A guest post from Out For A Corner
When people think of football, not many think of Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, but on a cold, spring morning in 1988, it was the only place to be. Or, more accurately, it was the only place where tickets for the upcoming Littlewoods Cup Final were about to go on sale. An Algerian Gooner I worked with had invited me to come with him to try to get tickets: Arsenal versus the not-so-mighty Luton Town. After an hour or so standing outside in the cold, our turn came, and we bought our tickets to the final.
In America in the late seventies and early eighties, there were two ways to see football from Europe. The annual broadcast of the FA Cup Final on ABC’s Wide World of Sports was the only time all year that a match was shown in full (or nearly full – I think they still cut away for ads and maybe some ten-pin bowling). The weekly broadcast of Soccer Made in Germany was generally a better bet. It was a highlights programme, and it not only showed Bundesliga matches but also European matches that involved German teams. With a British commentator and featuring impossibly exotic-sounding teams such as Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United, the programme offered a tantalising glimpse into a very different world.
Even with this limited access to watching football, I knew that having a Cup Final ticket was something special. As we entered Wembley Stadium, the sight of packed terraces reminded me of the matches I had watched on television a few years before. It was impressive to see more than 95,000 people squeezed in to the old, crumbling stadium, but it was not so enjoyable to be one of them! After a long struggle, we finally found a place to stand. As we settled into our spot, I noticed that one of the people behind us must have spilled his drink, and it was trickling down the terrace. On seeing a second and third stream of liquid, the penny that others had spent eventually dropped. We quickly shuffled sideways, out of the path of the dripping liquid.
The terrace-based sprinkler system notwithstanding, it was an entertaining match. Arsenal conceded an early goal but came back after halftime, scoring two goals in three minutes to take the lead 2-1. The Arsenal goals gave me my first experience of being swept forward in a mass of euphoric supporters – frightening, but thrilling. With about ten minutes left, the referee awarded a penalty to Arsenal, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to finish off the match. However, Nigel Winterburn had his penalty saved. Soon after, Arsenal defender Gus Caesar (“I came. I saw. I fell over.”) gave the ball away in the Arsenal penalty area, and Luton equalised. Then, in the 90th minute, Luton scored the winner. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory! (© Arsenal)
As the Luton fans celebrated at the other end of the ground, I asked myself: what kind of a team throws away victory in a cup final? More importantly, did I want to support a team that throws away victory in a cup final? The answer to the second question was no – or, rather, not yet.
Having had my budding passion for Arsenal extinguished so painfully, I moved into the next stage of my football-watching career: I became an interested neutral. Without an allegiance to any team, I was free to appreciate good football wherever I found it – sometimes in the most unlikely places. Yes, dear reader, I am not afraid to tell you: I visited White Hart Lane several times, and I often enjoyed it. Those were the heady days of Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, and Terry Venables. It goes without saying that Spurs won nothing; they did, however, manage to put together a good end-of-season run to finish third. You probably don’t need me to tell you that they have not finished that high in the table since then.
Some matches I attended in this period were notable from a football perspective. Cristiano Ronaldo’s debut for Manchester United, Real Madrid’s 5-1 demolition of Olympiakos in the Bernabeu, Atlético Madrid v Bobby Robson’s Barcelona in a Copa del Rey match that featured three future managers (Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Luis Enrique), and Manchester United knocking Internazionale out of the Champions League at San Siro. Other matches stay in the mind for more unusual reasons. On the way to Adams Park to see Wycombe versus Brentford, I was a victim of football-related hooliganism. Yes, I was hit by an egg. (Annoyingly, the Brentford fans I was with escaped without a drip.) At Old Trafford, the sight of Dave Busst’s horrific leg-break led Peter Schmeichel to be sick on the pitch.
More than any other, though, a match at Plough Lane (Wimbledon v Tottenham) in the late eighties summed up the era. At halftime, there was an announcement that crowd trouble had interrupted the FA Cup semi-final that was being played at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The people on the sparsely populated terrace around us booed the Liverpool supporters and sang songs about the ‘drunken Scousers’ who they assumed had caused the trouble. After the match, on our way back into London on the District Line, I overheard a group of lads next to us discussing the other matches that were being played in London that day. Their conversation had a chilling conclusion. After identifying which teams were playing, they decided to head to Kings Cross – to attack the Newcastle supporters who were on their way home after seeing their team play Arsenal.
That reminds me, what about Arsenal? Despite their success in the late eighties and early nineties, I found the team of that time difficult to like. They seemed a bit thuggish: they were punished with a points deduction for a brawl with Manchester United, and their captain went to prison for drink-driving. However, their most obvious flaw (in my eyes) was that their football was not very enjoyable to watch. They did, however, have an amazing will to win. I watched the finale of the 1988-89 season at my Arsenal-supporting friends’ flat on Liverpool Road. As Liverpool lost the ball with seconds left, I told my friends that Arsenal were about to score – and so it came to be. Aguero, my arse – there has never been a more exciting finish to the season than that match. But even after Anfield, they weren’t my team.
A few years later, I moved to Islington. I was still a neutral, but looking to attend more matches. I suggested to my Liverpool Road friend that we get season tickets to Arsenal and Spurs so we could go to a match every weekend. He declined. As it turns out, that was the year of the first League title (and FA Cup) in the Arsène Wenger era, and there has been a (long) waiting list for season tickets ever since.
In the years between Anfield ’89 and the 1998 Double, I had looked out for whichever team was playing attractive football: the Neil Webb-era Nottingham Forest, Norwich City for a time, Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle, and then, in the years following the arrival of a certain Frenchman, Arsenal. They say if you watch enough football, a team will find you. Well, it took a long time, but eventually the Wenger-era Arsenal found me.
Years later, my friend redeemed himself when he pointed out that there was a residents scheme for the new stadium. Local residents who were on the season-ticket waiting list would be, in effect, allowed to jump the queue. This was Arsenal’s clever, if somewhat cynical, way of placating local opposition to their plans to build a new stadium and help to pay for it by building several high-rise blocks of flats. I signed up to the waiting list, and I was assigned number 37,000-something. I was one of the last to get a ticket before the cut-off.
One of the benefits of the residents’ priority scheme was that it led to life imitating art: in Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby described what he imagined life would be like when he moved to Highbury:
In my street, of course, it would be Arsenal supporters, rather than commuters, who emerged, and they would all be wearing flat caps and faded bar-type red-and-white scarves. And they would see me and smile and wave, and I would immediately become a much-loved and valued member of a happy, working-class Arsenal community.
It wasn’t quite like that, but it wasn’t too far off either. Several people in the neighbourhood have season tickets, and it is not uncommon on match-days to see people emerging at the same time, proudly wearing their bar-type red-and-white scarves. We even occasionally wave to one another.
As well as enabling me to join the local Gooner community, obtaining a ticket marked the end of neutrality. And so began the final part of my journey: as a supporter.
The first season after the move had some real highs: the Bergkamp testimonial (Marco van Basten and Johann Cruyff in the flesh – incredible), the last-gasp Henry header(!) to beat Manchester United – and then the trip to Cardiff to see the Carling Cup Final against Chelsea. I was sure things would be different. In some ways they were: this time, Arsenal scored first. But old habits die hard, and Arsenal still contrived to concede two goals to lose 2-1, Didier Drogba playing the Mark Stein role. Abou Diaby’s full-blooded kick to John Terry’s face was scant consolation.
Fast forward to 2011 for the Carling Cup Final against Birmingham City at the ‘new’ Wembley. Arsenal conceded an early goal but equalised before halftime. The score stayed level until the 89th minute when, in a poorly timed homage to Gus Caesar, Koscielny and Szczesny conspired to give the ball away to Obafemi Martins who gratefully scored the winner. Three League Cup final defeats in three stadiums!
And so to 2014: the FA Cup this time –not the dreaded League Cup – and a semi-final against Wigan, the holders. Arsenal follow the usual script by going behind, but then something amazing happens. They don’t throw the game away. They equalise and then take the match to extra-time. No goals, so on to penalties! What are you made of, boys? Well, sterner stuff than previous years – Arsenal win on penalties. The final? A cake-walk. Arsenal spot Hull City two goals just to make things interesting. Santi tries to outdo Gazza with his free kick to pull one back. Kos emulates Per’s semi-final heroics by scoring the equaliser, and then it is left to The Man – Aaron Ramsey – to score the winner from a ‘gorgeous’ Olivier Giroud back heel. My twenty-six year wait is over. As the players parade the trophy, I look down and notice that the person behind me has spilled his drink. This time, however, it is only Coca-Cola.
So, in the end, what led to me becoming an Arsenal supporter?
It wasn’t the winning or the new stadium. It wasn’t the glamour of new signings. It certainly wasn’t the long-running tendency to lose big Cup matches. Two things made the difference: the way they played – breathtaking, attacking football allied to a miserly defence – and they way they operated. I came to recognise that the Club’s values were compatible with my own. Where others had oil money, Arsenal had stability. Where others had expensive, ready-made star signings, Arsenal had unknowns (or little-knowns) who became stars. Where others mortgaged their future, Arsenal lived within its means. Where others had a new manager every year, Arsenal had the pioneering genius Arsène Wenger. It took me a long time to make my mind up to become an Arsenal supporter – about eighteen years – but, having made the decision, I haven’t regretted it once.