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Wednesday
Nov092011

Passing the Torch

BY TIM STILLMAN / @LittleDutchVA

Attending one’s first match is the ultimate rite of passage for any football fan. I’ve documented mine elsewhere before (see here). But unlike most of life’s other rites of passage, the first football match is one that lends the opportunity to extend itself, so it can be lived vicariously through others. Since my first match in March 1992, I’ve had the pleasure of taking other family members to their first ever Arsenal games.

Passing the torch through the family is one of the football fan’s most sacred traditions. I’m not at an age where I have children of my own (well, I am. I’m 27, what I mean is, I’m not mature enough to have children of my own), so the well earned ritual of taking your next of kin to their first ever game is not upon me. But due to quirks in the construction of my family, I have had comparable experiences to call upon.

For instance, the youngest of my four elder sisters, Becky, showed little to no interest in football for the first 18 years of her life. She would cringe visibly at every mention of it in our household. In fact, she would sometimes go as far as to sigh audibly and flounce out of the room. For reasons that escape recollection, in February 2000, I had a spare ticket next to me for a home match against Southampton. Come the evening prior to the match; I had exhausted my coterie of schoolmates in an attempt to shift the ticket. I spoke with my Mum about how best to resolve the situation.

Becky overheard the conversation and for reasons she’s never really explained, she quietly announced, “I’ll take the ticket.” A quick seminar on the train to the game brushed her up on the basics and the who’s who of the Arsenal squad. As it turned out, the game could not have done more to pique her sustained interest. Arsenal won 3-1, Dennis Bergkamp, instantly her favourite player, scored with a bullet header and Freddie Ljungberg (whom she admired for, ahem, other reasons) scored the other two. Now she has a season ticket next to me.

But perhaps the most primordial passing of the torch occurred for me in February 2004. Like I said, the constitution of my family is rather unique; three of my sisters were teenagers by the time I was born. As such, I now have four nephews who are all currently in their teenage years. The two youngest have little to no interest in football. Ben, now 18, lives in Birmingham and supports Birmingham City. But my eldest nephew, Tom, presented me with an opportunity. Neither of his parents were particularly taken with football, so in effect he was rootless in that sense. An early admiration for Alan Shearer saw him flirt outrageously with Newcastle United at around the age of 6.

She never confirmed, but I rather suspect that, at this time, Tom’s mother, my sister Louise, took him to one side and gently suggested he might like to take an interest in his uncle’s team. The claws were in and I was swift to administer the Gooner serum straight into the veins. I impressed upon him that his forenames- Thomas Michael- were of historic significance to the club. (Albeit in reverse order). The fact that he lived in Plumstead gave him lineage, a historic tie to the club few could refute. As it turned out, he didn’t take much convincing.

All that remained was to give him his first taste of Highbury. I think we had intended to do it much earlier than 2004- at which point he was 12. But these were heady days indeed and extra tickets- beyond my own season ticket seat- were hard to source at Highbury. However, shortly after his 12th birthday, an opportunity presented itself in one of the season ticket seats next to me. Arsenal had a home fixture with Charlton Athletic. Fittingly enough, Tom’s local team. I may possibly have over romanticised the significance in my head of this trivial fact; but I always look for the poetry in football and find I’m seldom disappointed.

Given that I was still a couple of months shy of my 20th birthday, it all felt like a tremendous responsibility- but one I relished. I never had the opportunity to go to a game with my Father, who died when I was a baby. It was my Mum that took me to games when I was younger. This somehow made me even keener to execute this most important of male bonding exercises.

Showing a sense of avuncular maturity, I forewent the pre-match pub ritual and took him straight to the stadium. My season ticket was at the base of the Clock End, manning the barrier in Block 19 that separated us from the away supporters. Charlton were a pretty genteel lot, I thought, and so my resolution not to swear and jeer towards the away support felt like a comfortable bet. (I might have erred once or twice, but back then that was as much as probably could be expected of me).

I’m really not sure how much of the day Tom remembers, what his recollections are, what his feelings were as he saw that brilliant green pitch for the first time. I don’t intend to be a conduit for his feelings. But I felt, surrogately, as though I was experiencing it all again for the first time. I made sure to look out for the details I had noticed when I popped my Arsenal cherry. The striking contrast between red and white on the seats and the décor. The murmur of voices, the rumble of seats folding up as an attack screeches towards climax and everybody gets to their feet. It was something of a reawakening.

Arsenal scored twice in the opening four minutes. Pires and Henry applying the finishes to flowing moves. I became oddly anxious that Tom would think all games would unfold like this. Would this be too synthetic an experience for him? Leaving his wounds even more exposed to the stigmata of pain and humiliation when they inevitably arrived. But that concluded the Gunners’ scoring. Claus Jensen pulled one back shortly after half time. The heavens opened and the remainder of the match was played in a ridiculous snowstorm.

Arsenal spent the last 20 minutes grimly hanging on; obliterating the bowels of the home crowd that stayed clenched with fear. In the last minute, Jonatan Johansson attempted an overhead kick from 20 yards and it agonisingly clanked against the inside of the post in front of us and spilled out to safety. We won the game 2-1 after a tense finale, with the snowflakes falling around our ears.

Tom had learned the first lesson of being a Gooner. Even when it’s easy, we make it hard for ourselves. We completed the afternoon with a trip to the Arsenal Fish Bar. Given the outlet’s inclusion in Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, I just felt it was the most fitting way to centralise the experience. Like I said, I’m always looking for the poetry of the occasion.

Tom is fast approaching 20 now and his affiliation to The Arsenal is unsevered. He can’t afford to go very often, but I still make sure to treat him once or twice a season. Despite his adult age, the fact that he can legally buy me a pre match pint, I still look upon it s a sense of duty. His primordial Arsenal leanings were a gift from me and one I’ve been sure to nurture. His mother, my sister Louise, isn’t with us any more. She died six years ago. Consequently, the sense of duty I engendered in myself that afternoon has taken on another dimension. The memory of that game has had an extra pertinence fastened to it.

More happily, my sister Becky, whom I sit with at home games, is currently carrying her first child. In that sense, the next rite of passage has already been observed. The bump has been on hand for most of Arsenal’s home fixtures this season. This is something I think broadcasters, sponsors and the uninitiated don’t appreciate about football allegiance. There is great poetry to it.

Supporting a football team is not always just a roué to impress playground friends. It’s not always just the coat peg for idle pub chit chat and ‘banter.’ We don’t all become fans because we’re lonely, socially inadequate people. (I’m lonely and socially inadequate because I’m a fan). Sometimes it can go deeper than that. It goes as deep as blood, binding you in with ties that are irrevocable, slaloming around our mortal coil.  Certainly many of my family relationships will always have red and white lace flowing through them in my eyes. But perhaps I’m looking too hard for that poetry again. LD

Reader Comments (15)

Bravo. Great read, as are so many of the others on this fine site.

Up the GUNNERS!

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaryl B

Brilliant!! Echo's some of my own experiencies. it might be fun to do a gallery of people named either Thomas Michael or Michael Thomas. I'm sure there are loads, I have one of my own... UTG

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndyT

Good read. Thanks for sharing your Arsenal experience Tim.

This site rocks by the way ;) Wonderful stories.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Great read Tim and undoubtedly my favorite so far as it carries much similarity with my own family relationship with the club. With the sad and early loss of both your old man and sister the only real difference.

Despite the fact that both my parents were and are massive gooners, it was me that brought them to their first matches after years of attending on my own. I also did the same for my two sisters, five cousins and most recently, my two nephews, who's first game was this years Emirates cup.

Like you, I loved that feeling of being the one who knew where the local landmark cafes, bars, jerk chicken shacks and roads were as I took each of them on a very short but personal walk from Finsbury Pk station to Highbury, Ashburton Grove and the surrounds. Then getting in to the ground, watching their face as they caught their first glipse of our stunning pitch, explaining who the players were, their current and historic value to the club...and of course the words to each chant.

Each occassion has filled me with the same butterflies I experienced going to my first game in '93. It's like show and tell, I guess. All you want is for them to love this 'thing' you cherish in the same way you do, feel it like you, smell it like you, taste it like you and enjoy the 'poetry' of the Arsenal.

I now have two kids of my own and cant wait to go through it all again.

Cheers mate.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRickyGee (@Geezypeas)

You're an inspiration for Gooners living abroad. I wish I had shared the same heritage of passionate Arsenal support but surely my future generation will

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnkush

Seriously, one of the best pieces on here, great writing Tim. I want you to take me to a match now ;-)

My boys are Thomas & Patrick and there could possibly be an Arsenal link there too.....

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Cheers for your responses guys, appreciated.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLittleDutchVA

A subject I can wholeheartedly relate too.

My dad's dad was an Arsenal fan, my dad is an Arsenal fan, I am an Arsenal fan, and now my 5 month old son will become the fourth generation of Arsenal fan, despite his mother and maternal grandfather following West Ham.

I can distinctly remember my first trip to Highbury on April 15th 1989 with my dad and granddad, and I can't wait until my boy is old enough for his first trip. Sadly, his great grandad is no longer with us to make the trip, but I will keep this family tradition, started nearly 23 years ago, and pass the torch to my boy.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus (@MarcusTheo)

My daughter has just turned 4, so not made it to the grove yet. I've put in some ground work though. Her first and still favourite song, goes like this:
Who's that team we call the Arsenal?
Who's that team we all adore?
We're the boys in red and White
And we're very very good
And Harry Rednap's mother is a horse.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Nice work, Tim. See you soon.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter'holic

nice article Tim.enjoyed reading it.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterabhi

A great read Tim, brings back awesome memories.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter@robsarna

Fantastic article Tim, as always. In this last year, I have been lucky enough to take two of my sons (4 and 6) to the emirates. I managed to get the loan of my dad and brothers ST for both Leeds and Huddersfield games in the FA cup. Although the performance wasn't very shiney, the stadium and the whole experience certainly was for them both...and you know how kids of that age like shiney things!

Brilliant cheers.

Martin

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartin (@fidgitaldesign)

A touching story. I wish I had the chance to pass the torch in a similar fashion. Living in another country is a bit of a stumbling block but one can always hope. In the summer of 2009 I was in London with my sisters and their children. I took my 10 year old nephew, who supports Manchester United, and my 7 year old niece, who supports Liverpool, to the Emirates. They loved it. I can still hope that one day they'll remember and come around, right?

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElfa

I took my eldest boy to his first game last season, at the age of 5 (him, not me). It was the thrilling but disappointing (at the time) 3-3 draw with Norwich. He has never really watched football on TV but likes to play it. Initially he didn't seem that interested in the game, but somewhere along the way about 20 minutes in, he suddenly became quite interested and excited by it all, despite the rain.

Then, all the way home he sang arsenal songs on the train, even making up his own ones. He always remembers Sagna as the player who hurt his foot in that game, and it broke his heart when I had to tell him RVP had left the club. We've not been back again yet, but I would like to think both he and his younger brother will support Arsenal, or our local club, Leyton Orient (or even Waltham Forest FC). No other clubs would be acceptable!

This is a different introduction to the Arsenal compared to my own. My parents weren't football fans. My older cousins ended up supporting Spurs. I ended up an Arsenal fan around 1986-7 when I joined a primary school, and a few of my friends supported them. Tthe bullies tended to support West Ham, Liverpool and Spurs, so I naturally sided with Arsenal. Though once I became aware of where exactly Arsenal were in London, I now like to think that being born in Hackney means I'm just about supporting the team closest to where I was born (as the crow flies it's about the same distance to both Arsenal and Orient).

Also, although not quite passing the torch, I took my missus to see her one and only Arsenal match, vs Wolves in the League Cup, in 2003. Thankfully that turned out to be a good result, which meant she didn't really notice the cold December air too much! Like your sister, her favourite players were Dennis and Freddie, for aesthetic rather than footballing reasons.

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Johns
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