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Friday
Feb032012

Absolute Goonership

BY PAUL BINGLEY / @PaulBingley

We’ve all had our favourite players. Mine was Paul Merson. That was until he was replaced by a Dutch Master who twirled around the Newcastle defence in 2002. I’ve also had my favourite moments. Climbing a mountain at Anfield in 1989 could never be topped. Or could it? What about giving Inter Milan a footballing lesson in 2002? Or winning the league title at White Hart Lane or Old Trafford? It seems my favourite Arsenal things have all merged into one big, scrumptious memory. So, can a favourite thing ever remain a distinct favourite?

In the case of a football team, yes it can (unless you’re one of those ‘floaters’ I kept hearing about in my childhood). The Arsenal is my soul mate. I’ve no intention of falling in love with another and never will. It was borne out of a family tradition that still runs deep. Admittedly, I wobbled a bit when the ball hit Trevor Brooking’s head and squirmed past Pat Jennings in the 1980 FA Cup Final (“Dad, when are we going to support someone else?”). But my family held firm.

Nevertheless, I was a bit of a slag when it came to kits. By the early 1980s my second favourite strip was Liverpool’s yellow away number, the one with the red pinstripes. It didn’t mean I loved the Arsenal any less, it just meant that I could also be Kenny Dalglish in the playground (after being Liam Brady, of course). But it’s not just kits, or players, or matches that have made the Arsenal my one true love – it’s something far more consistent, something no footballing muggle could ever understand – it’s being part of a faithful movement. It’s being called a Gooner.

In the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final, I watched us come from behind, hit the post, miss a penalty and then lose the match to lowly Luton Town, all in the space of 19 mad minutes. If I’d have watched it at home, I’d have been devastated, suicidal even. I may have even ‘wobbled’ like I did in 1980. But being there made all the difference. I was part of George’s Army. I’d marched all the way to Wembley from the Thornhill Arms on Caledonian Road via The Globe on Baker Street. I was bursting with lager and pride with every drunken, wayward step. And it was at that moment I encountered absolute Goonership.

Wembley Way was a sea of red and white, but I homed in on one lonely Luton Town fan waving a limp ‘We’re at Wembley!’ flag. Regrettably, the Skol got the better of me and I began chanting a little ditty questioning the validity of the person. Out of the thin blue line came a leather-gloved hand that wrapped itself around my throat. There was no “you’re nicked son”, just a snarl and the words: “you disgusting human being”. Now don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t the politest thing I’d ever sung. But I certainly hadn’t eradicated half the human race or become a deranged serial killer. I’d merely pointed out that I didn’t know who the person with the flag was. Almost at once, several Gooners sprung to my rescue imploring Harry Callahan to put me down. That he did, and I was able to unruffle my scarf and continue my merry way. My one regret is that I never got to thank that faceless few. However, I did have the opportunity to thank a fellow Gooner some years later.

I’d arrived at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park on a cold Tuesday night, alone, and with just a tenner to my name. As I neared the turnstile to the terrace a tannoy announcement squealed that only £15 seats were left available on the gate (yep, those were the days). I began visibly panicking and begged the stewards to let me in for my crumpled £10 (“Please! I’ve driven all the way from Essex!”). Just then, I felt a gentle tap on the shoulder. Standing behind me was a young man wrapped up in red and white waving a crisp fiver under my nose. “Have it,” he said, “Gooners together.” It won’t surprise you to learn that I still get a lump in my throat, even now.

I could go on. From being extricated by Gooners from a sticky situation in Copenhagen after the Cup Winners’ Cup Final; to spending a great day in Marseille with another whom I’d met on the plane – Gooners have always been there for me. That’s why they’re my favourites, and that’s why I’m Arsenal. These are things that will never change.

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