Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The Road to Highbury
The cliched answer is: You don't, it chooses you.
The real answer is: You don't, you just know.
My - for the want of a better word - journey to becoming an Arsenal supporter took rather longer than most people. Most people, you see, know which club they're going to support from a very early age, and they grow up with those colours being part of their identity.
Then there are others who flirt with teams, trying to find the right fit, the right partnership, the right bunch of eleven drunks and millionaire slackers on whom to waste their emotions.
Some people even go through life without finding their team. They might watch from afar, or not even watch at all, for not everybody is a football fan, and not everybody likes sports at all. That's their life choice, whether their existance is richer or not because of this is neither here nor there, but it is a choice none the less.
My father took me to see Chelsea when I was nine years old. I liked football, I was allowed up late to watch Match of the Day at the age of six or so, and I was born in Parsons Green, within spitting distance of Chelsea's Stamford Bridge ground. So, Dad wangled a couple of tickets, and away we went to see them lose at home to Stoke City.
I decided to "like" Chelsea, but I never followed them obsessively. There was something about the ground (a dump), the team (overpaid underachievers) and - most of all - the fans (knuckle-dragging simians with a liking for violence) which meant I could never choose Chelsea.
And then, in my late teens, I found work and my boss took me along to see Reading play. I flirted with Reading FC for a couple of seasons, like the nice girl who lives a few doors down who you fancy but can't quite find the courage to ask out. Watching Reading was genteel, not without interest, but unltimately unsatisfying. Yes, I lived in the town, they were my local team, but I was a London boy at heart.
At this stage, I would like to admit to a brief affair with Fulham. It meant nothing.
Football supporters will tell you when they KNOW they've chosen their team, and in virtually every case it's that moment they enter the stadium, climb the steps to the terrace and catch that first glimpse of green under the floodlights as the crowd sways and singss below. That's the magic moment. That's when it grabs you.
"Want to come see the Arsenal?" my brother asked, "More fun than that Reading shit."
Nigel had been to college for a year, and had fallen in with some local lads who were regulars at Highbury. Yes, I'll go.
"It's away. West Ham."
Holy Mother of Jesus.
The moment came as I climbed the steps into the away end of Upton Park. And - WHAM - the noise, the cigarette smoke, the raw aggression that was rather absent at Elm Park. The crowd swayed and surged, and I swayed and surged with it. Sometimes I could see the pitch, sometimes I couldn't. But I didn't care, because I was part of a larger whole, somewhere I knew I belonged.
Arsenal were shit that night and lost 3-1. I was hooked.
We had some fun times. We had some bloody awful times.
Twenty-something years later, I'm still hooked, even though Arsenal and I don't talk much these days. But I know, I'm part of it.