus Circle to allow fans to get up close and have their photo taken with the trophy.
Also on Friday, Arsenal and Puma held an all day 3x3 youth football tournament inside of Grand Central Station. A huge replica cannon was set up alongside a small indoor soccer pitch inside the station’s Vanderbilt Hall. Youth teams from all over the northeast participated and received complete Arsenal home and away replica kits courtesy of Puma.
Beginning at noon fans were able to line up for the opportunity to have their photo taken with the FA Cup. The massive turnout of fans resulted in the police having to be called in to help keep order.
The event was capped off by the appearance of Arsenal players Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry. Henry served as a referee while the players joined the kids on the pitch.
Friday night was an Arsenal fan party unlike any other. Arsenal fans invaded East 14th Street between First and Third Avenuesin Manhattan for an event called #14thStIsRed. Arsenal fan pubs The Blind Pig and O'Hanlon's were filled to the brim with supporters from all over the country. At the same time, The Winslow was hosting an Arsenal inspired silent art auction with all proceeds benefiting Street Soccer.
Over at O'Hanlon's Andrew Mangan, the author of the highly followed blog, Arseblog, was on hand selling and signing copies of his new book "Together: The Story of Arsenal's Unbeaten Season". The turnout was amazing and Mangan was greeted by fans as a celebrity in his own right; which to Arsenal fans he is.
It was an incredible evening of bonding with Arsenal fans from all over the world. East 14th Street was overrun with fans wearing Arsenal jersey and t-shirts from recent and past seasons. It was funny to watch the confused expressions of random people just walking by who were wondering why all these people in soccer jerseys were walking around singing and chanting.
It was pretty amazing, seeing people that had never met or spoken in person before instantly bond solely through their common love of Arsenal. Supporters passed each other on the street with understanding nods of approval, greetings and handshakes.
Fans from various supporter clubs all over the country and Canada were on hand. Some of those included members from Cleveland, Boston, Florida, Memphis, Toronto, Rhode Island, Arizona, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Houston, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Virginia, New Orleans, Wisconsin and Minnesota, just to name a few.
The main event was on Saturday as Arsenal met Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls in a friendly at Red Bull Arena. The Path trains heading out to Harrison were packed with Arsenal supporters and the stadium itself was full of fans wearing Arsenal colors. In fact, the chants and cheering for Arsenal were loud and went on throughout the entire match.
Thierry Henry was serenaded throughout the afternoon and a huge banner was lifted up in his honor which referred to him as a Gunner, a Red Bull and a legend. You could see Henry's sheer joy and happiness on display throughout the match as he shared laughs with his old club and former manager, Arsene Wenger.
The match itself was a bit of a disappointment as the level of play was not up to regular season par by any standard. Arsenal played the entire match without a true striker and a number of the younger players were given a run out.
As if scripted, the only goal of course involved Thierry Henry. His corner kick was slotted home by Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 32nd minute. The fact that Arsenal's all time leading goal scorer had an assist on a goal scored by the son of another Arsenal legend, Ian Wright, was brilliant irony.
Regardless of the play on the pitch, the event itself was truly amazing. To see Arsenal playing in the New York area in front of thousands of their fans was very special. It was definitely one of those once in a lifetime experiences. It truly felt like North London had been transported to the swamps of New Jersey.
Befitting the occasion, Thierry Henry was named Man of the Match. Henry thanked the fans in every section and left the pitch to a thunderous ovation. The Arsenal players followed suit and it was obvious how appreciative they were of the overwhelming support they had witnessed in the New York area from supporters on the other side of the pond.