Institutionalised

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

The summer of 2001. That was the worst one. In my youth, football free summers were negotiated in a number of ways. Up until the age of 14 or 15, I was a keen player of the sport. So summers were largely spent taking advantage of extended daylight hours on the concrete five a side court that used to form part of Beckenham Town FC’s stadium.

Tournament summers were always easy enough. When I was younger, they used to fill me with excitement and relish as I prepared to become a fair-weather England fan for a few weeks. Looking back, Euro 96 feels less like a tournament and more like an entire era. Like the World Cup in Italy six years earlier, it certainly forms a prologue, or even a bookmark for the evolution of modern football.

As I have gotten older, I have treated international tournaments more like methadone. I can take a reasonable amount of interest, without the twice weekly pressure cooker of watching Arsenal. Nowadays, summers are slightly easier. I am married, which helps shape otherwise barren weekends much more easily. I have taken an interest in South American football, which is at its most hectic during the European off-season.

In 2017, it is pretty easy to find football to watch if the will is there. I am perfectly fine with taking a recess from Arsenal for 10 weeks or so. Fans need a cooling off period as much as players. But I am in a curious position. I watch Arsenal, really, to let off steam. I don’t just mean in the visceral sense- by shouting and screaming. The laughing, the drinking and the companionship are much bigger components of that release valve.

Away from Arsenal, I watch football for relaxation. So a summer of watching games I am not as intensely invested in is a good use of my downtime. Watching football and watching Arsenal are separate entities to me, in a way. Which is one of the reasons the summers are a little easier. I fill the Arsenal gap with football!

As I lurched into adulthood, summers spent on concrete five-a-side courts slowly gave way to off seasons idled away in beer gardens. Public houses were especially enchanting with the added carrot of an international tournament to watch inside their walls. But the summer of 2001, was the most barren, unforgiving summer I can remember.

I was 17 and I looked young for my age. So though the temptation of the beer garden was prevalent, accessibility was restricted. By this time, kicking a piece of leather around a patch of concrete had become a far less regular social activity. I started to attend away games regularly, with my friends, during the 2000-01 season. Going to football started to offer me a social outlet for the first time.

As a bunch of bumfluff ridden 16 and 17 year olds, it proved easier to smuggle some cans onto a train and cram ourselves into a packed match day pub undetected than it did to con a bouncer on a nightclub door in Croydon. The summer of 2001 saw that precious valve snipped. At football, I was considered an adult.

Publicans around Highbury asked few questions when I confidently ordered a round, because I went to games with people older than me. Besides which, the local authorities have far bigger fish to fry on a match day than a slightly underage lad blowing the froth off of a couple. When the 2000-01 season finished, I was quickly expelled from that bubble, just as I began to really enjoy its trappings.

A few other ingredients combined to make the off season of 2001 an especially bland cocktail. I had a part time job and it was the first summer that I spent working. I began shifts at 6am, which adversely affected the few social activities I could indulge in. I finished my shifts at midday, which turned the afternoons into yawning chasms of inactivity.

I took my GCSEs in the summer of 2000 and my A-Levels in 2002, so I was between exams. Even academia conspired against me. There was of course, no international tournament during that summer- save for the Confederations Cup in Japan, which I don’t think was televised in the UK. If it was, I certainly didn’t care about it enough to look it out- particularly as the games were early morning affairs in England.

Barren summers gave transfer speculation a chance to breathe- or more accurately, to pollute. With no international tournament in 1999, the Nicolas Anelka saga bored Arsenal fans to distraction. The player and his brothers agitated pathetically and relentlessly for a move. At one stage, Nicolas’ brother Claude identified Lazio as a dream move because their light blue shirts combined the shades preferred by the French national team and Real Madrid- both of whom apparently represented the summit of Nicolas’ ambitions.

Arsenal played a high level game of brinkmanship and extracted a great price, but the “drama” ebbed between frustration and tedium. In 2001, Patrick Vieira became embroiled in the most intense of his episodic transfer sagas, as rumours raged of a move to Madrid. Vieira was unashamedly my favourite player at the time and I got well and truly sucked into the innuendo surrounding his future, veering between denial and anger. The signing of Sol Campbell was actually a curiously quiet affair by comparison.

The last game I attended in 2000-01 season was the ill-fated Cup Final against Liverpool. Arsenal played two league games thereafter, away at Newcastle and Southampton, but I didn’t have enough away credits to go to either. This both prolonged the summer vacation and ensured the previous campaign ended on a regretful note, for which I craved atonement. (As did the team, given the way 2001-02 panned out).

2017 is analogous to 2001 in terms of its place in the footballing cycle, between international tournaments. There hasn’t even been a Copa America this summer. However, I am a little older, a little wiser and a little more occupied. I attended a couple of live games whilst on holiday in Brazil earlier in the summer. I have been able to use the packed Brasileirão calendar and the Women’s Euros to keep myself nicely topped up.

But in the last fortnight or so, the anticipation has begun to sink its claws in. I have even observed that my stress levels have been unusually high in the last couple of weeks. Watching football has offered me relaxation, but going to Arsenal is the most precious vessel of release. Unconsciously, I think I deal with stress by unloading it in this way in my life. Live football is a valuable coping mechanism.

Maybe that’s unhealthy, it doesn’t feel like it, but I can see why people might think that. I certainly accept that it is a little strange. But the season gives my life structure. Games are little bookmarks that guide me through the working week. I always remember the date between August and May, the fixture list is a constant reference point and acts a mental calendar, the sun around which everything else orbits. Ask me during the summer and I often struggle to remember what day of the week it is.

I have just begun to miss that framework, to pine for it again, to quietly bury my anxiety in the gentle hum of the crowd. I am looking forward to the chaos, the last minute winners, the early morning drinking on away day trains, the singing, the disappointment and everything a football season guarantees you. But mostly, I am looking forward to finding order against that backdrop of chaos. Like Old Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, I’m institutionalised now.

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