Friday, 15 January 2010

the emirates and the che revolution



Latin lovelies and lager

Nestled in a quiet side street away from the bump and hustle of Holloway Road is the oasis of El Comandante, or as it’s known to the Emirates faithful, The Che. On a match day this peaceful corner of North London comes alive with the bonhomie and banter of the pre and post match Arsenal supporters who flock there.

Still relatively unknown, The Che has become an integral part of the match day experience for those Gooners in the know.

What was once an uninspiring pub called the Lord Palmerston, tucked away from any through traffic or passing trade, has come alive with the move of Arsenal Football Club from their long time Highbury home to the all singing all dancing Emirates Stadium. Now a two minute walk from the stadium, the Che has come into its own.

William the Bolivian owner, who always greets his clientele with a smile, has grasped the proximity of Arsenal with gusto and has created possibly the perfect pub, close to a ground, for football fans in the land.

On the day of a match when you arrive, prior to kick off, the exterior looks very much like any local boozer, in fact the only discernable difference is the iconic image of Che Guevara captured in red and black on the overhanging pub sign that still has the cannon of Taylor Walker proudly standing on top. On a sunny day, or even on an average British autumnal day, there is a throng of people outside in the pedestrian friendly street, sipping their beers and speculating on the game to come. Once inside, the Tardis like effect and loud Latin music leaves you in no doubt that this pub is not your average watering hole. Seldom will you find such an atmosphere at a ‘football pub’, let alone one so close to the ground. The mood inside is one of fun and harmony; like the beginning of a fiesta or street party. The knowledge that you are a stones throw away from the ground means that the feeling of anxiety and clock watching is not evident.

Then there are the girls. A plethora of Latin lovelies behind the bustling bar, each serving with smiles and good humour. With their exotic accents and easy charm, you could almost be in a South America bar.

The girls of The Che

What also defines The Che is that it has become a natural part of the Arsenal experience. The celebrations after Thierry Henry’s late winner against Manchester united two seasons ago were part of a defining moment for the club and the pub. It was a continuation of the celebrations inside the stadium, as wave after wave arrived back at the pub and celebrated into the night. This was a real carnival atmosphere. On European nights the smattering of continental fans are untroubled in The Che, in the winter evenings the place feels even more welcoming as a spot of sunshine in the Grey North London chill.

BEFORE CHE

Before the Che and the Emirates, there was Highbury. What did the Arsenal supporter, who considered themselves in the know, do before the Che? Well, there are many alternative pubs and bars near the stadium in which to imbibe and pontificate on a Saturday afternoon or Monday night or super Sunday. Principally those with doormen, apathetic bar staff and slot machines; hardly the place for the erudite Arsenal fan. These places are still full but have little appeal as a social gathering point.

Other venues were available including The Compton. A lovely old pub with low ceilings and fine ales, however, many a time a taxi had to be called to ferry fans to the ground in time to just miss the kick off. This also meant a trip to the toilet half way through the first half to siphon off the quaffable pre match ale. Arranging to meet back at The Compton meant a long walk from Highbury with various friends not making it back, instead deciding to go into the nearest hostelry. After all a half hour walk with a thirst on could sometimes be a little too much for some.

Then there was The Wig and Gown a newish pub with an equally low ceiling and wall to wall TV screens. It also had a great range of lager on tap and was slightly nearer to the ground. The Wig also organised away trips, leaving after a 6.00 am pint of Guinness to Villa Park and Old Trafford. It was in this very establishment that Arsene Wenger’s first double was celebrated. Why its popularity waned is unclear; it just got too popular perhaps.

The Hobgoblin then became the pub of choice, a student pub on non match days, with a cracking jukebox selection and unfortunately the kind of staff who were used to serving Countdown fans multi coloured Alchopops. Getting from there to the ground usually involved a quick jump onto the Piccadilly line at Holloway Road getting off at Arsenal and walking briskly to the turnstiles as the referee blew his whistle for kick off.

With the move to Ashburton Grove the pressure was on to find somewhere that met all the criteria for the perfect home pub. It had to be near the ground. It had to not have doormen. It had to be a little bit tucked away. Not too expensive and if it had half decent bar staff then that would be a bonus. Enter El Comandante.

THE ARRIVAL

William, who cuts a distinctive figure with his beret and manly ‘bandits’ moustache arrived in the UK 20 years ago. When you speak to him the word that he returns to time and again is respect.

Respect from customers and respect from staff. Of course having such lovely bar maids helps. Initially adverts for bar staff were placed in London’s Latin free papers such as Noticias. With tongue in cheek only beautiful applicants were asked to apply. The result being that, indeed, only beautiful girls did apply. From all parts of Latin America they came, saw and conquered. So much so that not only are they treated with the utmost respect and admiration but occasional gifts are given to them by the Arsenal faithful.

This interesting and charismatic landlord had initially had a career in bars and hotels in the UK before working for the British refugee council. The Lord Palmerston was his local which he had the foresight and opportunity to take over in 2000 changing the name to El Comandante.

The takeover led to a unification of the local community with William holding an annual street party which has encouraged the residents to get to know each other in a carnival atmosphere. With meetings also being held there it has become something of a local hub.

Freedom is another word William uses. Much like his hero Che Guevara, he believes that the people must be free. Thus, no bouncers and no CCTV. The result being that a self policing philosophy prevails. This is not strictly speaking an Arsenal pub, it is a football pub. There is a welcome for all in this multi cultural environment, something that William goes to great lengths to ensure. Arsenal’s team and following is a melting pot and in The Che that diversity is embraced by William and his staff.

Fans of The Strongest in a fiesta mood

His own football loyalties lie with a Bolivian team called simply (and poetically) The Strongest. One hundred years old in April, this club wear the Orange and black of their Tiger symbol. William also has affection for Crystal Palace here in England as well as The Arsenal.

He understands the needs of the clientele; The 60, 0000 managers. Quick service, a place to celebrate the ups and commiserate during the downs. William has certainly met those needs, with great aplomb.

EVERTON AT HOME

There are really only three big domestic games at the Emirates; Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and you can add the Spurs game, even though they are generally at the other end of the table, it has a certain atmosphere. For January it’s the turn of the other Liverpool team to visit. Traditionally the Scousers with their famous so called ‘sense of humour’ come to town and have a good time. The ones with the chips on their shoulders tend to stay at home.

After ninety minutes and a cold half time spent looking out over London, The Che is full once again, so much so that, despite it being a cold January evening, the pavement outside is crowded with the overspill,. It doesn’t take long for the party to resume. After all a draw isn’t so bad

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having said that;

WELLISAIDTHAT