Once, during an Arsenal match at Highbury against Manchester United, I found myself applauding a passage of play by the opposing team. Quite why I had indulged in this curious form of behaviour has been lost in the mist of time. Suffice to say, Arsenal won that particular match 4-0 and as a young boy of twelve years of age, I had acquired the realisation that if you gave the opposition the merest hint of a Corinthian-like sporting attitude, they would be given a severe beating and I would go home happy.
In one form or another, this gentle, almost polite side of football seems to have survived. Why else do we applaud the opposing goalie when he comes down our end of the ground? We want him to ship in goals. Lots of them. Yet we give him a little ripple of appreciation just to let him know that we’re being really, really fair.

Similarly, the baiting that we give to players that are universally loathed at Highbury such as Teddy Sheringham seems to me to be entirely counterproductive as the player involved will almost certainly score against us. Again, I learnt this as a kid when I joined in the chanting against a goal-scoring machine clad in black-and-white stripes named Malcolm McDonald with that fine example of terrace wit “Old McDonald had a farm, e-eye-e-eye-oh. And on that farm he had a wank, e-eye-e-eye-oh. With a... WANK, WANK, here and a WANK, WANK, there... Here a WANK, there a WANK, etc. etc.” and, of course, old bandy-legs scored two against us, should have made it three, and could have helped his team steal all the points. That’s not to say that I didn’t give Teddy the finger when he put Pompey ahead at THOF just recently. But the reason that I didn’t spew forth a torrent of abusive language to accompany my one solitary raised digit is more complicated than a fading memory of some sporting ritual that I had acquired as a kid.

In case you hadn’t realised it, that 4-0 victory over United was the opening Highbury fixture in what was to prove the memorable 70-71 Double season. A season that Arsenal remained unbeaten at home. And a season that I first acquired the habit of repetitive behaviour, doing the exact same things on a match day, just to make sure that unbeaten streak wouldn’t come to an end. Back in those days, it mostly took the form of looking out for certain landmarks that I could view on the train as I headed up to town from the suburbs. Somebody with a house backing on to the track had put up a small set of goal posts in their garden and I had to make sure that I saw that goal. Once I got to the Arsenal, I always visited the programme shop that was located on Drayton Park. It was that comforting form of ritual that most football fans indulge in, something that we seem to need to get us through an activity that is tremendously important to us and yet we have absolutely no control over.

I’ve kept up this form of dumb-luck schtick through the subsequent years. (I now visit the fanzine/video/photograph stall on Gillespie Road before a match. I buy my copy of The Gooner off the same middle-aged woman if I can. I eat a supposedly “lucky bagel” at most games.) The difference between the adult version of me and that twelve-year-old kid is that I now know is that those rituals DON’T WORK and yet I still indulge in them. Boy, that’s weird.

And since I see a lot more games than I ever did back in the Seventies – due to the advent of satellite TV – the habits that accompany my football experience have moved into areas that were unknown to me as a young boy ie. watching the match down the pub. This has spun-off an entire substrata of superstitions. Again, entirely useless. Yet I can’t seem to shake them off.

For instance, my local decided against renewing their Sky subscription for this season because of the 20% increase that was being levied, so I’ve had to find a new drinking hole in the neighborhood to watch the ’Boro and City matches. My only experience of watching a Premiership match outside of said local was our abysmal performance at home to Charlton two seasons back when I left at half-time muttering and cursing not only at Arsene’s inept defensive tactics but at my own failings at not going down to The Beehive for once. So I was in a real state of panic about having to find somewhere that wasn’t going to curse me and the team. And as far as that goes, it’s a case of so far, so good. I’ve found a lager-lounge with an Arsenal-supporting landlord, big screens and not particularly comfortable barstools. And we’ve won both games.

Watching matches at Highbury has also been accompanied by acquiring new habits because I bought one of the Debentures that were on offer during the summer. Again, the first match that I could go to –Villa – took on an enormous significance. What the heck was I supposed to feel if we had lost that first game? Thankfully, we ground out a result in that one, and although the Portsmouth fixture has taken away that 100% record, I’m still feeling pretty good about things.

I spent the Pompey game aware that my neighbour had brought his daughter along for her first-ever match. She must be six or seven and cute as a button. And she knows exactly nada about the noble game. So he coaxed her through the proceedings, and every now and again I asked her how she was enjoying it, and I could feel her shudder with that small-scale fear when either her old man or myself shouted out something and she hadn’t been expecting it. It was something new for her and for me. And in the end it was almost revelatory.

At half-time I had gone upstairs in search of the useless, though quite tasty, “lucky bagel” (the bagel stall down on the Lower Tier concourse having been turned into a chocolate bar vendors for some unknown reason – an event that had thrown me out of kilter when I found that I couldn’t buy a tuna and sweetcorn before kick-off) and when I got back to my seat I found that she had spilt her King-size Smarties all around our row. Now obviously her Smarties had reacted badly with my bagel and therefore the five goals that she had confidently thought that the Arsenal would score in the second half evaporated in a vapour of entirely self-induced bad luck. But, do you know what? I didn’t give a monkey’s.

For looking around me, I realised that there were LOADS of kids enjoying perhaps their first season up the Arse. And that even though their new experiences were completely different to my first time at a match (At Fulham v United. ’67 perhaps? When Craven Cottage was so packed, my dad and uncle had to lift my brother and me on to the running track to avoid the crush, and there we sat, indulged by the coppers and watching footie for the first time not two yards from the tackles and the wing play and the throw-ins.) their presence means that I’m going to have to change my way of behaviour. Not only by watching my mouth – that’s why I didn’t shout at Teddy – and giving up all those redundant behaviour patterns that I’ve accumulated over the years, but by now having two kinds of matches to look forward too.

I’ll have the pleasure of late-summer occasions like the Pompey game when fathers bring their daughters to their first game of football and I can behave like the respectable middle-aged gent that I am not, but also I’ve got big, night-time matches to look forward too, when the children are, hopefully, tucked up in bed and I can REALLY let rip, swear at all and sundry and generally go fuckin’ nuts.

Sleep tight kiddies!!


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