Last week, Arsenal in the Community undertook their annual tradition of visiting local schools and hospitals in the run-up to Christmas. A clip of a young fan called Kyan being surprised at his school by Mesut Özil subsequently went viral. Kyan’s saucer eyed amazement at being confronted with his hero was such a heart-warming moment, largely due to its innocence, but for cynical, world weary adults, it was relatable to our childhood selves.
I love clips like this because it reminds you of how your relationship with football starts out, before you get a bit old and cynical and bogged down in tactics, formations and geopolitical situations around clubs. When you're a kid, it's all about players you adore. https://t.co/eE7WtOAXD4
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) December 15, 2018
As a child, before you become familiarised with tactics, formations, geopolitical ownership structures or the fact that every single referee and the Football Association are entwined in a vast conspiracy against your team, it’s all about the players. They inform your relationship. Through the eyes of a child, footballers fall from the sky.
Most of us can probably hook our decision to support Arsenal onto a player. I would conservatively estimate that the vast majority of Arsenal’s global support are attributable to Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. For me, there was a choice to be made between Arsenal and Spurs. I must admit that Paul Gascoigne nearly swung me to the dark side. But Anders Limpar, David Rocastle and Paul Merson saved my soul.
Spurs had one player I considered worthy of worship, Arsenal had three. In the words of Mos Def, it’s mathematics. (Ironic, therefore, that my first real Arsenal heartbreak saw a Gazza inspired Tottenham beat the Gunners 3-1 at Wembley in 1991). Even if the choice to support Arsenal was made for you, I wouldn’t mind betting that it was a player that truly inducted you- Liam Brady’s rolled down socks, Charlie George’s devil may care languidness, or Ian Wright’s reggae inspired goal celebrations might be family heirlooms in your mind.
Individual players are so important in your formative years because they inform the identity of the club that you support. I very much grew up on 1-0 to the Arsenal and the legendary back five. Interspersed with that was the flawed magic of Paul Merson and the adrenaline propulsing play of Ian Wright. As I moved into adulthood, I was perfectly placed to observe the transition from George Graham’s Arsenal to Arsene Wenger’s.
Of course, as we get a little bit older, this sense of hero worship fades. We start to see the flaws of footballers more willingly and, as adults, we understand more easily that they’re just people. We also just see more players pass through the club. I am just coming to an age where almost all of the players are younger than me now (Lichtsteiner is a few months my senior, Petr Cech is older than me) and I am sure I will observe a further separation as the years progress.
Most of the players are demonstratively from a different generation to me and that may well increase that separation. We are all more prepared to see flaws in our juniors, consciously or otherwise. But no matter how old, cynical or wizened one becomes, you are never totally insulated from falling in love again. 18 months ago I wrote about my adoration of Wojciech Szczesny, for instance.
It’s tempting to become embittered and grumble about players being so unrelatable nowadays. But sometimes, despite age, cynicism, work and the continued presence of Piers Morgan on television, you can still fall in love. Maybe not quite in the gobsmacked manner of young Kyan, but sometimes a player can get you right in the feels and not entirely because of the way they play.
I have developed an enormous soft spot for Hector Bellerin and not just because I think he is an excellent right-back. Last season, Hector’s performances came under some unkind scrutiny and while it is fair to say he was not playing to his potential, I think a lot of the reasons were outside of his control. This was not a universal view.
Soft factors have a significant influence in football, but their value is hugely over attributed and I think it’s because, as fans, we often don’t understand why unsatisfactory things happen. As such, we grasp for ‘soft’ or invisible factors to explain that which we don’t know or understand. While form, momentum, confidence and fitness are all very important, we probably over quantify them in lieu of a more nuanced tactical explanation.
In Bellerin’s case, his loss of form coincided with his decision to grow his hair and some eye rollingly dim “correlation equals causation” conclusions became de rigueur on the internet and beyond. Hector’s unabashed love of fashion was also cited as evidence of a player that had lost focus on his day job. There were, I think, some fairly uncomfortable undertones in these assumptions in our collective perception of masculinity.
Fashion is no more time consuming a pursuit than gaming, collecting cars or having a flutter on the horses. Petr Cech’s command of 8 languages has never been cited as a distraction from his goalkeeping, even though he taught himself Spanish and Portuguese while a Chelsea player. Nobody put his occasional errors down to having spent too many hours with his head buried in a Spanish dictionary. Nobody reflects on a Pierre Emerick Aubameyang miss and lays the blame at the door of one of his many sports cars.
Fashion is probably one of the more practical interests a wealthy young athlete could spend his spare time on. There is little in the way of jeopardy and it takes precisely zero physical toll. Footballers have lots of downtime precisely because they work so hard physically every single day. Their bodies need lots of rest due to the physical intensity of their job.
— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) October 14, 2018
All of which is to say, Bellerin became a bit of ‘a cause’ last season. His downturn in form had, in my eyes, a fairly obvious tactical explanation (the fact that Arsenal’s right wing was treated like an exclusion zone for most of the campaign). I found myself defending him not because I thought he was playing well, per se, but because I thought it wasn’t entirely his fault that he wasn’t.
I have to confess that there was an element of contrariness to it for me, too. Hector’s ‘colourful’ fashion choices and his flowing locks seemed to annoy people that annoyed me more generally. One of my all-time favourite quotes is from John Lydon in Julien Temple’s excellent Sex Pistols documentary, ‘The Filth and the Fury.’
When people tell you to cut your hair, but theirs doesn't grow 🤷🏻♂ pic.twitter.com/CIgsxGxENl
— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) July 12, 2018
“We managed to piss off all of the people we were fucking fed up with,” Lydon spat. I admit that this added a pinch of paprika to my Hector man crush, that he irked the sort of people I tend to find irksome. While his ‘spockney’ accent remains endearing, his answers at a Q & A event at Oxford Union back in February revealed a sensitive and grounded young man who speaks with a wisdom in advance of his years.
He has since decided to broach subjects such as climate change, Grenfell, veganism and he has spoken more generally about using his platform to take these subjects on. Football is not the most forgiving environment for such talk. It was only 15 or so years ago that Graeme Le Saux was “accused” of being gay because he read broadsheet newspapers.
Want your Monday brightening up? 😊
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) November 26, 2018
Bellerin will be cognizant of this, but continues to put his head above the parapet. That’s immensely impressive for a 23 year old footballer in the public eye. He knows it makes him a ‘target’ but continues to speak his mind and that speaks to a quality of character. In a more forgiving tactical structure, his form has, unsurprisingly, improved this season too.
It is fair to say that I wouldn’t personally adopt some of his ‘braver’ fashion decisions, but I am not a good looking, wealthy, 23 year old elite athlete either. I’m not sure the sight of Hector Bellerin at my place of work would inspire the jaw dropping awe experienced by Kyan when he laid eyes upon Mesut Özil, but even as we grow older, sometimes, just sometimes, a player can still pierce through the armour plating and find a place in your heart.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.