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Thursday
Oct092014

"I'd found my team. I'd found The Arsenal.."

BY ANDREW NAPIER / @AndrewNapier_G

The rain was lashing against the windows as the train pulled into Liverpool Street. The smoke from the engine drifted past, the station lights twinkled and the screech from the brakes as we slowed to a standstill all added to the excitement.

I had absolutely no regrets leaving the wastelands of Norfolk. Being away from my sister and not being able to take off my socks was obviously going to be difficult, but I was an 18-year-old ready for the next chapter in his life.

Then there was the football. My dad wasn't interested in football when I was growing up but then when your local team is plying its trade in Division 3 South I guess the 50-mile round trip isn't that appealing. He did join me in front of our flickery black and white TV to watch the World Cup final and even my Mum let out a little yelp when England won. It was the loudest I'd ever heard her scream and my bedroom was right next to my parents'.

I had managed the previous season and a half on the terraces of Carrow Road having abandoned posh school in the West Country for college in Norwich. By then Norwich had made it into Division 2 so the football was at a reasonable level but the most important thing was that it gave me my first insight into the whole camaraderie involved in following a football team and I loved it. 

But now I was in London and this was Division 1 in every aspect.

I reached for my rucksack, stepped off the train and breathed it all in. Not the country air I had been bought up on; one hundred times better. 

I knew I had to get to Paddington to find the hostel I'd booked and went in search of something called 'the Tube'.

I dropped off my rucksack and said hello to my new room mate.  It was nine o'clock on a wet wintery night but London was alive and I wanted to be part of it. There and then. 'The Tube' took me to Piccadilly Circus. Oh. My. God! The people, the lights, the buildings, the traffic, the noise, the hustle and bustle. This was Paradise.

Then I saw it; across the road from Eros, under the flashing neon lights of the Coca Cola advertisement, beckoning me towards it. I couldn't resist and weaved my way through the traffic and pushed through the throbbing crowd, I was getting the hang of London life already. 

"Large hot dog please"

"Onions?"

"Yes please"

"Two bob guv"

"Ketchup?"

"Over there mate"

"Ta mate"

I knew my public school education would prove worthwhile.

The rain was getting harder and harder and me and my hot dog took refuge under the Arches at the bottom of Regent Street and my thoughts turned to football.

London. Division One. Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham, Crystal Palace. Visiting teams; Leeds Liverpool, Manchester United. Where to start? 

I decided to sleep on it. Well, when I say sleep it was more a question of how many trips to the loo I could get away with. I've never had a hot dog from a street vendor ever since...

Over the next few days I spent my time going through the fixture list and putting a football plan together. It was late 1970 and given I had grown up deprived of live football I was determined to make up for lost time. I had no real allegiance to anyone so all the first division London clubs were on the agenda and priority was given based on who the visiting team was.

First up, Chelsea. Even from the depths of Norfolk I'd heard about Chelsea; the King's Road, mini skirts, swinging London and all that so imagine my surprise when I discovered that Chelsea FC isn't actually in Chelsea but Fulham! So off to Fulham Broadway I went. You could smell the hatred in the air. It was like entering a war zone but worse. Bodies everywhere. I eventually found my way into the Shed. Whoever called it that was obviously having a happy day; what a dump.

Next up West Ham. The first thing I had to learn is that the nearest 'tube' station is not West Ham but Upton Park. This was becoming very confusing for a country boy - Chelsea is in Fulham, West Ham is at Upton Park! Now I know it's all a bit ooh aah in Norfolk but nothing had prepared me for the East End of London! OK the words sounded English but they didn't make any sense. I rather liked the ground and the atmosphere but it seemed a long way out and I certainly didn't fancy re-learning the meaning of English. Father had spent a fortune on my education.

I then decide to go to Tottenham. Even to this day the only explanation I can give is that I'll try most things once. I thought West Ham was a bit of a slap but Tottenham; I couldn't even find it on the map. I was told by a work colleague that I had to go to Seven Sisters. That actually bought a tear to my eye as I wondered how my sister was coping without me. I digress, and I wish I had on that fateful day. My father was in the army and I had seen some pretty depressing places around the world but nothing had prepared me for Tottenham. What. A. Shithole. In the last few years I have been back as an away fan and I can assure you nothing has changed. 

Three down two to go. Finally a London football ground that was where it said it was. It even had its own 'Tube' station. How brilliant was that. Not only that, but when I got off the underground there was the stdadium. There. Right in front of me. Not in a different borough, not at a different station not a 20-minute walk up a street the devil wouldn't dare set foot in. Right there.  And what a ground; it just oozed class. I'd never seen anything quite so beautiful. Inside was just the same and it was becoming quite clear in my mind where I'd be spending the rest of my football supporting life.

Having been West, East, North and somewhere so disgusting the locals eventually burnt it down I felt I should go South and try the last London Division 1 club. I'd been in London long enough to have learnt about the North/South London divide and I was definitely North London, but in the name of fairness I went south. Never again.

During the rest of the 70/71 season I did pay a few more visits West and East but that was more to do with the visiting teams than anything else.

Then it happened.

A work colleague of mine ran his local FA affiliated club and got a ticket to the FA Cup final. For some reason he offered it to me. I wasn't going to say no. Arsenal v Liverpool. Whisper it but I'd always had a bit of a soft spot for Liverpool having grown up with the Beatles and the Mersey sound so here was a chance to see their football team play the London team that stood head and shoulders above the rest following my hands on research!

On Monday 3rd May Arsenal went to the 'dark side' and won the League. On Saturday 8th May I went to Wembley but while I was queuing to get in I noticed I was surrounded by really bizarre accents. Everyone seemed to have a problem getting the words out of the back of their throat. It was only when I got inside that I realised I was in the Liverpool end albeit in a so called 'neutral' section.

I was far too excited at being there to care what the football was like and was really happy when the game went to extra time as it was prolonging the experience. Then it all kicked off. Liverpool scored and my soft spot for them wasn't complaining. Then Arsenal equalised and I was happy about that because over the previous months they'd become my favourite London team, they'd won the league and here was a chance for them to win the Double. 

Time was ticking by and I was thinking "replay, I wonder if my work colleague could get me a ticket?" Then Charlie George picked the ball up in the middle of the pitch and flicked it to his left. He took the return ball and let fly. There was a collective intake of breath and everything fell silent around me. The clock that had been ticking seemed to stop. The ball hit the net. Charlie hit the turf, arms outstretched. How special was that?! The far end went mental. Red, white, blue, yellow everywhere.

All around me there was nothing but despair. The 'neutral' section was full of disconsolate Scousers and one very happy country boy. I'd found my team. I'd found The Arsenal.

Later that evening I headed to the West End and was surrounded by celebrating Gooners. A group of lads staggered past me and I heard one of them mutter, "our rivals have done the Double and now we have...."

I knew this was the start of a love affair that would never be broken.

Reader Comments (2)

Really enjoyable read but who is the ugly bugger in the photo?

October 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJFK

You brought tears to my eyes because I also fell in love with Arsenal that year.

I am Maltese and I was only 11 years old then.

I guess we are tough Gooners, for better and for worse, through sickness and in health etc.

xx

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJudith
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