Boreham Wood 0-2 ArsenalMeadow Park
Attendance: over 3000
THE World Cup is finally over, and it's time to get back to enjoying all that our domestic football scene has to offer.
No more overdosing on televised football (never a substitute for the 'in the ground' experience); no more putting up with pundits of dubious quality on both channels; no need to rush home from work to catch as much as possible of the 5PM kick-offs, and no more sacrificing valuable sleep when a 9PM kick-off inconveniently extends into extra-time.
Now, as our clubs prepare for the start of the 2014/15 season, it's back to the more homespun reality of pre-season friendlies, as the start of another English football season rolls around.
But at Meadow Park this afternoon, this was no ordinary occasion. Instead of the usual 200 spectators (or less) spread thinly around the main stand and terraces, a near full house gathered for a landmark day at this ground.
Arsenal is a club which enjoys a substantial fanbase in Hertsmere and a close relationship with Boreham Wood FC. Arsenal Ladies play most of their home games here, as do the U-19 and U-21 teams. At the club's training ground in nearby London Colney, excited autograph hunters can often be seen milling around the entrance, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of their heroes.
Although Arsenal send a team to Boreham Wood for a pre-season fixture every year, this was the first time in at least a decade that Arsène Wenger came with something resembling a first team squad, although none of those players who had taken part in the World Cup would be here.
But with local fans getting the chance to see at least some of their favourites in the flesh, rather than on Sky Sports, tickets for this match had sold well, and a near sell-out crowd would be packed into Meadow Park for this showpiece occasion, where Wood were also staging the official opening of their new 890-seater West Stand.
As an added bonus for the local Gooners, the FA Cup was here too. Fans queued on the grass at the back of the East Stand before kick-off for a photo opportunity with the first piece of silverware their team had won in a decade.
It's worth mentioning at this point that Wood had celebrated cup success of their own at the end of last season too, lifting the Herts Senior Cup after a penalty shoot-out against Bishops Stortford on a night of high drama at Letchworth.
An hour before kick-off a long queue had already formed by the ticket office as fans waited to collect pre-paid tickets. Those much maligned half and half scarves were on sale outside the ground too. This was not your typical Meadow Park match day, where you can often approach the ground 20 minutes before kick-off and see little evidence that there is a game on.
Arsenal replica shirts were prominent on all four sides of the ground, many of the traditional red and white, but at least a couple of the shocking 1991-93 away version, somehow still allowed out in public more than two decades after it was decommissioned. This was one of those matches where home fans were hopelessly outnumbered, indeed scarcely visible at all.
The sun shone brightly throughout most of the afternoon on this hot and sticky day in Hertsmere. Before kick-off, some fans on the South Terrace gave ominous warnings of a violent thunder storm due to arrive within the hour, but this never appeared.
As the clock ticked past 2:30, there were repeated requests over the tannoy for fans with West Stand tickets to take their seats for the opening ceremony. The FA Cup, guarded by two burly bouncers, was now perched on a table in front of the stand, as club officials and local dignitaries gathered.
Arsène Wenger then emerged from the tunnel and strode across the pitch. The long-serving French manager looked more relaxed than usual, wearing a red and white polo shirt and blue tracksuit trousers, and received a warm ovation from the crowd.
As Wenger cut the ribbon to declare the new stand open, Meadow Park was officially a four-sided ground again. Cue a well-timed rendition of The Pirahas over the newly upgraded PA system.
It was a full-strength Wood which took the field against a visitors' line-up which included Wojciech Szczesny and Aaron Ramsey in the first half. From the start, Arsenal dominated possession, but their fans, certainly those on the crowded South Terrace, soon grew impatient as the opening goal failed to appear. They kept themselves interested with a few songs though. They all still "hate Tottenham", of course, except for one young chap who isn't bothered about them anymore because "they're just so...pointless".
Oddly, less than a quarter of an hour after the start a few Gooners, who might have been expecting a walkover, were already telling themselves they shouldn't bother coming to pre-season friendlies. To raise their spirits slightly, Yayo Sanogo would twice force smart saves from Wood 'keeper James Russell in the opening 45 minutes. While the home side struggled to get much of the ball, their best chance came ten minutes in when Matty Wichelow sent a shot just past Szczesny's right-hand post after Ricky Shakes initial attempt had been blocked.
Considering the balance of possession, Wood had done well to go in half-time with the scoresheet still blank.
Making a full 11 substitutions at the break, the Arsenal line-up for the second half included Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby and ex-Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky.
Despite continuing to dominate, the Premier League visitors had to wait until the 69th minute for the breakthrough. It was an inch-perfect through ball from Rosicky which finally undid the Wood defence, with Kris Olssen dinking the ball over the advancing Russell, to the relief of the majority of the crowd.
Still the floodgates didn't open, but a moment of magic from Akpom five minutes before the end saw Arsenal double their lead. Flicking the ball past two defenders near the corner flag, the Gunners' number 37 sent a floated cross towards the far post, where Luke Garrard was judged to have impeded Benik Afobe. From the resulting penalty, it was Afobe who comfortably beat Russell.
Wood's number 1 had already earned praise from the fans massed on the South Terrace with at least another couple of fine saves in the second half, tipping over efforts from Diaby and Akpom at full stretch.
It had been an afternoon to remember in the baking July sun at Meadow Park: a great sight to see the ground packed; the new stand officially opened; Premier League opposition in attendance, and Wood earning themselves credit with a battling performance.
Meadow Park is hosting another attractive, if slightly reduced, pre-season programme this summer. Brentford, newly-promoted to the Championship, were here last Thursday; Cambridge United, a Reading XI and another Arsenal XI will also be visiting in the next couple of weeks. Additionally, Wood's near-neighbours Watford will host Coventry City in a friendly here on 30th July.
No shortage of opportunities then for fans to ease themselves back into the domestic football scene before the real deal begins on 9th August.