A guest post from @foreverheady
Serendipity. Just about my favourite word, meaning, as it does, a happy accident or a chance discovery. It was serendipity that led me to The Arsenal back in 1997. I am aware as I write this that it disqualifies me from ever being regarded as a proper fan, although I shan’t lose too much sleep about that. My first team was Portsmouth, being the closest side geographically to where I grew up, and I followed them with the enthusiasm that only a boy can manage. My parents were kind, taking me to a few matches, including one memorable birthday treat, a midweek match under lights against Hull that led to a resounding 4-0 home defeat. I still recall the smarting embarrassment of explaining to the two carefully chosen friends I was allowed to take that we were normally much better than that, though of course in my heart of hearts I knew that that was about our level. I suppose enduring an away League Cup defeat to South Coast rivals, Brighton and Hove Albion, then a whole division beneath Pompey, had already taught me not to rely too heavily on sporting idols. We went posh in the stands then, but my true ambition was always to be behind the goal at the Fratton End. John Milkins was my brilcreemed hero, and I remember every detail of his pre-match routine when I finally strutted my stuff on the terraces: it is hard to imagine Szczesny removing his false teeth and placing them with loving care in the little bag that held cap and gloves before acknowledging his fans with gap-toothed grin, but no doubt whatever he does will be etched firmly in the memory of today’s urchins.
In my late teens I moved along the coast to Brighton, and unforgivably they began to supplant Pompey in my affections, largely because I was able to go and see them fairly regularly. Some of my friends got to know a couple of the players and they would leave tickets on the gate for us. It was my first real experience of supporting a successful team, and my memory is of seeing them go from Third to First Division in successive seasons, mainly due to the trickery of Peter Ward: exciting times, and it was down to The Seagulls that I first went to Highbury, for the FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, a thirty yard screamer from dead-ball specialist Jimmy Case seeing Brighton to Wembley for the first, and perhaps only, time. I drifted away a bit after that, leaving my old life behind. I moved close to Reading and a new career took over, while football itself lost much of its glamour: Heysel, Hillsborough and England’s reputation for thuggery didn’t do much for its image, and if I remember rightly the BBC even dropped Match of the Day. There didn’t seem much incentive to stay in touch, and the highs and lows of the Turf began to take the place of Football, especially as for geographical reasons I no longer really had a team to support and there wasn’t much to watch on TV in the late 80s and early 90s.
But in February 1997, Jim, a good mate and diehard Palace fan, was keen to go and watch the Fifth Round Cup-tie with another friend, subsequently Best Man at my wedding, who followed The Arsenal. I tagged along and high up in the Clock End saw possibly the worst and most boring game I had ever seen. 0-0 but terrible though it was it was good to be back at the football and I realised how much I had missed it all. As luck would have it the replay was on the TV the following week, and I began to recognise some of the players. They still weren’t desperately convincing, although they won the tie, and points adrift in the League and surely destined to progress not much further in the cup, they seemed a reasonable side to pledge my allegiance to. My father had supported The Arsenal, my best friend did and it seemed appropriate for me to do so. I wanted to be able to say I had a team again, and could surely never be accused of glory hunting for siding with such a seemingly dull side managed by such a strange and owlish man. That the league form immediately turned round, that they chased down United and went on to win the Double was the stuff of fantasy: the tenner on Overmars to score the first goal at Wembley the icing on a rich and unexpected cake. In hindsight it wasn’t a bad time to start following The Arsenal. Serendipity indeed.
But despite the astonishing success that followed on from that great season, I couldn’t really claim to be a proper fan. I looked for the results of course, enjoyed the highlights on TV, basked in the vicarious glow of the side’s success, but I wasn’t with them all the way. There was too much of my own career still to do to spend any time worrying about the careers of strangers, too much of my own life to live to need to live through the life of others. And – and this makes me feel uncomfortable for what it reveals about me – there was also a slight discomfort about supporting such an invincible team, for what is the point of following a side if they are never going to lose? In my formative years I’d regularly been let down by Harry Harris, Ray Pointer, Nicky Jennings: what right had I to go through a season unbeaten? I might as well have been a United or Liverpool fan, a plastic twat in the eyes of many, and maybe myself too.
And that is how it stayed for a good while, through the good seasons, through the move from Highbury, through the disappointments, which while not massive on a global scale, were, none the less, disappointing. I enjoyed supporting The Arsenal, but it was all fairly lukewarm until my boy Daniel started to take an interest four seasons ago, and that – well, that changed everything. Although we didn’t know it at the time it was van Persie’s last season, and he was Daniel’s first hero. I didn’t know how to break it to him that he was leaving, and I didn’t expect him to stay loyal, but despite constant bullying from a United fan, he remained committed to the cause, and suddenly for me there was a real point to supporting the club. Posters went up on bedroom walls, kits were bought, the first family trip to The Emirates arranged. And perhaps crucially for me there was a vulnerability about the team that made supporting them all the more important. Of course they lost to Bradford, of course they got knocked out by Blackburn, of course the new signings took time to settle in – but these reversals made the triumphs all the more worthwhile, and when the team clicked and played the kind of football that only a Wenger team can play, then I really knew I was following by far the greatest team the world had ever seen. Like many dads who have bought their child a trainset too early, The Arsenal took me over completely. I discovered football websites and the whole paraphernalia of social media, and gradually began to find like-minded souls from around the world with whom I could share my hopes and fears. I also began to discover bias, treachery, propaganda and disinformation, which at first dismayed but then, far from annoying me, merely fuelled what was by now becoming a full blown obsession. I began to feel personally responsible for my team.
It would be ridiculous to say that The Arsenal has taken over my life, for there is far too much going on for that to be the case. Both of my children have their own sport to play, and I get to spend plenty of time ferrying them from this pitch to that one. If Netball tournaments get arranged for Cup-final day, then Netball takes priority, if midweek matches coincide with cricket nets, then the cricket comes first. It has to be like that. My job gets irritatingly in the way, and my wife’s career also takes some juggling, so all in all I ought to be able to say that I am not totally dependent on The Arsenal to give meaning to my days. Nevertheless, there are few moments where I am not agonising over the latest result or looking forward to the next match with that familiar and awful mixture of hope and fear. I would love to be able to go to more matches, and maybe in a few years’ time that will be easier to do, but for now I feel fortunate to be able to watch so many games on the TV, to read and write so much about the club, and to have met, either virtually or in real-life, so many wonderful fellow travellers on the Sunshine Bus. To some I may not be a proper fan, but in my heart of hearts I know that very few care as much about The Arsenal as I do. That it took a nil-all home draw to put me on the right track merely confirms that the condition is now probably terminal.