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Bloody Hell! I'm the Arsenal mascot

BY SAM BLAINEY /@thehollowayred

The ball rolled gently to his feet: the young lad was through on goal, nobody else was near him. It was his first time at Highbury and he was one-on-one with the England international keeper David Seaman. He looked up and chipped it up ever so gently towards the goal - it went in, gliding past a static Seaman.

It was such a brilliant, unexpected goal that even a few people in the North Bank applauded. Seaman plucked the ball out of the net and rolled it back to him. Hang on. Rolled it back to him. The Highbury debutant tried again, thumping the ball towards the goal; this time, 'Safe Hands' held it easily. Not surprising really, he was the England goalkeeper and the youngster was a 10-year-old from Essex who was a bit rubbish at football anyway.

I still maintain to this day, nearly 17 years later, that Seaman hadn’t just let my drifted effort in and had been genuinely surprised. This is, in all likelihood, absolute nonsense. However, scoring past Seaman in front of the North Bank was a high point in my day as Arsenal mascot, not a bad high point considering the previous moment I’d had my photo taken with my favourite player (Paul Merson, for the record) and the next moment I was standing in the centre-circle with Tony Adams.

I wasn’t even meant to be there. I mean, I was a Junior Gunner so I qualified to be a mascot. And I was definitely a Gooner, even if this was my first game. But originally I had been drawn out the hat to be mascot at...Millwall. Away. On a Wednesday night. For some reason my mum had nixed that idea (thank the lord, we lost in an FA Cup third round replay - 94/95 was not, as most of you will recall, a good season). I was disappointed but perhaps not devastated. I didn’t want to be mascot at some two bit away ground, I wanted to lead the teams out at Arsenal.

So it was with joy that I got a letter soon afterwards asking if I wanted to be mascot at Highbury vs Ipswich in the April of 1995. Yes. Yes I do. Not only was I going to be mascot, it would be the first time I’d have gone to Highbury. Hell, it’d be the first time I’d ever seen any live football. For a ten year old from a suburban dormitory town that had no footballing links whatsoever, it was the most exciting prospect imaginable.

I got to Highbury early and studied the instructions intently. Go to the main entrance it said. You mean, the main entrance guarded by a hatted, suited and booted commissioner? The entrance that led into this grand marble hall that oozed history? The entrance where you could sit, wait for the Junior Gunners representative and get Chris Kimoya’s autograph? That entrance, yes.

The next bit was a bit of a blur, in all honesty. Myself and my mum got taken on a brief tour of Highbury’s east stand and I was given a kit to change into. A free kit! I came out the changing rooms with my shirt untucked and my socks down. The Junior Gunners lady - who was called Sue, I’ll never forget Sue - looked at me and said, with a hint of sharpness, “remember, you’re representing the Arsenal today; tuck your shirt in and pull your socks up”. I did as I was told.

We got taken outside to see the ground where who should be there but Bob Wilson. Bob Wilson! I had my photo taken with him and looked around this beautiful old ground. I was starting to get nervous. Actually, I was terrified. What if I fell over leading the teams out? I had one job to do really and was convinced I’d cock it up.

I didn’t. Tony Adams took my hand and I led the team out, bursting with pride and sporting a quite woeful haircut. I had my photo. I trotted over to the North Bank and took potshots. I had my photo with the referees (booooo) and then sprinted off the pitch. My role was done in just a few minutes but, oh, what a few minutes. And there was still more to come - my first game to see.

We took our seats in the East Stand and watched Arsenal ease relegation fears (!) with a convincing 4-1 win. Wright scored a hat-trick and, inspired by his pre-match photograph with a wide-eyed me, Paul Merson got the other.

The day still wasn’t done. After the game we went to the players lounge where the players were all having a relaxing pint. I had my photo taken with all of them and not one of them was rude, dismissive or impatient with my photographic demands. This illustrated a theme that ran throughout my day as mascot - the sheer class of Arsenal FC. Every single player, official or member of staff took great pains to treat me, my mum, my dad and my sister with the utmost courtesy and respect. From signing autographs to letting me score at the North Bank, nothing was too much for anyone connected with Arsenal.

In one crude way, this was an investment by Arsenal that paid off. I wasn’t the only one to fall deeply in love with the club on that day - both me and my mum are season ticket holders today and my dad joins us for virtually every home game. Thousands of pounds a season and all because we were treated like Royalty at our first ever game.

But that wasn’t why they did it. The mascot scheme, which is completely free, exists as it does at Arsenal because we know how to do things properly. If you have access to Arsenal Player, a video of a mascot’s experience at the Emirates has recently gone up. The kid is the same age as I was and as awestruck as I was then (and still am when I recall that day). Despite the massive commercialisation of the game since 1995, despite the move to the Emirates, despite the absence of players having a quiet pint in the lounge afterwards, Arsenal mascots are still treated like kings or queens by everyone at the club. And that is what helps make The Arsenal the club that they are.


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