One of the reasons I often bang on about how a gripping, exciting game, preferably one where the lead changes hands or one or both teams stage unlikely come backs, where controversial decisions change the game, is this. I think they’re important. Now I know football isn’t really important. I understand the part it plays in our lives is peripheral to the make or break decisions which genuinely affect our future, and I see that a hobby, a diversion such as football will always pale into insignificance beside the more momentous and genuinely important aspects of our existence.
Sorry ignore that last pile of horse manure. Of course football is important. We have mortgaged our souls, bet our future happiness on it. But getting back to those kind of games, the ones I described above, this why I think they matter, because they can provide the spark, they can ignite in a young mind the imagination of the football fan and that fire can burn on throughout that young person’s life. I love that football and my crazy passion for Arsenal spins off back into the dank reaches of my past like a lifeline, a rope of memories, joys, miseries, thrills and many many spills which connects this wizened washed up old curmudgeon with his innocent boyhood self.
The draw against Fulham this season was a perfect example. I know we miserable grown ups with our corns, our back aches and our dodgy knees felt a little deflated at the perceived loss of two points. The ecstasy of the last gasp penalty, and the sharing of Mikel’s agony at the miss. But imagine if you can a youngster who, having had Arsenal foisted on them by a parent or having made that all too important random choice to follow the red and white, imagine them watching that match. The wild swings of fortune the moments of brilliance, the errors, the unlikely outcome, six goals,bad decisions, a missed penalty, Giroud’s brilliance, Koscielny’s miracle tackle, cheering, groaning crowds, wildly apoplectic commentators. Imagine the effect of all this on that young impressionable mind. That would be the kind of game he’d be boring his grandchildren about during the 2072 – 73 season. Before money ruined the game, he’d be saying. “And did they all wear funny shorts in those days Grandpa?” the kids would ask him, “Like on the old holo-reels you watch from the turn of the century. Was Carl Jenkinson Captain in that game Grandpa?” “No no, he’d only just started his career. He didn’t become Captain for another five years. You know we won the double three years running with Captain Carl don’t you kids” “Yeah yeah yeah Grandpa we know – you’ve told us enough times”
I was seven when I decided I liked the Arsenal kit. Or the badge. Or Charlie George. I can’t tell you now why I chose them. I know my Dad, a Portsmouth fan always told me that The Arsenal were synonymous with class. He spoke of innovation on and off the pitch, of marble halls, under soil heating and a beautiful stadium. Well for whatever reason I chose keeping a scrapbook of Arsenal newspaper clippings as my project at school that year and we went on to win the double. My formative memories of those early years in my Arsenal supporting career involve the bathroom, a small green plastic transistor radio and Stoke City.
You see as impossible as it may seem the name Stoke City hasn’t always conjured images of Broud from The Clan Of The Cave Bear. In my young life we were permanently playing them in the FA Cup. In the semi final. In a replay. On a school night. There was no internet just the unsurpassed voices of Peter Jones and Bryon Butler fighting to be heard above the roar of the crowd and the crackling static of the medium wave band. I would take the tranny and retire to the only room in the house where I could lock the door and lie there, eyes closed, bubbles quietly popping, water up to my chin picturing the floodlit battle taking place at far away romantic sounding places like Villa Park and Goodison.
Stoke had players to be reckoned with, names every schoolboy knew. Banks in goal, getting on a bit but when he still had both eyes, Jimmy Greenhoff, and um, Peter Dobing. Well, we knew the first two in any event. But we always seemed to beat them in the end even after controversial and drawn first matches, the quality shone through and won through. To be honest little has changed over the years between the two teams. We usually win, they huff and puff but seldom blow our house down, the only thing that has changed for me is that where I used to see them as worthy, difficult opponents to be respected and approached with care, I now see them as the most hated of all premier league teams and the ones I most want to see relegated. To be fair to them they have changed their style a little now. But they haven’t changed their revolting manager and nor do I recall them ever apologising for their Captain and his despicable cowardly assault on one of the flowering talents of British football.
I hope we get a game to inspire the youngsters today. But I’ll tell you what, I don’t hope for a nip and tuck, lead changing hands type inspiration. I want that other kind of inspirational performance. You know the type of thing I mean. The one where we utterly annihilate and devastate a bewildered opponent with fast free-flowing improvisational football and lots and lots of goals.
Of course as it’s the knuckle dragging Neanderthals we play today I’ll be just as happy with a one nil off a Shawcross own goal against the run of play and bugger inspiring the youngsters.