I hadn’t been back for some thirty years, but as I walked down the streets from the station I felt a familiar quickening of the pulse, a nagging mixture of fear and excitement that took me right back to the first time I made that journey, when still a small boy on my way to winter nets at the County Ground. I’d known then there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and I’d already written my future. County debut, county cap, playing for England. “Simples” as they say. And for the next ten years or so some of that at least came true, and Hove and that ground became just about my all. It loomed large in all I did, all I thought I was – and I was saddened beyond words when the dream faded. So I was chuffed to bits with my invitation to a past players’ reunion: drinks and lunch and do you remembers with a bit of Sussex v Derbyshire thrown in: what more could a poor boy want?
But seeing the ground again after so long came as a shock: it was tiny – or at least nowhere as huge as I remembered. And this got me thinking, because although I’d heard plenty of people tell me that their first school seemed small when they went back to visit, I’d always assumed it was because they were only children then, and as they’d grown so the school had shrunk, or at least seemed to shrink. A physical repositioning if you like, perspective inevitably shifted as the magic barriers of three, four and five feet fell behind. But this was something else: I hadn’t suddenly shot up in my late thirties, and I rather doubt if any shrinkage of the ground had taken place. But there had to be something to explain it, and I think it goes something like this. When something is important to us, like a job, school or hobby, it assumes a much greater significance than anything else in our life, and so takes up a disproportionate amount of space in our minds. When we move on, and other things replace it, some shrinkage inevitably happens: the proportions are altered and we see it as it always truly was – we no longer let our emotional state dictate dimension. Everything is relative I’m told, but I also like the way the human mind can bend time and space.
And I wonder if this is the problem for football fans when their club decides to move stadium? Does the ground that they remember from their youth still loom large in their minds, dwarfing the current stadium, however contrary to the physical reality that is? Will West Ham fans forever feel Upton Park as bigger than the London Stadium? Will City supporters remember Maine Road as somehow larger than the Etihad? Is Highbury greater than the Emirates for Gooners of a certain age? I think perhaps it might be – and there is something else too that I realised while talking to some of the game’s greats who had come to that lunch. The modern player just doesn’t compare to the heroes of an earlier age. As the Derbyshire attack laboured to dismiss fragile Sussex batters it was impossible to forget Khan and Le Roux, Wessels and Miandad, Dexter and Snow. Surely they would have been doing better? That is certainly how it seemed as one glass led to another, and I am equally sure that the footballing heroes of an earlier time are accorded the same rose-tinted privileges as the Tollington pints bolster the memory of those frustrated by Giroud’s failure to penetrate the two banks of five so irritatingly parked across the North Bank box. Thierry would find a way, Dennis would break the deadlock, Charlie would be flat on his back waiting for the plaudits.
And yet, of course, they wouldn’t – or at least not all of the time. Even the Invincibles spluttered and stuttered to disappointing draws, and I saw enough human frailty in those cricketers I mentioned to know that although at times they were brilliant, all too often they missed straight ones or bowled unaccountably short and wide. They too were compared unfavourably to their forebears, and perhaps that is the fate of us all – to never quite match up to what went before. And yet, and yet, the irresistible march of progress suggests that new generations frequently outdo the exploits of previous ones. Olympic records fall, coaching methods improve, players look after themselves properly, and I am as sure as I can be about anything that the bar in all sport is being raised all the time. Yes, the greats of the past would thrive if they could travel to the future, but they’d probably have to find new ways of playing to do so. As my children point out to me, the world I grew up in was black and white, and it seems to me that just about everything is better now than when I was a child – except, of course, my ability to have a child’s eye wonder at all that I see, and the energy and optimism to make of the moment something special.
But is also seems to me that Football, and in particular The Arsenal (for that is the club that has chosen me in later life) offer me the chance to become properly childlike once more for brief moments of time. Coleridge spoke of the willing suspension of disbelief, and this (for me, Glen) is the whole point of football and my enjoyment of it each match day. I could adopt a weary cynicism, reflect the game not worth stopping for, hector a few well-worn phrases and know the current cast of crooks and tarts are not fit to wear the shirt. But what on earth would be the point of that? Why make myself miserable each week, when I could be doing something better? So what I choose to do is to Peter Pan it, and see the team as I used to see my earliest heroes back in the 60s. Each time we play I enjoy the terrible nervousness that they will let themselves down and force me to explain to all and sundry how good they really are. I get caught up in it all once the whistle starts. I wear the shirt, and hold the scarf (ridiculous in a Berkshire suburban home, but there you are). I even make a mug of Bovril at half-time, which I enjoy every bit as little as ever I did on the terraces all those years ago. And I know too that thousands of real 10 and 11 year olds think that Mesut Ozil and Alexis are the stuff of legend, and that one day they will shake their heads at the stars of 2040 and reflect that they are just not the same. Things may come and things may go but the art school dance goes on forever, as some dismal prog rockers had it, but it is the on-going dance to the music of time that is so special and allows the terrible sadness of our little life seem sometimes not quite so sad. One day we won’t be able to watch at all, so why not gather our rosettes (whatever happened to them, by the way?) while we may and enjoy the sumptuous feast that our fragile heroes attempt to provide each time they pull on the famous red and white. Let the coaches and those who are paid to at least not make things worse deal with realism – but let me be young and easy in the mercy of time’s means – or at least for 90 minutes each week. Its not just London that is calling, but a brief oasis free from care and worry. Like out near neighbours, it is the gift that keeps on giving, and I, for one, am truly thankful still to be allowed a sense of life’s feast.
That exceptional writing was brought to you by our man @foreverheady