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Thursday
Mar012012

Not Strangers Anymore 

BY HAMISH MACKAY / @H_Mackay

It’s easy to think of fans as a collective body, a multitude of like-minded people tied together by memories, a camaraderie induced by pain and ecstasy in equal measure. A fair view? I suppose, to a certain extent, that's exactly what we are…

Who, apart from Arsenal fans, can empathise with Manuel Almunia’s inability to keep his legs closed at potentially life-defining moments, or the frustration of having the only world-class player in football with a chronic fear of flying?

Who else still goes weak at the knees thinking about Bergkamp’s exceptional assist for Ljungberg’s goal against Juventus in 2001 or Wiltord sweeping home that rebound at Old Trafford in 2002? But the beauty of Arsenal, being as it is such a cosmopolitan club, is that these events that we share are, apart from our postcode, largely the only common ground between us.

I share things in my life with people who are just like me on a daily basis. It’s boring. There’s nothing particularly special or unique about discovering that you share interests with people that were raised under the exact same circumstances as yourself, but to share some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments in your life with complete strangers is an experience rarely provided outside of football. 

I have a season ticket for Arsenal but I sit on my own; whilst many would view the prospect of spending every other weekend for a year alone at the Grove I couldn’t feel less so. Sure, the two guys on my right are huge Germans with whom I share as much common ground as an artist and a bureaucrat; and the boy who sits to my right is an awkward, bespectacled teenager with a loquacious manner, nervous tick and a voice that breaks every time Arsenal enter the final third, but it doesn’t matter.

Social etiquette and inhibitions mean nothing in the face of putting your local rivals back in their box as your jump around hugging your fourteen-year-old fellow supporter like a long lost brother. That’s what football does for society, that’s what clubs do for their supporters and no club does it better than Arsenal. After a few years these people aren’t even strangers any more, even if you don’t know them.

At Highbury I mostly sat in the West stand and a feature of every game was lone chant of an ever-present, yet seemingly invisible, woman (Editors note – Maria Petri is the wonderful lady in question). Her monotonous voice and seemingly unenthusiastic, yet consistent, cry of ‘Come on you Gunners’ (chanted slowly, perhaps over the course of ten seconds or so) is something that I associate as much with Arsenal home games as I do any other facet. In fact, six years after leaving Highbury, I can still here this anonymous woman from my seat in the West stand of our new ground.

It’s too easy for the media or other parties to typecast football fans with any particular characteristics. It’s too simplistic to say that all Arsenal fans are ‘x’ or ‘y’. Yes, every week thousands of fans sit, stand and jump in stadiums with united desires but, ultimately, what makes the concept of football so incredible is that these people are individuals.

Whether they are the old man with a Tesco’s bag and a drinker’s nose who looks like he’s been coming to the games since the fifties and hasn’t had a wash since then, or the two grown women in front of me who coo and crow over the more aesthetically pleasing Arsenal players like hormonal sixteen-year old girls, or Robert Peston the BBC business editor I occasionally glimpse wandering around the West stand. All different, but all empathetic.

For me, yes: football memories are about players, about games and about goals. But Arsenal memories are more than that. Arsenal memories are about asking Adebayor what the score was after a 5-2 win against Spurs, about the underwhelming food in Club level, about pillars obscuring your view at Highbury, and about strange and bizarre supporters; all of which have a place in my nostalgia fuelled daydreams, all of which have contributed to my memories of Arsenal.

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