Family

Family

When I speak to Arsenal fans, nay, football fans in general, my lack of hostility towards the likes of Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor and Ashley Cole is seldom met with understanding. Tolerance sometimes, bafflement occasionally, an angry lecture often. But very rarely understanding or empathy.

It’s not because I’m some sandal wearing, ponytailed dreck that wants to teach the world to sing. (That would be horrible). It’s not even because I understand perfectly that footballers are careerists and, after all, why the hell shouldn’t they be? Why should we impose our irrationally emotional connection to a club onto some hired hand and demand that they feel the same as us? (That’s not to say we shouldn’t be treated with due respect, of course).

It sounds like an anomalous thing to say for someone that spends so much time and money following a football team, but the truth is, footballers don’t mean that much to me. Not nowadays. That’s not because of a deliberate and schooled cynicism on my part towards “the modern game,” it’s just that my relationship with football is no longer informed by them.

As a child, my connection was very much bound by the apotheoses in red and white. Were it not for the likes of Merson, Limpar and Rocastle sparkling on the Arsenal wing around the time I started treading the playground touchlines in the early 90s, I very much doubt I’d have been an Arsenal fan. This recent blog from @squidboylike http://angryofislington.com/2012/09/25/how-ian-wright-saved-my-life/ explains that adolescent connection in detail and why it still ought to be nurtured in young fans.

But as I’ve gotten older, my relationship with the game changed. I’ve been reared on attending Arsenal games regularly since I was in short trousers. The matchday experience is what it’s all about for me. I enjoy talking about the more cerebral things. Pretending I’m an accountant with a working grip on the club’s finances, flattering myself that I can run the marketing and commercial operation of a multi-million pound organisation like Arsenal. Standing at my digital chalkboard altar and running the rule over the team’s tactics.

But the live game, the smell of fried onions and horse shit, the spontaneous “wa-heeey” when somebody spoons a clearance is where the game truly exists to me. I would rather go to one reserve game at Underhill than attend 100 AGMs- though I do attend such functions where possible and feel grateful to do so. Naturally, over the years of attendance, you begin to build a coterie of like-minded disciples. People that you drink, sing, laugh and despair with. People that you experience every game with.

That’s one of the greatest things about football. It allows you to experience the full gamut of human emotion- hope, despair, the kind of joy that makes you leap and punch the air and the brand of despair that causes your head to plunge into your hands. But you do so safe in the knowledge that none of it really matters. Not in the real sense of the word. It’s a simulated reality in which one can cocoon oneself. Life with stabilisers on if you will. Nick Hornby had a nice line in Fever Pitch, that if you lose a Cup Final in May, you get the 3rd Round again in January.

Over the years, my relationship with the game has come to be defined by the people I experience it with. The actual players have become increasingly peripheral. Mere organs of the club I support. A friend of mine has a nice analogy that supporting a football team is like a train journey and the players are just passengers that get on at one stop and alight at another, leaving you to plunder on to the end of the line. (Newcastle at midday because Sky have changed the kick-off time most likely).

A friend that decides to give up his season ticket will always have a bigger impact on me than a player that decides to join another football club. On the way back from Norwich, my friends and I discussed what separates friends you make at football from any other of life’s cubbyholes. The fact that you share an interest in something so passionately explains it away slightly. But at work or school or university, it’s natural to gravitate towards people that are similar to you, that have similar upbringings and interests and similar stories to tell.

Football brings you into contact with people you probably wouldn’t speak to in any other environment. Just under a fortnight ago, around 25 of us attended a friend’s wedding and not one of us would have otherwise breathed a word to one another had it not been for the mutual binding of Arsenal F.C. We are all different; different ages, different political views, cut from different cloths.

Some of us want Wenger out and the board sacked, some of us don’t. Some of us think Olivier Giroud is potentially a great Arsenal striker, some think he’s Chamakh mk. II. It matters little. We all care deeply about Arsenal and we all met by going to Arsenal matches and continue to do so together, enriching the matchday experience in victory and defeat. “Football family” seems like a glib phrase to use, but that’s essentially what we are.

This weekend passed, my good friend Greg Page passed on at the numbingly premature age of 41. Greg had been in the group of friends I’d attended games with for the last ten years or so. He was with me when we beat Madrid in the Bernabeu, when we beat the Milans- both Inter and A.C- in the San Siro, when Henry broke the club goalscoring record in Prague and when Rooney’s dalliance with gravity cost Arsenal a 50 game unbeaten run. He was supposed to travel to Gelsenkirchen with us next week too.

Greg had a very sharp mind and an even sharper tongue, which made him not only delightful company, but tailor made for the terrace experience. His sardonic witticisms and withering putdowns were the stuff of legend. Always off the cuff and delivered with the right measures of cynicism and humour. This isn’t a “doesn’t this all put it into perspective?” type blog. Renewed perspective was never required. Not for me at least.

I sat next to Greg at White Hart Lane in September 2007 when Arsenal were 3-1 victors over Spurs. Cesc Fabregas’ 25 yard piledriver into the top corner caused a frenzied celebration. As we leapt in acclaim, Greg’s brand new company blackberry slipped from his pocket. At the exact moment it reached the floor, I unwittingly leapt on it not once; but twice, with all of my bodyweight.

I froze for a second, aghast, looking down at his expensive piece of office equipment as he knelt to collect its remains. He dusted it down, slung it back into his inside pocket and then promptly grabbed me and continued to shake me with delight, completely unconcerned. That moment is embossed onto my memory as much as Fabregas’ goal itself. That’s what I’m getting at. The players are the ones that wield the paintbrush, but the people you experience their artistry with fleck the canvas with colour.

Greg and people like him are as much a part of my matchday experience as Cesc Fabregas, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry or Tony Adams were. The only difference being, that there’s no prosthetic for his absence. There’s no transfer market to atone for his loss. Even if there were, Greg would very much fall into the irreplaceable category in any case. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

Accentuate the postives

Accentuate the postives

Morning all,

it was a quiet one for us last night but Chelsea v United was another cracking cup tie. Although this game might have lacked the utter hypocrisy and steward flinging that was such a big part of the league game on Sunday it was pretty entertaining. United were leading 3-2 until the final seconds of injury time, then gave away a penalty which Chelsea scored bringing it to extra time.

Then Daniel Sturridge scored so I turned off because I refuse to acknowledge the fact that I live in a world in which Daniel Sturridge is considered a footballer. I know he’s not the worst in the world but there’s just something about his head that repulses me the very fibre of my being. I can cope when he misses but when he shows flashes of talent and ability it’s too disconcerting for me. Anyway, United’s fringe players also did 120 minutes in midweek ahead of our showdown this weekend. More on that game over the next couple of days.

Our reward for the remarkable Reading comeback is a trip to Bradford to play … er … Bradford. Which is nice, not just because they’re a lower league side making it an ostensibly more easy task, but because it’s another chance to rotate and use the squad and give a team a four goal head-start just as a challenge, you know yourself. The other quarter-finals are Leeds v Chelsea, Swansea v Boro and Norwich v Aston Villa so it’s all set up for Leeds to smash Chelsea, us to beat Boro in the semi-final before Grant Holt inflicts another cup final defeat on us with a display as wondrous and magical as any produced by the games greats like Maradona, Johan Cruyff or Mickey Quinn. Fun times ahead, folks, fun times.

Going back to Tuesday night and understandably pretty much everyone involved is trying to accentuate the positives. And I get that. I mean, it doesn’t mean that things weren’t hopelessly and ridiculously terrible for the best part of the first half but acceptance of that, rather than dwelling on it, would seem to be the best course of action.

Arsene says:

We can be inspired by this. We need that spirit, that never-give-up attitude for the next two games. It is a great experience to see that we didn’t give up and came back with a positive performance

Andrei Arshavin says:

I think we showed spirit, because you can’t come back from 4-0 down if you don’t have spirit. Nobody believed we could come back. And we did it.

And this is what’s so confusing about this Arsenal team. It’s not unreasonable to level accusations of lack of spirit and heart at a team that’s 4-0 down inside half an hour, but those accusations simply don’t work when the same team comes back to win 7-5. I  heard a lot of people suggest that the early part of the performance was due to the fact that the manager has categorised this as the least important of the competitions we take part in. “If the manager doesn’t care about why would the players?”

To my mind that’s lazy, soundbite thinking. He never said he doesn’t care about it but can anyone argue that it’s not the least prestigious competition of the season? And doesn’t the fact that we’ve made the quarter-finals for 10 years running suggest that this isn’t a tournament in which a manager who doesn’t give a fish’s tit  sends out teams who can’t be arsed? The fact is the League Cup, in all its iterations, provides a chance for players to show what they can do, not that they don’t care.

Youngsters want to impress the manager and catch his eye. More senior guys who aren’t playing as regularly as they would like want to get back into the first team and this competition gives them the chance to remind the manager of their qualities. Arsene will have been happy with what Theo Walcott produced, for example, and I suspect he’s going to start against United on Saturday. On this I have to give credit to the manager for the way he’s stage-managed the contract situation. It could easily have become a much uglier thing, and there are reasons why Walcott found himself frozen out at the start of the campaign, but Arsene is a smart man, he played it well in the media meaning that the player hasn’t really suffered the backlash others in this situation have, and he’s reaped the benefits of it.

He’ll also have looked at the fact that Andrei Arshavin played for 120 minutes and was able to sprint in the 119th of them and think ‘Well, maybe his mercuriality could be useful from the bench again’. And given our current lightness in the striker department, would we prefer a Marouane Chamakh somewhat re-invigorated by a couple of very well taken goals or one who looks like a depressed camel who hasn’t scored for 14 months? Which isn’t to say he’s the answer to all our attacking problems, far from it, but if we need him, and chances are we will at some stage before we can improve our options, it’s better all round if he’s feeling better about himself and more confident in front of goal.

So, serious questions need to be asked (and I’m sure they will be on the training ground) about the first half and the way we conceded the goals we did, but that doesn’t preclude the fact we can take positives from the game and hopefully benefit from them in the fixtures to come. You can be sure the players aren’t necessarily thinking too far beyond ‘What a great comeback that was’, and if that bolsters spirit and confidence then all the better.

Right, that’s that for this morning, back tomorrow with an Arsecast and all the usual waffle. Till then.