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Wednesday
Oct242012

Grandad Bill 

BY SAM DODGIN /@samdodgeman

I like to think my match day experience is pretty much the same as any other Gooner. I get to Highbury & Islington tube around an hour and a half or so before the game. I meet a friend or two, and we abscond to a local watering hole. Half an hour before kick-off we set off for the ground. We arrive with time to spare and perhaps drop into the shop. We always buy a programme.

Then, a gentleman approaches, an Arsenal elder. I don’t know him but, you see, he’s seen the back of my shirt and he has a burning question. The same question I got asked the last time I was at the Emirates. And the time before that. And the time before that...

‘Dodgin?’ he says. ‘That’s an odd name for a guy your age to have on his shirt. Did you know him?’

‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘He was my granddad.’

‘Really? How is he then?’ they ask.

‘He died 12 years ago of Alzheimer’s,’ I answer.

‘Sorry to hear it. He was a nice bloke. Not the greatest, but a nice bloke.’

Granddad Bill played two hundred and eight times for Arsenal and scored precisely one goal (if my memory serves me correctly: 1957 FA Cup 5th Round Replay against Preston North End; first goal in a two one victory; header from a corner). He wasn’t the greatest, although a newspaper cutting I found from a game early in his career describes him as ‘young centre half Dodgin, better and better every time I see him.’

I assume my dad must have told me about our Arsenal connection when I was too young to remember because I don’t ever recall making the choice to be a Gooner. Or maybe he didn’t tell me and it runs in our blood, the bond with the club so tight that no other choice seems to fit. I spent my first two years of primary school trying to be a Liverpool supporter, but it didn’t feel right. It was like an ill-fitting jumper. I made the right noises, said the right things, and cheered the right players. But it didn’t stick. I could never shake my one memory of Highbury, as an awestruck four-year-old. We lost 2-1 that day, to Crystal Palace and we were going through a bad patch. But I drank in every second of it. I wore my yellow JVC kit with ‘Wright 8’ on the back. 

I gave up the heathen Scouse ways and then pretty much gave up on football. Between the ages of 9 and 12, I wasn’t really interested. In June 2000, Granddad died of Alzheimer’s. I remember him as a gentle old man with a kind face, always smiling, rarely angry. I was an annoyingly early riser when I was young but when I went to visit Granddad, I would get up and invariably find him down at the kitchen table, eating cereal. I also remember strawberries because he grew them in his garden. Strawberries and occasional kickabouts with the kind of old leather ball that I think may be to blame for the disease that ultimately killed him.

When I moved up from primary to secondary school three months after Granddad’s death, football began to come back into my life. Going to an all-boys school, football was our common conversational currency and my love of Arsenal experience a renaissance that Leonardo da Vinci himself would have been proud of. I lived and breathed the club again, aided and abetted by finding other Arsenal fans to discuss the goings on at the club with. We worshipped at the altar of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires Ljungberg, Vieira and the countless other world-class players in our early 2000s line up. Listening, with frayed nails, as we clawed back from one-nil down to beat Leicester to become ‘Invincible’ is one of the greatest moments of my life.

Then, we moved grounds in 2006. And I was suddenly struck by this feeling of regret. Despite the renaissance of my love of Arsenal, I hadn’t been to Highbury since my first ever game all those years ago and now the opportunity was gone. The home of football was closed to me. And I realised then that for eleven years I’d had to someone who would have very patiently sat me down and told me exactly what it was like. But not just from in the stands. I’d have learnt what it was like to have Highbury as your place of work.

I watch videos of ex-players talking about Highbury on YouTube but none of them fill that sense of regret I have because nothing can shake me of the feeling that I had the opportunity of a bespoke version all to myself. Someone whose blood runs in my veins could have told me how it felt to play in front of that crowd, on that carpet of a pitch, in those Art Deco buildings that seemed to make Highbury a cathedral of football. But I missed that opportunity. And I won’t get it back.

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Image copyright of John Cooper (@atomicshed). You can view more of John's portfolio on Flickr

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