Family

Tim Stillman 2012-13

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

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