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7 November 2013

A football match in the executive box: pop stars, DJs and former England physios

Disgusting, shouldn’t be allowed, ruining football as we know and love it. So naturally, when invited to be a guest in an executive box, I said brilliant, count me in.

By Hunter Davies

One of the things that pisses off fans is all these private boxes. Jealousy, of course, why can’t we have all that comfort, but also fury that for ten minutes after half-time all their seats are empty.

At the Emirates, you look around that magnificent stadium and there’s a ring of emptiness, as if some idle cleaner has chucked the Domestos around the middle of the bowl only, leaving life struggling on elsewhere.

Disgusting, shouldn’t be allowed, ruining football as we know and love it. So naturally, when invited to be a guest in an executive box, I said brilliant, count me in.

It was Arsenal-Borussia Dortmund and I was there an hour early – to stuff my face with Cumberland sausage and mash, washed down with fine wines. (It said Cumberland sausage on the menu but they were just bangers. I do know my Cumberland sausage and it should be long and in a coil.)

There were about 15 people in this private dining room, like a hotel suite, with uniformed staff. I had been invited by a friend, Frank Barrett, a friend of the person who has the box.

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When I was last in an Arsenal box, it was Arab-owned, but there were no Arabs, just chauffeurs, gardeners, restaurant managers, people employed by the Arabs, or being treated by them, not all of them with much of an interest in football. That could be one reason why they’re so slow to take their seats.

This time they all seemed keen and knowledgeable. One of them was Gary Lewin, the England physio, who for 22 years was the physio at Arsenal. I went across and asked him about Roy Hodgson. Is it true he can speak four foreign languages, something I’ve oft scoffed at? At the last England game, Gary heard Roy converse fluently in German with a German coach and then turn and speak Italian to an Italian. So there, that was me in my place.

I didn’t recognise the other well-known person, a tall, striking blonde who turned out to be Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud. I sat down beside her and her boyfriend – at least, a bloke who said he was a DJ and record producer originally from Stockport – and said come on then, what’s Ashley really like? She must have met Ashley Cole when he was married to Cheryl, also in Girls Aloud. Do keep up.

Both of them certainly did know Ashley – but I had to cover my ears when they started. Having been taken once, along with Wayne Rooney, to the high court by David Moyes, I don’t want to repeat anything that might get me in bad bother.

I went out to take my seat before the whistle blew carrying a final glass and another sausage but was sent back by a jobsworth. No plates or glasses are allowed in the seats outside. So, a second reason for empty seats. People are still scoffing.

I drank up quickly and rushed outside again – and found myself sitting beside Gary. A bit inhibiting. How can I come out with my banal, half-witted observations when I’m sitting beside someone who does know about football? Didn’t stop me, of course. When I said Arsenal seemed lethargic, no bite, do they think they’re still playing Norwich, Gary nodded politely, then turned to look the other way. When he observed that Arsenal was missing Flamini, a proper holding player to counter Dortmund’s quick attacks, I said spot on, Gary, I was just thinking that myself. And also Theo, Gary added. Exactly, I replied, thinking, now who’s Theo, their new physio?

I asked him if Arsène would give them a bollocking at halftime and he said no, that was not his style. In all his years working with him, he could remember Arsène losing his temper twice. I did ask for details, but it was half-time and I was rushing for the lavatory.

There was just one WC in our private dining room – so that could be another reason for the delays with taking seats. It was locked. Eventually the waitress knocked at the door and asked whoever was inside if they were OK, and out came the pop star, saying she’d been sick and had been ill all day. Hope it wasn’t the Cumberland sausages – which weren’t . . .