BY RYAN CAMERON / @ryncmrn
The start of this season marked a significant anniversary in my time supporting Arsenal, for it was 15 years ago that I tentatively began following the club which would go on to play such a massive role in my life.
In all honesty I had wanted to be a Manchester United fan. A fact that was squarely dictated by the fact my father, brother and just about everyone in my wider family circle supported them. My brother, however, wouldn’t let me. He refused to allow his little brother to support the same team as him, which left me with something of a dilemma. How does a 5-year-old with very limited knowledge of the game choose a club to support?
I went to my brother's sticker book, Premier League '96, and had a flick through the teams. Back then, the clubs were ordered by their league position the previous year, rather than alphabetically. Rather then doing the 'smart' thing and picking a team from near the top of the table, like Blackburn or Forest, I decided to choose a club entirely at random - and that club was the 11th placed Arsenal. It could've been (shudders) Sheffield Wednesday in 12th or (shudders violently) Chelsea in 10th, but fate decided Arsenal were my club. I always liked you, fate.
It was in the 97/98 season I started to properly support Arsenal. Well, as much as a 7-year-old in Northern Ireland can do such a thing without access to live coverage. It was all about teletext for the full 90mins on a Saturday afternoon and Match Of The Day later that night - if I was allowed to stay up after Gladiators and Blind Date! I remember reading about us winning at Old Trafford that season on a victory that paved the way to Arsene’s first Premier League title.
The first time I watch the Gunners live on television was the Newcastle FA Cup final in Double season, but I also vividly recall the defeat to United in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay, Kanu’s hattrick against Chelsea and the UEFA Cup Final loss to Galatasaray.
My favourite memory though came in 2002 at Old Trafford and it remains the only time I have ever watched my beloved Arsenal in the flesh. Living in Living in Northern Ireland and coming from quite a big family has always meant that trips to Highbury were pretty much out of the question. Thankfully we were fortunate enough to be given tickets for this massive game long before it’s significance was truly revealed. I was delighted to be going, even if it meant sitting amongst United fans for 90 minutes knowing we could be crowned champions with a win.
We all know what happened. Ljungberg shot, Barthez saved and Wiltord put home the rebound to deliver the title to Highbury. It took all of my willpower not to celebrate. But inside I knew this was a feeling unlikely ever to be matched again. It was perfection – winning the title in their own back yard and getting to rub it in my brother's face!
Ten years later and my fiancée has just surprised me by revealing she has arranged for me to visit the Emirates on November 26th in what will be my first ever home game. It is my 21st birthday four days before the match and I can think of no better way to celebrate it. Although it can’t, no matter what happens, live up to the drama of my first game, my appreciation of getting to see the team I have loved for 15 years ensures it will be a trip to remember.