It’s understandable that nostalgia is such a popular phenomenon. The past is always a safe place. Preserved in sepia, the sun always shines, music and clothes were much more agreeable and politicians more honest. The past cannot hurt us, we can filter out the bad parts and cryogenically freeze the good in our mind’s eye. Nowhere is this truer than the mind of a football fan. Because at its best, football is a constant reconnection with youth.
You can behave like a moody adolescent with football in ways that you just cannot at the coalface of adult life. No matter how cynical and relentlessly profit driven the game becomes, when the whistle goes and the match starts, you’re the naughty child again. Ridiculously pleased with yourself for being able to swear and express anger at great volume in public without attracting the slightest hint of attention. A defeat will cause you to sulk insufferably and everyone is just meant to understand.
Every click of the turnstile, every kick of the ball, is a lasting memento to the time you fell in love with the game. Like the ringing of the school bell. And what’s wrong with that? I collect retro Arsenal shirts and what is that but a sentimental bow fastening me to Arsenal’s past? Particularly treasured to me are my collection of early 90s replica shirts, because they re-plot the bonds of my Arsenal awakening. It’s my own football fan version of the mid-life crisis. I wear the bruised banana away kit like a brand new Lamborghini. My 94-95 blue away shirt is a fabric comb-over.
However, nostalgia can alter our judgement and compromise our objectivity. It’s easy to use a sanitised version of the past to bemoan the present. For instance, I think Arsenal fans have only just arrived at the stage where the great ‘Invincibles’ side is seen as a cause célèbre rather than a rolled up newspaper with which to bat the noses of the current crop. Scrutiny is so voluminous and severe in 2014, that anger is very quick to surface. In a time when all of our thoughts and opinions are more public, we compete with another to be heard, which naturally leads to more extreme reactions, which in turn causes the cauldron to bubble further.
In 2012, Arsene Wenger told a gathering of sports journalism students, “We have moved from a society of full support, to a media society and an opinion society. When I arrived here a defeat was not as dramatic as it is today. Why? Because we have moved from a rational society to a much more emotional society. When you finish a game it is analysed in a minute and the opinions go through the whole of society in 10 minutes. The emotional side of any reaction today is massive.”
It’s a question that has gathered dust in my cranium for a while now. How would the revered legends of yesteryear be viewed through the prism of this more emotive landscape? Would their mistakes have been met with greater acrimony and, more pertinently, would that acrimony manifest itself into a long term bitterness held? I think no figure emphasises this divide better in a modern context than ex Arsenal captain Tony Adams.
The term ‘club legend’ is obviously a subjective one. But I think it would take a rather special brand of delusion to deny that Tony Adams is a bona fide club legend. Adams’ Arsenal career was the tale of a Bildungsroman in the classic folk tradition. From smashing his car through an old lady’s wall to smashing home a left footed volley in front of the North Bank against Everton. I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1992, so Adams was a very special player to me, invaluable to my Arsenal induction.
The trouble is, nowadays, he tends to talk an awful lot of rot. Yet it’s impossible to say this in any kind of gathering of Arsenal fans without being tied to a stake as a heretic by a torch bearing mob. To many, Adams’ past achievements make his contemporary comments infallible. This is a symptom of nostalgia. If I were to suggest that Arsene Wenger’s past achievements placed him above criticism I doubt I would be met with much support. Rightly so too.
The issue is that, for many, Adams is a symbol of their youth. He bridged the gap between terracing, cheap tickets and drinking and smoking inside the stadium, right into the technicolour razzmatazz of 21st century football. He was the conduit between Graham’s likely lads and Wenger’s global metrostars. He also connects youth to middle age in the minds of many, which has made him a complex kind of symbol. Adams is not the sole bearer of this strange cross.
I remember very well as Ian Wright advanced into his 30s the debate around his legacy. Would he be remembered for his disciplinary problems more than his goals? With hindsight we know jolly well what he is most associated with, but I wonder if that would be the case if Wright’s time were 15 years later. His disciplinary indiscretions would keep Sky Sports News’ yellow ticker rolling for weeks on end had they taken place today, so maybe those skirmishes would have more of a bearing on his legacy.
In warning against overly romanticising the past, I am of course wary of doing just that myself, but I recall John Jensen becoming a kind of cult figure, celebrated for his uselessness. His solitary Arsenal goal is viewed with ironic acclaim as one of the great alternative moments of Arsenal’s history. Right up there with Sammy Nelson’s arse. (Imagine an Arsenal player mooning his own fans in 2014!) Today, John Jensen could probably expect to receive death threats on Instagram for his failure to score.
Likewise George Graham managing Tottenham is considered something of a footnote now. Given the vitriol dished out to more recent defectors and a more intensive media, it would be fascinating to see how that career move would be viewed. For his part, Charlie George maintains to this day that he nearly joined Spurs and had absolutely no qualms about doing so. “When you’re a player, you stop being a supporter,” he once remarked rather laconically, which sits uneasily with the folk tale of the Islington boy made good.
I’m not certain supporters were more forgiving of mistakes in times past, generally speaking. Players of the 1930s spoke about the grumpiness of the Highbury crowd. Nostalgia also sees us often venerate past players if they represent a supposed hole in the contemporary team. Gilberto Silva probably receives greater adulation now than he ever did when he actually played for Arsenal. I recall Ray Parlour too receiving similar retrospective acclaim a few seasons back when it was thought that Arsenal lacked endeavour.
I remember both men being on the end of many a tongue lashing at Highbury in their playing days. I guess the difference now is that those groans and gripes didn’t travel beyond the ears of a few unsuspecting punters in the stands, or past their own living rooms. They weren’t the midwife to an echo chamber of angst as they might have been in the digital age. There has always been frustration and disquiet amongst supporters, it’s just there is much more fertile ground to sow the seeds of that disillusion, enabling it to multiply.
The purpose of this piece is not to douse the flame of Arsenal legends past in order to make the candle of the current crop burn brighter, or to belittle football fans. Of course, players are paid much more handsomely now and supporters pay more handsomely in turn, so expectations are different. But the glorious bygone age never existed. There are down-payments of yin and yang as football evolves and our temples grey with years accumulated. Overall, it doesn’t tend to get much better or much worse. The circumstances simply change. LD.
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