We each have our own stories as to what led us to our club, in my case Arsenal. For many it’s a paternal present passed from father to son, an unbroken line that can be traced to grandparents, even great or great-great grandparents. Others it might be brothers, uncles or best friends’ fanaticism, chance encounters, favourite players, matches seen live or on television, politics, trophies or style of play. For me it was a mixture. No one in my family was particularly ‘into’ football but growing up we would watch internationals, the FA Cup and the bigger league games, the 96/97 and 97/98 seasons were when I fell for Arsenal (and began a love affair currently standing at 15 years). No small part of this was down to the ’98 league and cup Double, the brilliant red and white shirt, and, perhaps somewhat embarrassingly, Emmanuel Petit and his ponytail (the first and only player whose name and number I have on a shirt).
I can’t remember precisely when my first game was but what I do, and still get (though from time to time diminished) is the excitement and the emotion, as you turn corners down terraced north London roads, catching glimpses of a roof, or a wall, or a corner of the stadium, seeing Arsenal shirts, and scarves increasing as the streets become more familiar. The five, six or seven year old kid, with the massive grin plastered across his face, holding his Dad’s hand so as to not get lost in the crowd, buzzing with excitement for his first proper match as I feel the shivers and memories come back, knowing how he feels by remembering how I felt.
From Finsbury Park tube station, stopping at Polish dude’s burger van, who knows our orders off by heart from the 10 or more years, me, friends and family have been getting our ritual pre-match lunch, next to the Highbury East Stand with the famous Marble Halls with Herbert Chapman’s bust and the art deco cannon, past Piebury Corner, and the Arsenal tube station, which Chapman got renamed in the ’30s because its “all Arsenal round here anyway”, across the Ken Friar Bridge, now adorned with banners of club legends, down the steps to the new North Bank in the Emirates, buying the standard matchday programme (which now fills many boxes at home) and scanning the high-tec tickets into a machine that automatically opens the turnstiles rather than being checked by a steward.
This journey may not have as much of the magic as the pilgrimage to Highbury did, where Brady and Bastin, Graham and George, not to mention Paddy, Henry, Dennis and Tony graced the pitch, and where fans had their ashes scattered behind the Clock End goal, but on Champions League nights, when the lights are on and the stadium is illuminated against the darkness with the noise of the crowd coming out, it still feels very special and that child-like excitement washes back again, not to mention the first and last of the season and against United, Spurs and Chelsea.
The ups and the downs are what makes football so special. That rare moment in life when joy, agony, mediocrity or comedy can exist for seconds, minutes or even days. Be it Lehmann’s rather bizarre warm-up techniques or the squirrel that ran onto the pitch during an Arsenal-Villarreal game, and the subsequent booing a Villarreal player received from the home fans when he tried to shoo it off the pitch (including the now sadly redundant what’s the difference between Spurs and a squirrel? The squirrel has more Champions League experience joke). The pain of losing the ’06 Champions League final to Barcelona in the last few minutes or the utter ecstasy of the 5-2 comeback against Spurs that saved last season and the delight fuelled conversion I then had with a stranger, but briefly friend, on the tube about how amazing it was. Arsenal will be the first, and biggest gift I will hand down to my children, along with the shared stories of heartache and delight of a million Gooners.
So we may moan. About the board, about lack of money being spent, our best players being sold each season, young players not making the grade, exorbitant ticket and food prices (the 6.5% rise last year and the most expensive in the game), lack of trophies and competitiveness in recent seasons and the (hopefully temporary) decline from the pinnacle to the second tier, the soul of the game being rented to the highest bidder, terracing being stripped for seats, quiet stadiums, Sky moving kick-off times for T.V, players that aren’t good enough, or don’t seem to value the shirt as we do. However, players, managers, even board members, shirts and badges come and go, the stories, the myths and the legends remain, perhaps most of all we, the fans, remain. Those that run football may have forgotten this, seeing the game as a cash cow to milk as much money from consumers as possible, yet I hope they remember before its too late and we never forget, what the game truly means. Till next week.