As I am sure most if not all of you know, Arsenal visited our fair Queen City a few weekends ago, bringing us something I know many of us thought we would never see: Arsenal live in Charlotte. Being the cynic that I am, when the rumblings began that Charlotte was on the shortlist of cities that Arsenal might be visiting, I was more than skeptical. LA, Denver, DC, maybe Atlanta if in the south, but not Charlotte. This is just my opinion, but it feels like our city has been fighting a battle that the city council was winning, being pessimistic on the idea of Major League Soccer in the city and stamping out any rumors of an MLS dream until recently with the announcement of a possible MLS expansion. Despite hosting the International Champions Cup (ICC, a friendly preseason tournament for European teams) four times previously, with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, it's as if Charlotte sometimes forgets the sport's very existence. Nonetheless the announcement was drawing nearer and once it happened, myself and the rest of the QCG board began to put into place the motions of what it meant for us to be a hosting supporters club. Many of us had been to the New York and California friendlies in the past but we were tourists, visiting these larger cities with awe and some jealousy. Now it was our turn.
A whirlwind of meetings and ambitions, what did we want to do, how were we going to get tickets, what could the pub do, questions all flew threw our brains and onto paper. It was madness, exhausting and exhilarating. Yet it all came together with only minor setbacks. Tickets in hand, Ri Ra's with our support and Arsenal America's help, this weekend came to fruition in glorious fashion. I knew it was going to be a busy weekend so I took a half day from work and headed down the pub at 2pm on Friday to kick of the festivities.
Walking off the light rail it didn't quite dawn on me that this city was going to be as red as it was. Being a part of the Queen City Gooners since 2012, visiting Winston Salem with the NC is Red event in 2013, Gooner Gras in 2017 and many Carolina Goonerfests hosted by us, I knew that the city and the Carolinas boasted a strong contingent of Gooners from all walks of life, but walking into the pub on Friday was just the tip of the Gooner-filled iceberg. I walked up to the bar, chatting with some out of towners from Texas sporting Arsenal kits, saw another face from years past and some I didn't know but eagerly chatted up about the city, AirBnB's and Arsenal in general. As the day went on, it started to get to business time, assisting Ri Ra's in setting up for the Q&A with the famous Arseblog himself, Andrew Mangan and the great Robbie Lyle from AFTV and other odds and ends that needed sorting out. The doors began to open for a first come first served table arrangement. The tables quickly filled and soon it was standing room only, then the back of the whiskey room to the front table near the stage was filled with Gooners packed like sardines.
Andrew and Robbie were awesome, every question answered with the love of the team and us fans in mind, doing something we all love: talking about the Arsenal. I was thrilled when we reached out to Andrew and Robbie and they agreed to do the Q&A. I spent a couple of years blogging for the QCG because of my love of Arseblog's work. I have always liked writing and getting to write about the Arsenal was a dream come true for me. I got burned out with work and such so I stopped writing but I never stopped reading and listening to Andrew Mangan's commentary. That night, listening to Robbie and Andrew speak, began to rekindle that love of the medium for me. Even in the miserable, sweltering heat of the packed pub, you could see the faces listening and laughing as they spoke.
The next morning I got there early to help set up for the block party that Ri Ra's painstakingly put together for us. A near scare with a shifting ladder while ambitiously attempting to hang a banner between two lamp posts aside, it was the most fun I've had in Uptown Charlotte. Meeting the legendary invincible Ray Parlour, drinking beer and chugging water, chatting, singing, wandering inside to beat the heat, meeting new people and soaking up the merriment of the celebration of Gooners from across the States and abroad as we prepared to see our team in person.
The match was excellent. Getting to see the young aspiring kids and the veterans in person was incredible. A solid 3-0 win was icing on the cake as we watched our team that we all follow play in Bank of America Stadium. The crowd, chanting our famous chants, singing for Ozil and Aubameyang, the ringing of “Eddie, Eddie” as Nketiah banged in two goals, a bright start for an aspiring young talent. Martinelli's speed and Ozil's backheel were two more moments that really stood out for me. To be honest it was just the occasion, soaking it all in that was most memorable of all, even for a glorified friendly.
I sit here reflecting on how much this club means to all of us. To see the “#we care, do you?” signs around stuck out to me. I know it is a jab at the board and Kroenke in particular, but to see us all in Charlotte this weekend it is very clear: we really do care. Walking around the block party, it was hard not to stop and talk to fans I have seen over the years. From Gooner Gras to Goonerfest, I have met so many people and a lot of them are close friends. A friend I met years ago though Arsenal, we go to concerts across the state, another is my fellow comic book nerd, some I spend Monday nights with playing board games, a dozen or more of them are invited to my wedding in January. My wedding itself, is being held at the very pub where I watch the Arsenal every weekend. It's something I have never felt in all my years of sports or general fandom. It's a weird logic defying situation. To say it's a family is a cliché, but in a strange way it is just that. These are people that you look forward to seeing every weekend from all walks of life, brought together by the love of one team from England, so many miles away. For two days though, that family of supporters in my home city, expanded to 34,000 strong in the stadium where we watch the Panthers play. Walking down the street it was a sea of red and white. Charlotte was truly red, in a state where a shade of blue is named after it. (Carolina Blue)
Charlotte, the unassuming city that was looked at as an afterthought when in a list of cities that included LA, Denver, and DC, became a haven of Gooners. Everyone I talked to was blown away by what we did here this past weekend. By we, I mean all of us, Queen City Gooners and all the other countless supporters groups that flocked down south to sing in full voice as we marched down to the stadium. All of us, who packed the pub to listen to Andrew and Robbie give their honest words about the club and fandom. All of us, who braved the heat in the Ri Ra hosted block party, merrily carrying on with friends, old and new, young and old. So yes, we do care, all of us and our Queen City got to see just what it was like to have a city that was red for the Arsenal.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank so many people for the weekend:
To my fellow QCG, who we had many meetings trying to hammer out logistics.
To Arsenal America, for their support in this endeavor.
To Ri Ra's Irish Pub for putting on the best block party for Gooners this side of the pond, our home and host of the QCG every weekend. They are simply the best pub hands down.
To Arsenal for giving us a chance to show what great support they have here.
To Andrew Mangan and Robbie Lyle for coming to our Q&A and Block Party
And most of all, thanks to everyone who came out, had a drink with us, cheered and lost their voice chanting, we couldn't have made this so special without you
Oh to Be a Gooner,
-Brandon, Queen City Cannoneer