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Amongst Friends


"Dad, I want to support a football team but I don't know which one, how do people decide which team to support?" 

As a 7 year old in 1992, i had no idea how important the answer to that question would be. My Dad informed me that one of the ways in which people "choose" their football team was to find out the team closest to their place of birth. A quick scan of the map using our fingers to measure the distance, eventually confirmed that I was born slightly closer to Arsenal than I was to Tottenham (phew). 

And so it was to be Arsenal. This felt like a good decision and I looked forward to sharing this new part of my identity with my classmates the following day. For the next year or so, I began my apprenticeship of fandom. I had provided my parents and family with a new world of birthday and Christmas gifts that would guarantee to delight.

I spent hours reading annuals and learning irrelevant statistics that I would reel off to classmates, family members and  anybody with the patience to stay and listen to a sentence that began "do you know where David Seaman was born...?". My favourite stat was that Arsenal's biggest league defeat and league victory had both been against the same team...Loughborough Town and that amazingly, there were only a few years between games. I also began to watch more and more football and, as a result, I was forming opinions on, not just Arsenal players, but of other teams and their players. 

But there was a problem. I was brought up in Scotland. I went to a primary school dominated by Glasgow Rangers fans. There was still lots of interest in the English game but this was restricted to part-time Manchester United followers (is there any other kind?). Alex Ferguson was a hero due to his roots and successes and unfortunately the same reverence was not extended to our own Scottish manager. I started to find that my opinions were completely out of line with that of my peers. Why did nobody else love Ian Wright? Why did nobody else hate Peter Schmeichel? Why could nobody else see that the root of all evil was a small club with a small club mentality called Tottenham Hotspur? I remember a few years later having a conversation with three Rangers fans who were convinced that not only was Laudrup a better player than Bergkamp but Barry Ferguson was just as good as Vieira...incredible. 

Being an Arsenal fan in a small corner of the west of Scotland was proving to be an isolating experience. Was it possible that I had got it all wrong? Maybe Arsenal weren't so great after all. Maybe I had picked the wrong team, maybe i just had some strange opinions on football that nobody else shared. Or at least that's what i thought. 

It was two years before my first trip to Highbury. Needless to say, I have never been so excited in my entire life. I could wax lyrical about the moment you first see the turf and hear the crowd in full voice. I could talk at length about the pre-match excitement, or the feeling I got when we scored and Highbury rose to its feet as one with a deafening roar. But plenty of other entries on this site have done that, and they have done it more justice than I ever could. All of these things were fantastic and addictive and relevant and important to me even today whenever I go and watch The Arsenal, but the most important feeling that I got from that match (a 2-1 win against Coventry City on the 23rd October 1994 with Wrighty scoring both goals) was a distinct sense that I was amongst friends. 

Watching the game, and watching Ian Wright weave his predatory magic, it became abundantly clear that everyone in the ground loved this man. At school, whenever I had talked about Wrighty in glowing terms the best response I could expect was an uninterested head nod, the worst would question if he had the ability of Ally McCoist. But Highbury knew how good he was, and they loved him for it. They also loved Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn and David Seaman and Paul Merson and Lee Dixon and (for the most part) Eddie McGoldrick. This was my first experience of watching Arsenal live and for the following 15 or so years that I was living in Scotland, whenever I travelled to watch Arsenal, one of the things I looked forward to the most was the connection I had with the 30,000 odd people with the same opinions as me on the (w)rights and wrongs in football. 

Whenever I thought a player had done something well or impressive my thoughts were accompanied by a clap of hands from all around me. Whenever I enjoyed a thumping tackle, my thoughts would be vocalised by the other Gooners shouting "well in" or "come on" or simply, but most gloriously "Whaaayyy". Whenever a player who I had hated for doing one of the thousand things that I allow myself to hate players for doing, touched the ball there were boos all around, because these Gooners held grudges just as fastidiously and uncompromisingly as I did. 

One of the most vivid memories of this football synchronisation came in the Charity Shield match against Manchester United in 1999. I hated Teddy Sheringham. I hated him when he was at Tottenham before I even realised that Arsenal fans are supposed to hate Tottenham. The problem was that I wasn't even really sure why I hated him, and my school friends had made me think that this was completely unreasonable on my part as he was a good player and as a United player they loved him.

My memory is hazy but after coming on at Wembley Sheringham was involved in some sort of an incident. He may have missed a chance or fouled one of our players or possibly even just have been close to where we were sitting. Whatever he did, his mere presence seemed like it was enough to infuriate the Arsenal fan sitting behind me. He leapt to his feet and unleashed a torrent of abuse that was unrelenting, unforgiving, brutal and very, very funny. I started to laugh and noticed that all of the other Gooners were laughing too. They hated Sheringham! I was right, he was an awful man and it was my schoolmates who were the idiots for not being able to see it! 

I live in London now and I have a number of friends who are Arsenal fans. If I ever want to rant about how I can't stand Evra, or how Bale is overrated or how Sagna doesn't get the praise he deserves then I don't have to look too far to find agreement. I certainly get a better response here than when I was talking to a load of 8-year-old Glasgow Rangers fans. But the fact remains, that what I really love about being a football fan and more specifically an Arsenal fan is the overwhelming sense of affirmation that you get when you are sitting with 60,000 people who think exactly the same thing that you do.

I despise having to listen to lazy commentary about our weak defending from set pieces, our trophy drought, the fact that Spurs could overtake us this year (and every year since the dawn of time) and our refusal to spend money. I'd much rather have the ongoing commentary of my fellow Gooners, the roar when we score a goal, the boos when an enemy is in possession or the sound of laughter and joy when John Terry falls on his arse on the way to a Van Persie finishing masterclass! 


Reader Comments (1)

I always felt I was amoungst friends at Highbury where ever I was located.From the old North Bank in my teens and 20,s to the East Corner of the North Bank when I became older and more responsible! Thence to the North Bank Upper when it became all seater.
I do not always feel the same at the Emirates as It depends upon where I sit.
Sheringham and Spurs -I hate them !

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMadGooner51
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