Paradise Lost

Football has always been the centrepiece of my life. I have been an Arsenal season ticket holder since I was 8 years old. I was born into a football family; I quickly learned its culture the way a child absorbs language – consciously yet unconsciously. It informs my most significant relationships. My mum is an Arsenal season ticket holder, I met my wife through a shared love of Arsenal.

Most of my friendships are bound up in Arsenal or football more generally, it’s an enormous part of my identity- others associate me with it as much as I associate myself with it. For obvious reasons, Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ had a transformative effect on me in my youth, as an Arsenal obsessive that happened to be an aspiring writer, how could it not?

Like Hornby, I grew up without my father – I was raised by my mum and four older sisters. In the chapter ‘A Spare Jimmy Husband’, Hornby describes how his love of football helped him to function socially when he joined secondary school. For a shy boy raised by women, he described football as his way of ‘putting a few eggs into the masculinity basket.’ It resonated with me as you can imagine.

As well as being a naturally shy boy raised entirely by women, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia when I was five which meant, among other things, I am introverted to the point of social paralysis – this was especially the case when I was a child. Football helped me to overcome that and interact with my peers in a way that would not have otherwise been possible.

Dyspraxia loosely shares some of the same habits that autism spectrum disorders can. Many of them are quite advantageous, not least an ability to harvest trivia and data. Football is a treasure trove of data: dates, attendances, starting line-ups, goals and assists. If you were forming a Sporcle team for 1990s football quizzes, you would want me on your team.

Crucially, football has always provided me with routine. It is notable that, during the fallow summer months, I lose track of the date easily. Between August and May, that is never an issue. I always know the date of the next Arsenal game and work backwards from there. Like many others, football is the routine that drives my other habits. I have always taken jobs that allow me to go to games regularly.

Admittedly, the outbreak of the Coronavirus has far more serious consequences than the loss of routine football’s sudden hibernation presents. Nevertheless, it rather adds to the bleakness of the situation. One of the thoughts that keeps me going right now is the shared feeling of excitement we will collectively experience when some semblance of normality returns. [This also applies far beyond football].

I admit that, over the last year or so, my relationship with football has begun to alter for the worse. Prior to this, I promise you, absolutely promise you that I never took a single game for granted. Not a single fixture, not even a midweek League Cup away match. That has changed in the last 12 months. The main reason for this is, simply, elite level football is headed in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me.

Schedule interference, the racing inevitability of a European Super League, the introduction of VAR – all of these things have either directly detracted from the experience of going to watch Arsenal, or else I know that they will pretty soon. In truth, my enjoyment of away games especially began to dwindle at the tail end of the Wenger era, as frustration and rancour grew in the stands – the level of bile and genuine misery, screamed through gritted teeth at each game became draining to be around.

I was on a long, unbroken run of match attendance at the time and anyone that manages something similar will tell you that non-attendance stops becoming an option. Last season I broke that run. After 19 years of not missing a home game and 17 years without missing a [domestic] away game, I spent Christmas and New Year with my wife’s family in Brazil. With the long run broken, it becomes easier to make certain choices.

For instance, I wasn’t going to attend the hastily re-arranged match at Manchester City last week, even before it was called off. In past years, I would have bent over backwards arranging travel, probably a hotel too. On this occasion I didn’t. ‘Why should I?’ I reasoned to myself. The shape-shifting of Arsenal’s calendar has been an aggravating factor.

When you go to matches, Saturday football is just better – it’s also far easier and cheaper to reach on public transport. The proliferation of Sunday fixtures impacted on my enjoyment. More than anything, May’s trip to Baku fundamentally altered my relationship with the lifestyle I had built for myself. I angrily described ‘the Baku experience’ here so I won’t repeat myself.

It gave me a glimpse into football’s future and it was and is one I want no part of and will be excluded from anyway, like so many Arsenal fans were excluded from this showpiece final. That feeling used to make me angry, but it doesn’t any longer. I’ve stopped fighting it. Things change, life changes and not always in a way custom designed for your needs. Change is just part of life and Arsenal will always be central to mine one way or another.

Over the last year, I have begun to enjoy the women’s games more than the men’s games. Being able to cover them for this site has afforded me a position of privilege, where I have been able to get immediate access to players and the manager after games and ask them questions. This kind of work has always been my dream really, it’s the equivalent of granting a child unrestricted access to a toy store once it has closed its doors.

The culture around women’s football is less poisonous, less furious and offended. My love for Arsenal could never disappear, nor even dim, but my relationship with it has altered. Life is about to change for me as well. My wife and I are expecting our first child in July. As a global pandemic breaks out, my anxieties are channeled into this life changing event.

What is the world going to look like in July? What is the UK’s health service going to look like when the call of nature arrives and we rush for the hospital? My mum is over 70, will she have to miss the first few weeks of her granddaughter’s life in quarantine? Shit, Arsenal might be playing now!!! I was very particular about having a child in July when this eventuality didn’t seem possible! And what the fuck am I going to write about during this undetermined pause?

Even with bigger worries ahead, for my family and the families of millions of others, football and Arsenal always worms its way into my brain quickly enough. That is how I have been wired. Producing Arsenal themed content has also become a part of my livelihood and a significant and cherished part of my routine, thankfully my relationship with that has not altered – [don’t tell Andrew this, but I would honestly do this for free].

Arsenal has brought me structure, routine and companionship I would have struggled to acquire otherwise. It’s not just the game itself that sustains, it’s the milieu of activity that hums and vibrates around it. In these uncertain times, the loss of that reassurance, that routine is surreal and sudden and I am still not sure how I will deal with it, but maybe it will cause me to reassess my relationship and maybe fall in love with it all over again.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto – or like my page on Facebook