BY JAY-JAY STOKES / @Puddleduck1978
I’m probably not like you. If you’ve taken a moment to cast your eyes over this insignificant piece of aimless blathering, chances are, you’re what I consider a ‘real’ supporter; you attend matches with religious dedication, you buy the various paraphernalia and your life revolves unquestionably around those glorious fellows in the red ‘n’ white. Me? I’m simply a fan; I get to games when I can.
To be honest, if you were to see me jauntily sauntering toward you in the street, you’d be forgiven for assuming I’m not even a football fan of any persuasion. Picture a gangly, dandy figure adorned in the finest bohemian pixie boots, with a pasty-white complexion, a veritable explosion of horrifically sculpted hair and a penchant for fancy-pants words – all delivered in my mellifluous Bristolian accent. That’s me. I’m unfamiliar with the nomenclature of football grounds, awkward and shy amidst the delirious jostling of a busy pub and the kind of person certain to embarrass any poor soul unfortunate enough to be accompanying me to a match.
Yet, doubtless to say, I share something in common with all of you: I can remember the moment Arsenal Football Club stole my heart, the moment a fleeting and childish fascination transformed into full-blown infatuation. It happened on the 26th of May in the year 1989.
As a youngster, being a little different opens you up to limitless opprobrium from the little rascals you attend school with. My classmates were all followers of the most successful club of the time, Liverpool – the unimaginative berks – and I, as usual, found myself affiliated with something else – Arsenal. They were like me; misunderstood, seemingly hated by everyone but their strength came from this kind of adversity. It galvanized them and those that loved them into one cohesive entity. Alan Hansen? Pah… We had Tony Adams. Ian Rush? Useless compared to Alan Smith. That was the kind of argument I fought with an extremists dedication, receiving many a good hiding for my trouble. But I didn’t care. Who needs friends at school when there’s an army of Gooners out there?
The morning of May 26th 1989 was a particularly brutal one. I can recall the constant nature of the vitriol I received that day, mostly dispelling Arsenal’s chances or alleging I smelt of poo; ill-thought out and puerile stuff – it does tend to antagonize your bullies further when you point this out to them. As the day progressed, I became more and more harassed and upset until the bell rang and I was granted the sweet relief of home time. I begged my mother and father to allow me to watch the game, I pleaded, I nagged, and I protested until they eventually granted my wish. I didn’t hold much hope of Arsenal winning at Anfield by the required two goal margin, but I wanted to see them as they always made me feel that little bit better about who I am.
You all know the outcome; its emblazoned across the club’s history. I’m sure you all experienced the sweeping, breathtaking euphoria that writhed through your body like Mickey Thomas celebrating after he burst through the Liverpool defence. I leapt, I shrieked, I cried my eyes out with unbridled joy. Few moments in my life have come close to that feeling since.
The next day I walked to school with my head held high. I looked into the eyes of my tormentors and saw the despair and the bitterness hiding beneath their taunts of “cheating Arsenal” (we all know Smudger made contact for the first goal) and it gave me strength. No amount of abuse, no amount of playground beatings would ever take that moment away from me. 11 men I’ve never had the pleasure to meet had taken my heart and I’ve loved them and Arsenal ever since. Not only that, they taught me something of far greater importance: to love myself - even if I am a little different.
And that’s my rather silly little story. Thanks for reading, you beautiful bastards. I think I’ll leave you with a quote from the commentary that night. I’m sure you’ll recognise it:
“Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it's up for grabs now!”