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Never Easy with The Arsenal

BY JOHN VERLING / @JohnVerling

Much has been written about how you choose your football club and how that choice is handed down from generation to generation. Not all choices are voluntary, and in the case of Spurs fans this borders on child abuse, but we all have a story about how our irrational love of the Arsenal began. This is mine. A story of how that love grew very quickly and has been a constant in the last thirty-nine of my forty five years on this earth.

I was almost 6-years-old, that ‘almost’ being pretty important at that age, when I was playing football ‘Up on the Road.’ It was where we played all out matches ‘Up on the Road,’ a place where boys of all ages from the four surrounding terraces would meet without arrangement every weekend and every evening so long as the light permitted.

On this one particular Sunday morning, one of the older boys, probably about 12, came down full of talk about how his team had just won The Cup. I was captivated as he spoke with excitement, naming the players, who had scored, what it had been like watching on his uncle’s television. I mean, this was the most popular boy on the road – it made it an even bigger deal. He was the fastest, strongest and best player, he even owned the football…and his team had just won The Cup.

When we were all called for dinner I ran down the steps and into our front room to tell my Dad. For some reason, typical of someone so young, I presumed he didn’t know. After all Dad’s usual Sunday routine consisted of taking us to mass, breakfast, going for a walk and settling down in the front room with the Sunday paper. True to form there he was when I rushed in with the news.

“Dad,” I gushed, “Leeds United won the Cup!”

He folded down the top half of the paper and looked at me. “What about poor old Arsenal,” he said, souning genuinely sad, “Arsenal are my team and they lost to Leeds.”

“Oh,” I replied. I felt terrible. Being happy that Leeds had won when it upset my Dad just felt very wrong. It was then I knew that Arsenal were my team. They must be I thought, they’re my Dad’s, they must be mine too. Despite being the losers they were mine. The Arsenal.

Dad went on to tell me how unlucky Arsenal had been, they were the better team but luck had deserted them and Leeds had won the match by chance. For some reason I’ve never seen the 1972 final but that’s the way I remember it happening. Apparently he wasn’t far off the mark either…

The uttering of the words ‘poor old Arsenal’ is how my love for the Gunners began. Instead of supporting a Leeds team who went on to become champions and were so good that I can probably still name their first XI, I instead opted for a team on the slide, a side being broken up after the Double of 1971 with a squad who I’d struggle to recognise.

Arsenal wouldn’t be in another final for six years and they lost that one too when they were expected to win. But those intervening years formed as an Arsenal man. It made me not expect too much from them; winning things was for other teams, the likes of Leeds, Derby, Liverpool, West Ham, and even Southampton. Not for Arsenal. Big transfers were for other clubs as well. Liverpool solf Keegan and bought Dalglish. Arsenal didn’t do that.

Towards the middle of the seventies the Gunners flirted with relegation and Bertie Mee was sacked. My Dad, who could remember the glory days of Herbert Chapman, found it very hard to see the man who’d engineered the Double being dispensed with. The appointment of Terry Neil though, combined with the signing of several Irish players, gave us a lift.

Now I had a regular team of faces to pin my love on. My wall was covered with cut outs of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, Willie Young. I even had a scrap book especially for Liam Brady, full of articles, match reports and photos from newspapers. This important collection is unfortunately now lost forever, dumped by my sister when clearing out my Dad’s house. All this and I’d never seen them play. These were the days of little or no live football on television and growing up in Cobh, Ireland made getting to Highbury nearly impossible. The only connection I had was via newspapers, Shoot magazine or football annuals at Christmas. Seems strange, bizarre even that I could become completely obsessed by something I never saw. Football commentaries on a crackly BBC radio signal helped bring life to my imaginings, but looking back it’s still bizarre behaviour.

The first time I saw my Arsenal live on TV they lost. It was the 1978 FA Cup final. Apparently they couldn’t lose, not with the players they had…but they did. The disappointment was unbearable. It was almost unbelievable that such a thing could happen to my Arsenal. Ipswich? A team called Ipswich beat Liam Brady’s team?

A year later I saw them live again. The 1979 FA Cup final this time against Manchester United. Two-nil up with five minutes to go and we were cruising. I was finally going to see them win something and it was the FA Cup which was a massive deal at the tim. Two minutes to go and it was 2-2. How could this happen? I remember looking at my father for guidance but he was in a state of shock – he couldn’t swear because he never swore in front of the kids, but I bet the words were shooting around his head.

Thankfully up stepped my hero, the man who covered my walls, the one and only Chippy Brady. On the stroke of full-time, with his socks down around his ankles, he ran through the United defence and crossed for Sunderland to score. The whistle went and we’d won. Arsenal had won the FA Cup, Liam Brady had won it for them and I saw it. My Dad had a radio with tape combination and had recorded the final on extra long tape. The last five minutes of that tape were listened to many times over that summer! Arsenal never do things the easy way and the 1979 final was my introduction to this.

The eighties started badly. Stapleton left for United. We lost the FA Cup final to West Ham, an even bigger shock than the 1978 final loss. How come Arsenal, no matter what the guise, will always lose those finals that are there for the taking? Its something that I now take for granted, I suppose it proves they’re only human and it helps keep you grounded. We lost the Cup Winners’ Cup final too. Rix and Brady missed their penalties in the shoot-out and I was distraught. Two finals lost in a week.

School was tough that week, being the only Arsenal fan I was an easy target.  That summer Brady left for Juventus. Understandably so as Italy was the place to go in those days, but I was devastated. My favourite player at my favourite team, gone. At least he didn’t go to another English team but still Arsenal seemed a lonely placed without him. As the decade continued we got worse. Terry Neill was sacked and replaced by Don Howe but it made little difference. I really came to terms with mediocrity and just assumed our best days were behind us and we were incapable of getting them back. At least by that time I’d discovered girls and had another level of disappointment to contend with. It wasn’t that I loved Arsenal any less but big time success just didn’t seem likely. That was until 14th May 1986 and the appointment of George Graham.

“He’ll sort them,” I remember Dad saying when it was announced on the radio. Sort them he did. He got rid of the ‘Fancy Dans’ and promoted the good youngsters. This coincided with the Irish national TV channel RTE showing live football every Saturday afternoon. With Arsenal having a large Irish following and still with a few Irish players on the teamsheet, the Gunners were broadcast quite a bit. For the first time I had the chance to watch Arsenal playing live in the league. The style and more importantly the quality of regular first teamers became known to me. Tony Adams, Niall Quinn, Charlie Nicholas, Martin Hayes and the rest were on show in my front room on Saturday afternoons and they were good.

The 1987 League Cup final came around and Graham fulfilled his promise of delivering a trophy within two years. Ian Rush scored first, a bad omen given they’d never lost when he scored, but thankfully we had Charlie Nicholas!

“One-nil down, two-one up, we fucked Rush’s record up” – that’s the song which best best sums up the day. A day which put the Gunners on the road to greatness. The following year though we failed to defend our title, losing in the final to Luton. Losing a final we should have won? Nothing unusual there and at least I was ten years older and able to cope better. But it still hurt.

A year later and all that pain was forgotten. For the previous couple of seasons we’d started well, even topped the table a couple of times, and had let in very few goals. Then as each season progressed we lost ground. 1988-89 was different, oh so different. For once I could hold my head up high when surrounded by Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United fans - Arsenal were a team capable of winning things again, the league title wasn’t beyond them. We all know the story of that season, how we’d counted ourselves out of it, then scrapped ourselves back into contention only to have a mountain to climb on the last day of the season. Arsenal have never done things the easy way and the events of the 26th May 1989 a real testament to such sentiments.

The match was scheduled during my final year exams at college and the distraction of it helped me through I’m sure. The stress of passing my finals? Nothing compared with the prospect of winning the league for the first time in eighteen years. Liverpool were England’s dominant force, a team who’d won countless league titles, the European cup four times, the FA and League Cups. They also hadn’t lost by two clear goals at home in living memory. What chance did we have?

Studying until ten minutes before kick-off for an exam I had the next morning I opted to watch the match in the television room in the basement of the library.  On walking into this packed room I could see the head of my friend Tom over in the far corner by the front, he’d kept a seat for me. Looking around it was a room full of Liverpool fans, all ready to celebrate another piece of silverware for the Anfield trophy cabinet.

As the match went on though Arsenal grew more confident, especially when Smudger put us one-nil up. However, as the match drew to a close and the second goal wasn’t coming, confidence grew amongst the Liverpool supporters.  Steve McMahon did his finger-wagging minutes to go pep talk tohis teammates. Tom and I just sat in silence. It was slipping from us. My friend Brian, a Leed’s man, was also with me. Having known me all my life he knew what this meant to me.

“It’s up for grabs now…” Brian Moore’s commentary screamed from the TV as Mickey Thomas latched on to the through ball. As he slipped it under Grobbelaar and into the net I grabbed Tom. We rolled off our seats into the corner of the room holding each other as only lovers should. Screaming into each others ears we hugged each other silly. Turning from Tom I looked back at the room. It was empty. Except for Brian looking at me with a big smile on my face. He knew.

The next morning brought a regret that still lives with me. My Dad was upset that I hadn’t come home to watch it with him. He didn’t show it, nor was he possible to be upset on that of all mornings, but he’s had nobody to watch the game with and he’d definitely wanted to share the experience with his son. We’d been through the ups and downs of the previous eighteen years together and at the culmination of Arsenal’s renaissance I wasn’t by his side. I hadn’t really realised this through the build-up that week, I was probably too young to fully realise what it meant to him. 

As I write this I feel the regret all the more. He was after all the one who invited me into the Arsenal club. It was always The Arsenal with Dad and The Arsenal who did things the right way. He passed on his belief in the club to me when I needed it most. If he hadn’t I’d be a Leeds man today. Thank you Dad.


Reader Comments (2)

so much like my own time as a child in cork and how great it was when arsenal had so many irish to look up too, great read well done.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebel gooner

Great article. thoroughly enjoyed it.
"Its up for grabs now...." will always remain a legend.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterabhi
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