WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF
Thirty years after a father first took a son to Highbury, a new generation of Gooner is now accustomed to the comfort of Ashburton Grove. But the message is still the same, “Thanks for bringing me, Dad”
Highbury, North London. I am about to watch my first ever Arsenal game. It is the early Eighties. Islington is still predominantly working class. I clutch my dad’s hand, fearful but excited at what is about to happen, unaware that my life will change forever.
Terraced houses veer into sight from the endless feet walking up the mottled grey pathway that leads from the subterranean tube train where grown men in red scarves and hats, smoke, drink and curse. It is gunmetal grey deep midwinter. Already the light is fading. We are minutes away from the 3pm kick-off. A kick-off time that seems as immoveable then as it will become anachronistic in the years to come.
My dad, an immigrant to this uncaring city, has taken his fair share of knocks, but watching Arsenal gives him joy, gives him a release, even though the vintage he takes me to see are decidedly mediocre. Certainly in terms of the great teams of the past that are part of the rich folklore of his beloved club. Is this where I got my love of Arsenal Football Club from? Not the winning, certainly not the defeats – which left me grumpy and inarticulate with rage, despair, shame, or all of them – come to think of it they still do – but the simple, ridiculous pleasure of supporting my team through thick and thin.
A tall, wide building looms at me, white-walled with indents for windows. The lettering reads Arsenal Stadium. Red flags are flying horizontal, ragged in the freezing wind.
Although it is cold I have time to marvel at the Art Deco East Stand, before I even know what the phrase even means. I can’t have been the only Gunners supporting schoolboy who had heard of a 1930s architectural movement, along with the term “listed-building”. And of course I knew that marble halls were the same as hallowed corridors.
We walk up substantial thick-set steps, my small legs aching with the effort. But what greets me when I get to the entrance is something that lives with me forever. My dad looks down at me with a kindly look, not just to make sure I’m ok but to also savour his son enjoying his first views of the pitch and the inside of this ground, that will become as familiar to me as the front rooms in the council estate flats grow up in.
Pat Jennings is in goal in the darkening middle distance. He strides on cloying mud that seems to be encroaching on the entire penalty area. But what stands out for me, apart from the sheer size of the gentle Northern Irishman’s hands, is the colour green. I had expected my vision to be engulfed in waves of red, but the greenness of the pitch coupled with our goalkeeper’s dark green jumper disorientates me. Even now, especially for the first home game of the season, I find myself staring at the sheer lush greenness of the turf at Ashburton Grove (and no I’ll never call it by a sponsor’s name) and drift back to the days when mud was mud, astounded at how well kept our turf is.
We are seated in the East Stand as dad has a bad leg. The crowd standing in the North Bank seems a vast amorphous mass. Indistinct chants that I would soon come to know by heart create a sound that amplifies under the corrugated iron roof. All around me are twisting whorls of smoke and grumbling. Grown men swear profusely. That, of course, shocks and attracts me. But it is the difference in tones of the swearing that intrigues. Some curse with real anger and aggression, others use it as a prop, more still use the words as nouns, adjectives and everything in between. But none are uttered without passion. Without caring. These Arsenal fans are loyal and long suffering. They feel the pain of every misplaced pass, of every miscontrolled ball, of every bad pass and failed attack. I begin to understand that passion comes suddenly, even though it takes me a long time to realise it can last a lifetime.
The ball gets lofted high into the air, so high it almost reaches the upper tier. It drops again, thudding the soft, bald turf which absorbs the impact. Cold or not, I want to head the ball away so that my team can clear the danger. I am already infatuated with the game. With my team. With Arsenal Football Club.
Dad looks at me. “Enjoying it?” he asks me, already knowing the answer. I nod vigorously, to show him how much I really love it. “It’s brilliant – but do you think we’ll win?” I ask with genuine concern. He looks at me with a slight uneasiness, aware of the weighty responsibility that comes with investing a love of a football club into his young son, with all that it entails. “Yes of course”, he says slightly hesitantly. I don’t think anything of it at the time, I am simply re-assured because dads are never wrong, are they? “Thanks Dad”, I say. “Thanks for bringing me”.
I must have attended nearly a thousand Arsenal games over the years; had a season ticket for 30 years; been to over 50 European away games and the same amount of reserve ones. I travelled home and away religiously for decades and have nearly as many stories. I have tried to spot future players at freezing cold South East Counties game. My friends and I have spent New Year’s Eve on the hard shoulder of the M6 after breaking down on the way back from Villa Park; drunk far more scrumpy than is necessary at a pre-season friendly in Yeovil; been chased by Millwall through Dickensian back alleys; slept on roundabouts in France on European away games; visited a mate in hospital in Copenhagen the day after a UEFA Cup Final – six years after we won the Cup Winners Cup on our first trip there. The same city, completely different outcomes on and off the pitch.
I have been at the Parc de Princes and was part of the chorus that helped sing the first ever “1-0 to the Arsenal”. I sat in the Stade de France, 17 minutes from eternal glory; I have also sat in a muddy field in Wrexham after one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history. I have had riotous nights out in Cardiff and Bradford on the back of crushing defeats and I have been surrounded by Real Madrid fans in the Bernabeu – before a kindly soul who couldn’t speak a word of English, thrust out a friendly hand offering me a full plastic cup of Rioja and a paper plate stacked with jamon. And when Henry scored one of the best goals in Arsenal’s history, the same man shook my hand and simply said, “Muy bien”.
I have been stranded on the motorway in deep snow attempting to get to Luton; got all the way to Middlesbrough on a National Express Coach only to find our Tuesday evening game called off. Incidentally, not wanting to spend the night in a pub in a freezing deserted town, I went to the pictures and chose the longest film available – there can’t be many people who can say they travelled all the way to Teeside just to watch Lord of The Rings before getting back on an overnight National Express Coach to London, which took a mind-numbing seven hours.
I have seen us win every trophy we’ve won since the Eighties – if you discount the two years I spent travelling – and even then I managed to find BBC World Service in dusty Nicaragua to hear us win an FA Cup Final. I have been stood on top of a stunning Mayan ruin in deepest Yucatan and had a conversation with a Mexican about the need for a decent reserve goalkeeper; been on a black granite Buddhist stupor in Java, chatting to an Indonesian about our transfer policy; walked through Vietnam’s DMZ while a man whose grandfather was in the North Vietnamese Army asked me my thoughts on Thierry Henry; been on a Roman fort in Sardinia and talked about the need for a back-up striker. I have been on a ferry in beautiful Sydney harbour with my back to the Opera House and Bridge, engrossed in talk about us beating Spurs.
While working for a Charity in Kampala’s biggest slum, I had the unsettling experience of a child with HIV asking me about Jack Wilshere. Unsettling because, although I had no way of understanding his suffering, I could empathise with his passion. With retrovirals in short supply I just wondered how long he would be able to support our team.
Arsenal Football Club has provided me with searing highs and crushing lows, and despite our form, the quality (or lack of) of our players, our transfer news (or lack of), scandalous ticket prices, and absentee chairmen, the fact is wherever I have travelled, Arsenal has been my lingua franca.
I have seen us lose finals in the flesh in six different competitions but supporting Arsenal is about the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the dry humour, the gallows humour, the beers, the lock-ins, the joyous goal celebrations where you wonder if you’ll ever breathe again, the crazy away days, the miserable away days, the fans you meet along the way (some of whom have become lifelong friends), the mishaps, the glory, the thrilling fightbacks, the crushing failures, the pain, the dedication involved, the guilt at seeing loved ones hurt at the amount of time you invest in such an unfeeling institution. Supporting Arsenal (or any club) is a lifelong addiction, one destined for as much sadness and regret as happiness and success. If that sounds like a family, I think you’re right – a family is what it is for me and countless others. For better or worse it’s in the blood.
I have seen most of the players fielded in the Red and White of Arsenal over the last 30 years. From John Hawley and Lee Chapman to Denis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. From David O’Leary, Gus Caesar and Andy Linighan to Matty Upson, Igor Stepanovs and the worst centre-halves I have ever seen in Sebastien Squillaci and Mikael Silvestre.
I cried with David Rocastle and Paul Merson when they were forced out of the club, yet never forgave Ashley Cole; I have seen moments of skill that have burned into my consciousness, from Glenn Helder absolutely skinning Stuart Pearce to Ian Wright Wright Wright twisting, turning and lobbing the ball over various Everton players heads before doing the same to that Big Nev Southall. From Patrick Vieira blockbusters to my original hero Charlie Nicholas lighting up “by far the greatest team”, when to be fair there wasn’t much greatness about; a Kanu hat-trick at Chelsea, where he was so near the line they should have shouted “Mind the gap!” at Fulham Broadway.
I have seen Ian Ian Allinson and Rocky scoring at White Hart Lane to send us through to Wembley, which still remains my favourite Arsenal game ever. I have also seen us ship five at the Lane, and seen us win the league there. I actually sat in the home end that glorious day. Unable to move when we went 2-0 up early on, my cheek started involuntarily shaking. It was nice to know at least part of my body still celebrated outwardly.
I used to memorise the date of every fixture the day they were announced. I don’t do that anymore because they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. TV is not the only thing that is different. As I look back on three decades of supporting Arsenal Football Club I reflect on the changes that have occurred.
From a small shop counter run by Wales’s greatest ever keeper the kindly Jack Kelsey to a global money-making enterprise known throughout the world. From Terry Neill, Don Howe, Gorgeous George and one nil to the Arsenal, to the best attacking team that I have ever seen, which could also defend a bit – the 2004 improbable, immortal, Invincibles.
From the Steak and Chips pre-match staple to Arsene’s steamed broccoli and stretching, which not only gave new life to our famed back four but revolutionised English football; from cramped but glorious Highbury to the shiny new ground on an old rubbish tip; from average players who mostly gave their all, to talented players who sometimes don’t; from working-class heroes on the terraces to £25,000-a-year businessmen in Diamond Level who don’t even re-appear for the second half. In fact, the only constant I have known in that time is the sheer devotion, faithfulness, dependability – and let’s say it, love – of the many loyal fans who are proud to call themselves Gooners and who give themselves up willingly to the cause. I salute you all.
Reading, Berkshire. Late October 2012. A small boy is about to watch his first-ever Arsenal away game. He clutches at his dad’s hand, fearful but excited, unaware of what is about to happen. Grown men in Arsenal scarves and hats, loiter, drink, smoke and curse outside. The father and son enter the away end at the new purpose built ground on the town’s outskirts. The boy’s dad has taken his fair share of knocks, but watching Arsenal gives him joy, gives him a release, even though the vintage he takes his son to see are decidedly mediocre. Certainly in terms of the great teams of the past that are part of the rich folklore of his beloved club.
Within 20 minutes Arsenal are 4-0 down. The boy looks up at his dad, crestfallen. The man takes a deep breath and tries to console his son, who is on the verge of tears. The best he can manage is a pathetic, “It’s not over yet”. The six-year-old nods uncomprehendingly as his eyes well up. Two hours later – two crazy, joyous, ridiculous, life-affirming, life-threatening, hours later – Arsenal win 7-5 in extra time.
I stare at my son with a kindly look. “Did you enjoy it?” I ask him, already knowing the answer. He nods vigorously, to show me how much he really loved it. “It was brilliant” he replies. I look at him with a slight uneasiness, aware of the weighty responsibility that comes with investing a love of a football team into my boy, with all that it entails. “Told you we’d win”, I joke. My son doesn’t say anything but is re-assured because dads are never wrong are they?
“Thanks Dad”, he says, “Thanks for bringing me”, and I feel my throat catch.