BY JOHN VAN DER LUIT-DRUMMOND / @jvdld
I remember it like it was yesterday; my first game at Highbury, Saturday 10th January 1998. Arsenal vs ‘the Dirty’ Leeds.
It was a complete surprise to me at the time. I'd been bought one of those Arsenal puffer jackets at Christmas, the type that Arsene still wears. My Mum said I should wear it as we were heading over to my grandparents for the weekend and it was cold outside. A little odd I thought as it was not as if my grandparents were trying to save on their heating bill, but still I got to wear my new coat.
When we arrived I was greeted by my Uncle, who was something of a hero to my 12-year-old self. My opinion of him grew even greater when he took me by the arm and said he was taking me to The Arsenal. Now, the old fella (as I have recently come to refer to him due to his advancing years) was the whole reason I was an Arsenal fan in the first place. The way he tells it I was just about crowning when he was on the phone to Arsenal FC signing me up as a Junior Gunner.
There are pictures of a small wrinkled baby me somewhere draped in a Club scarf and a tiny framed certificate inducting me into The Arsenal faith. Apparently for a brief period in 1985 I was the youngest Junior Gunner in the history of the Club. I'm still smarting from the revelation that that honour no longer belongs to me! My only true claim to fame taken away from me.
Anyway, I can remember the whole trip up to North London and being at the same time incredibly nervous and excited as only a young lad going to his first real match could be. I'll admit to having gone with a friend a few months earlier to see Charlton take on Swindon at The Valley but that was nothing compared to what I was about to see. I had no interest in that match other than that it was free. This was The Arsenal. This was what I had been waiting for my whole life.
We parked somewhere off Blackstock Road and then headed to the ground where we stood outside the East stand and admired what must still be the most beautiful façade of any football stadium the world over. We ate a "fly burger" from the burger van that seems to still be parked on the other side of Avenell Road after all these years. The Uncle told me that between the buns was an equal share of beef, grease and dead flies. The burger gag is one that still lives on to this day, “Uncle, fancy a fly burger?”
Once inside Highbury I think I turned into a gormless, slack-jawed mute as I was overawed with the sights and sounds that greeted me. When I saw the team I think I nearly lost control of my young bladder; Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Vieira, Bould, Wright, Bergkamp, Overmars, Keown, Parlour, Petit. It was all so exciting and new and for the first time ever I could see my heroes live and in person, almost touching distance away. Having Dutch ancestry my Uncle and I were huge fans of the deadly duo of Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars. We somehow felt that we were more connected to them than other Arsenal fans because of our name and heritage. In fact I would always pretend that I was one or the other of them when I was playing football with my friends. Occasionally I was both!
The first half seemed to pass me by in a blur faster than a sprinting Overmars. I remember a few scary moments such as Lee Bowyer’s through-ball for Danny Wallace which set him free of our offside trap. Clean through on goal with practically no pressure from our famous back four he only went and fired the ball into the ground and straight at “Safe Hands” Seaman. Phew. This was all a little too much for this young lad to take. If we lost did that mean I was a bad luck charm? Would I ever be allowed in Highbury again? Would I be forced to start supporting those lilywhite troglodytes at the other end of the Seven Sisters?
The second half was much more to my liking. Petit seemed to control a loose pass with his face before placing a well weighted pass to Overmars who unleashed an absolutely unstoppable strike to put The Arsenal ahead on the hour mark. I was overwhelmed by the sound and emotion that erupted inside Highbury. A library? Please! My Uncle, ever the football purist, took my hand and said that while the goal was great, did I notice Dennis’ run to take the defenders away and allow Overmars to shoot? Well, no, I hadn’t, I could barely tear my eyes away from the ball let alone take the time to watch the movement of our players.
I then started doing that thing that I am sure a lot of overexcited kids do, I kept restlessly tapping my foot. Unfortunately, it was striking the underside of the seat in front of me. I was promptly growled at by a rather large and surly middle-aged chap of questionable character. I think my Uncle gave him a look that suggested he better turn around and watch the game and we all thought that would be the end of it. That was until 12 minutes later when another Dutchman, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, smuggled home an equaliser for the Dirty Leeds. It was at this point that the guy in front of us jumped up and started celebrating!
What the hell was this northern troll doing in here with us? And why had I let him growl at me thinking he was a fellow Gooner? There I was feeling guilty that I had interrupted the match for a fellow follower of the true faith with my incessant foot tapping and he was instead some Yorkshire yokel! Anyway, he wasn’t grinning for long as Overmars ran like a galloping gazelle onto Bergkamp's through ball and drove his shot between their keeper’s legs! Ecstasy. Bliss. Sheer joy! There was still time for me to see my first footballing hero, Ian Wright Wright Wright, so good they named him thrice, produce a goal-bound 30-yarder that was only just kept out by Martyn. It could have been the cherry on top of the icing layered on top of the giant cake that was my first visit to Highbury.
It finished 2-1 to The Arsenal and three vital points were earned on what proved to be a title-winning run. My Uncle and I headed home, the only down side of the day was the whirling speculation that Wrighty was on the verge of a move away from the Club. I could not imagine an Arsenal without our record goal scorer. Of course I have learnt in seasons since that while legends come and go, bringing happiness and despair in equal measure, The Arsenal will always remain a constant source of joy to those that support it.
At home later that night I stayed up to watch Match of the Day and Dennis’ intelligent movement for Overmars’ first goal. All in all it was one of the most memorable and fantastic days of my life. You never forget your first game at The Arsenal, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have experienced it with the man who made me a Gooner in the first place.
So here is to my dear Uncle who I hold up there with Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieira, Wright, Fabregas and van Persie as the reason why I am proud and thankful to be a Gooner. Thanks, Uncle.