I’ve been a Gooner (an Arsenal fan to the uninitiated, who will stop reading right about….now) since I was seven. My Dad was a rugby fan with no ties to any particular football team, so whilst I played football morning, noon and night, I didn’t support any one team. I admired the Liverpool team of the seventies, who didn’t, but it didn’t even occur to me to become a glory hunter and start supporting them. My granddad collected the football cards that came in his packet of smokes and gave them to me – and I collected my Panini football stickers with more allegiance to filling empty spaces in my sticker book than to the teams they represented.
I was born in Barking which is a mere pass, dribble and shoot away from Upton Park, the home of West Ham United. But even at seven I knew they called themselves ‘the Irons’ and I also knew that Iron in Cockney meant poof, so that was a non-starter. So I just carried along in my own merry little way, playing football for the school, the street, the gang - whoever would let me to be honest (and when that was no-one then it was me versus the wall).
Then came the day that would change my life forever, for better or worse I know not, just changed. That day was Saturday 6th May 1978 - FA Cup Final day – Ipswich v Arsenal.
We had gone to a Cup Final party at friends of my Mums, I remember they lived in Upminster and that they had a daughter called Sarah but I remember nothing more unless it was footy related. The whole house seemed to be supporting Ipswich, I guess that’s because they were considered the underdog at the time and me being the contrary bugger that I was back then (and possibly still am), I decided I would get behind the Arsenal.
I couldn’t tell you too much about the game – I remember being spell bound by Liam Brady running down the wing and when they substituted him mid way through the second half, I swore I saw tears in his eyes and that was it - I was officially a Gooner. Incidentally I met him years later in the hospitality lounge at the 2003 Cup Final and as I nervously collected his autograph like the seven year old I had become, I rather gushingly told him he was the reason I had become an Arsenal fan.
Anyway, I digress, Arsenal ended up losing that game 1-0, but that didn’t matter - I was hooked and I was a Gooner, and nothing was ever going to change that.
I got lucky as a fan, many have to wait years to see their team lift any silverware but I had to wait precisely a year and six days, for on 12th May 1979 Arsenal were back at Wembley, this time against a team that would become a thorn in my backside – Man Utd (further referred to as “Manure”). I don’t know if it’s the romanticism of looking back through age tinted glasses, but that was probably the greatest Cup Final I have ever seen. The sun was shining, we were two up by half time, but with ten minutes to go we were starting to look very tired. Then came the Manure fight back and within five minutes and with less than five to go, they had brought it back to 2-2. Even I could see that there was no way our boys would last another 30 minutes of extra time, we were doomed.
Luckily for me, Brady thought otherwise. In the final minute he shrugged off two challenges and passed outside to Graham Rix. Rix crosses over and up pops Alan Sunderland to head in the winner. I went mad and ran around the front room screaming my head off (even writing this now has given me goose bumps).
After that it was slim pickings for a while, a Cup Final defeat to West Ham the following year, a League Cup win against Liverpool in ’87 (thanks to Charlie ‘Champagne’ Nicholas), but it was mostly a lot of dour football. I had started going to the matches with my mates by then, part of the North Bank faithful and by now Arsenal had become my religion.
I was lucky enough to have seen some of the great Arsenal legends – Henry, O’Leary, Rocastle, Wright, Vierra, Bergkamp and Adams (AKA God). I’ve also been lucky enough to watch players who would bleed red and white, players like Groves, Parlour (AKA the Romford Pele), Davis, Keown, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn. Neither of those lists is exhaustive, but I could go on for hours without even getting to Limpar, Ljungberg and Lukic. The trouble is, that’s all in the past - if you cut our current crop of players they will bleed pound notes and then sue you for breach of contract.
I think my love affair with all things Arsenal is coming to an end.
I think it all started with Cashley Hole (AKA Mr Cheryl Cole) and his “I nearly swerved off the road” comment re his proposed wage increase to a mere £55K a WEEK, five grand less than he wanted, and it’s all gone downhill since then. Sure we are playing some of the best football I have ever seen (well we were ‘till this season) and we are always there or thereabouts when it comes to the League title, but I’m used to investing time and loyalty to these players but they don’t seem to want to pay it back anymore.
Sure, maybe it’s because I’m getting older and more cynical now - I’m thirty-ten now and not as naïve as I once was – and maybe I haven’t got as much time to spare watching football, the kids want to go out and play it after all, but surely we as fans deserve some degree of loyalty from these overpaid mercenaries?
It was only when my 17 year old daughter texted me Sunday afternoon to check on the score because she was nowhere near a TV, that I realised that instead of watching the game I was out in the garage cleaning up (jeez you may as well pass me the pipe and slippers). I haven’t watched a whole game this season and come to think of it, I can’t really recall watching many at all this year. It looks like I’ve been a Gooner in name only for a while and I’m not sure how much that bothers me?
Would the Gooner in me today be able to write this piece here again http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/opinion/28iht-edharding.html?ref=global ? I somehow doubt it, the passion has gone, but do I blame the team or my age? I want to be a hard-core fan again but what’s the point when the players leave as soon as some rich club show them a flash of knickers and a garter belt stuffed with cash? I’ve realised that as you get older, the amount of hurt in your life increases exponentially and I’m not sure that I want to add the pain of losing games, or players to it.
So I don’t know where that leaves me.
When I started writing this piece, I had come to think of myself as someone who, from now on, would just keep an eye on the results with a smile or a frown. But the writing of this and the watching of old goals on YouTube has made me somehow doubt that that would be possible. I still shed a tear when I watch old clips of Rocastle play and I guess that will never change.
Arsenal, I’m giving you one more chance. One more chance to inspire me, to make me shout, to make me sing, to make me cry. One more chance I tell you.
But who am I kidding?