So how did you spend the football free Easter break? Tiptoeing Wordsworth like through the sudden yellow rush of spring blooms? Blowing the cobwebs off the lawnmower and wondering if that Argos garden furniture was going to last another season? Perhaps you read a book or two, planned a holiday or just filled the empty days with endless pointless arguments on Twitter. If so I hope you won, on points. You’ll never actually win of course because nobody ever changes their mind based on the opinions of someone they despise, but, if it helped pass the time then I suppose that’s all you can hope for.
I’ve done nothing of worth or merit I’m happy to say. Frivolously tearing the days of the calendar into tiny pieces and scattering their confetti to the wind as if I will live forever. Yesterday I found myself in Paulton with an hour to waste. I wonder what the condemned man, his final sixty minutes on earth laid out before him and racing away too quickly to catch, would think of my casual frittering of our only precious resource. I’ll tell you one thing I bet he wouldn’t want to spend it in Paulton.
I had dropped my son off at the local hospital and decided to see what the adjacent village had to offer. Hardly the stuff of Bill Bryson never mind Alfred Wainwright but I dutifully passed through the graveyard of an uninspiring parish church, crossed the park and marvelled at the tiny fire station unexpectedly squashed between the village hall and the swings and roundabouts of a near deserted playground.
I then chanced upon a public house. It sits opposite an imposing Methodist chapel which advertises three different forms of exotic marshal arts and a baby and toddlers group. The pub is called The Lamb and at once a wash of Arsenal fuelled memories burst across my near somnolent synapses and brought me, miraculously, back to the land of the living. It was the first week in May, 2002. John Rench and I were pondering where to watch the big game. Arsenal were due to travel to Manchester where a win would seal not only the title but another double as the FA cup had, unusually, already been won before the end of the league programme.
In the end we decided to support an old pal. Tony Teal had recently taken over the Lamb in Paulton and had installed a projector and a big screen and managed to get the Sky to work. Despite it being a school night we got ourselves dropped off in that remote, Godforsaken backwater of North East Somerset and watched Arsène clinch another famous victory, breaking more records along the way. It was a strange night. Not many people there, John and I the only Arsenal fans and the title celebrated with a shrug and a little drunken jig on a sticky carpet.
You see, back then winning the league, while not commonplace, wasn’t an entirely unexpected outcome. As I contemplated The Lamb yesterday morning, with its two obligatory old guys waiting for the doors to open, I couldn’t help but wonder how things have changed. At the turn of the century we thought nothing of going unbeaten away from home, winning our last thirteen fixtures and beating Man United in their own back yard, despite the absence of such luminescent talents as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams – all missing on the night.
Nowadays we nervously bite our finger nails wondering if a near full strength team can overcome Watford, at home, and whether such a feat will be remotely enough to keep us in touch with Spurs and Leicester at the top of the table. In a way I can see how so many of our supporters, both the lowly humdrum types such as you and I and the immense über–bloggers on their golden thrones, paint this season as a disappointment. Despite it not nearly being over yet and despite us still being in with a shot at the title, many have already written it off. I realised as I wandered from The Lamb, passed the empty café and forlorn charity shop to the boarded up bakery opposite the site of the old boot factory, that to many, Arsenal, like Paulton, has seen better days.
The very success on which Arsène’s magisterial reputation has been built casts a shadow over his present day achievements. Achievements like back to back FA cup wins are instantly forgotten with the first home defeat of the new season. Memories count for nothing. With attention spans as short as that of a hyperactive four year old many modern fans see nothing but circling vultures in dark skies and dream of a magical new world where money flows from a bottomless transfer budget and a new manager leads a shining new team to endless success and prosperity.
Even though I’m sober these days and do not set foot in places like The Lamb I find myself content to sit among that delusional, carefree set of fans who are actually delighted to consider the possibility of another title this spring. As remote and unlikely as that possibility might seem right now, I’m happy to contemplate it and savour the spice it adds to every remaining fixture. While others take their joy discussing the break up of our team, who we must sell, when the manager must go – and that is their prerogative, I do not deride them for it – I prefer to revel in the run in, to delight in this welcome distraction from the woes and the humdrum of my real life.
In his latest column for the Guardian, Clive James, still with us despite being told by the doctors quite some time ago to get his affairs in order, writes “…for someone in my condition, even a good result is a reminder that you have to go on throwing a double six to stay in the game”. As I read his words I thought how well he summed up our position right now. Almost at once I felt ashamed for conflating a man’s tenuous grip on his very existence with the trivial diversion of following a football team. I read on and James spoke of his delight in the simple pleasures of unexpectedly being alive to see spring flowers and the birds and squirrels in his garden.
I realised that taking delight in watching our favourite football team is perhaps not such a frivolous pastime. If passing time is in fact all we have to do during our brief moment here on earth then passing it in eager anticipation, pleasure and optimism is perhaps as good a way as any. If Arsène astounds everyone and pulls yet another success from his magic hat won’t the vicarious delight we take from his triumph be all the sweeter for having been on his side throughout? Perhaps. Either way I’m happy and grateful for all the memories and eager to see what more he will bring me however long he decides to stay. The future is neither bright nor dark, it just is. Enjoy the ride or don’t. It’s always been a choice, nothing more.