When you invest a significant portion of your life into a football club, it is sort of inevitable that football players will act as little bookmarks in your life- even if the players themselves will never have any idea. Broadly, I chose to support Arsenal because of a mixture of familial ties and because I was seduced by the talents of David Rocastle and Anders Limpar.
That decision I made when I was six or seven years old has set the tone for my entire life, more or less- and neither Rocky nor Limpar will ever know it. In your younger years, players are more defining. They are the lights that truly draw you in. I would wager that for most of you reading this, there was a defining player who either piqued your interest and made you an Arsenal fan, or else familial ties meant you had little choice but to be an Arsenal fan but there was that one player that truly cemented the relationship for you.
Of course, as you get older, you become slightly less attached to the individual players. They turnover far more frequently so they feel less permanent and all encompassing. Importantly, they are no longer significantly older than you either, so they lose a little of their apotheosis stature. As you age a lot of your social ties begin to define your relationship with the club- be they digital or in person. Friends, family, lovers, people with whom you share wine and song.
However, when a significant portion of your life, your identity, maybe even your personality is tied up in the club that you support, sometimes individual players do impact that in a very meaningful way. On August 1st, 2020, Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup Final at an empty Wembley Stadium. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scored both the Gunners goals that day, dragging the team from a 0-1 deficit to a glorious 2-1 victory.
You already knew that but here’s how I experienced that day. I watched the match in a maternity ward on a tablet. My wife watched it with me between contractions as we awaited the arrival of our daughter. By now, she was nine days post due date. Debs and I watched the semi-final together at home with the maternity bag packed in case nature called. I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol before, during or after a nerve-wracking game because being tipsy is not a great look on a maternity ward.
I watched it on an iPad in a maternity ward…. pic.twitter.com/JgtHZ8w8dk
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 1, 2020
Two days before the final and eight days after the due date, our daughter had still not appeared, so my wife was booked in for induced labour. ‘Ok,’ I reasoned with myself, ‘If induction works first time, then labour should be done in time for us to see the game.’ However, the first attempt on the Thursday was not fruitful. Neither was the second on the Friday.
Due to covid restrictions I was only allowed on the ward from 2-7pm on each day. On the Friday evening, I went home and awaited further developments. I awoke at 6am on Cup Final morning and texted my wife. She had been experiencing contractions through the night. That’s when the panic set in. I had already made peace with the idea that we would not be able to watch the game.
I couldn’t be at Wembley anyway and cup finals are awful really. Not having to torture myself with the actual game and just finding out the result afterwards held a certain appeal and, you know, the thing I was going to be doing instead was quite important. The morning progressed and I spoke with Debs constantly, she was still having contractions; but the situation had not seriously developed beyond that.
Literally shaking. Why do I do this to myself?
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 1, 2020
I took a cab back to the hospital ready for my 2pm visiting slot (the match was to kick off at 5.30pm) and thoughts just whirred in my head. Selfish, awful ones I should never admit to anyone, let alone commit to a website. “Please, my daughter cannot be born on the day that Arsenal lose the FA Cup Final…to fucking Chelsea as well. Please! No!”
Initially Debs and I were very pleased with the July due date since there would be precisely no chance of this sort of occurrence. I reflected on the confluence of events that led to this situation where Arsenal were playing in a Cup Final on 1st August due to a pandemic. And even then, our daughter was supposed to be born well before the showpiece day anyway.
“WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?!” I tossed over in my head again and again. I really, really did not want this type of distraction on the greatest day of my life. “If she is just born after midnight so it’s not the same day, then maybe it will be ok if we lose?” And of course, I hated myself for thinking about it at all. There will be people reading this who think I am a terrible person for entertaining these thoughts and they are probably right. I offer up no defence.
Try as I might, I just could not lay that thought to rest. “Why is this happening today? TODAY! Of all fucking days? Why couldn’t you just let us have today?!” As I arrived at the hospital, it was clear that the birth was not going to happen imminently. We would have the opportunity to watch the game together, with my iPad perched on a chair while Debs and I both breathed deep, anguished breaths (she had more of an excuse than I did).
The only respite on offer to me was that, at least, maybe I wouldn’t have to actually watch us lose to Chelsea. But no, the universe conspired that not only to toss me a sidewinder, but now I mist sit and watch as it hurtles towards my face. Chelsea took an early lead and I instantly tried to psyche myself up. “It doesn’t matter, it means nothing compared to what you are about to experience. Forget it, this time tomorrow it won’t even figure in your thinking.”
Then, of course, Arsenal won a penalty and Aubameyang converted. I found the closeness of the game difficult to deal with and very inconsiderate to my raging anxiety levels. At least if we had been 3-0 down I would have been able to write it off, maybe even relax a little. As Debs and I sat glued to the iPad, we could hear the occasional yelp down the hall as a woman in an adjacent room had a small person yanked from her.
Shortly before 7pm, there was another yelp. It was from our room but it wasn’t pained or punctuated by the crying of a small child (maybe the crying of a large adult). Aubameyang scored again and Arsenal led. Debs was in no condition for a leap or a hug, so I shuffled over to the corner of the room and just punched the ever loving shit out of thin air for several seconds.
As the euphoria subsided, I was gripped by a new terror. “Stupid bastards have given me hope now! If we lose it from here this is going to hurt even more!” That final 15 minutes was the tensest 15 minutes of my life. Arsenal saw it through and won and I nearly collapsed with relief. Not only was my daughter not going to be born on the same weekend that Arsenal lost an FA Cup Final to Chelsea, she was to be born on the same weekend that Arsenal WON an FA Cup Final against Chelsea!
Then suddenly I realised that this was only the beginning of my personal exhaustion and, look, when your partner is about to push a human out of her body, dad’s personal exhaustion is something of a non-issue. Obviously, I had kept my personal, psychological tumult to myself because, well, see above, when your partner is about to push a human out of her body.
In the brief respite period between the final whistle and going into theatre, we sat and talked about the game. “I didn’t want to say anything,” Debs told me sheepishly, “But it would have been pretty shit for Eva to be born on the weekend that Arsenal lose a Cup Final.” I should have played it cool. I should have said, “it barely crossed my mind to be honest, doesn’t really matter does it?”
I didn’t. I said, “I am so glad that you said that! I’ve been going through hell all day and I feel terrible about it!” Obviously, the day would not have been ruined, or close to it had Arsenal lost. There are plenty of things more important in life than football and this was, very firmly, one of them. But it would have represented a slightly sour footnote, an unwanted conversation topic for the rest of our lives.
That’s the thing about football, it shouldn’t matter, but it does. On that day, it did. It mattered to both of us. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s goals that day did more than just win the cup for Arsenal in our eyes. They made the greatest day of our lives even more special and we will always owe him for that.
He will never know of this debt we owe, of course. He will never know of the various desperate deals I tried to strike with forces in which I don’t believe on that fateful weekend. For the rest of our lives, when we recant the details of our daughter’s birth, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s name will be sewn into the fabric of that anecdote and passed into family folklore.
That means Pierre Emerick Aubameyang will always be just a little bit more than an Arsenal player to me. He is a pivotal character in the greatest weekend of our lives. And, let’s face it, it will take something pretty extraordinary for us to live a more remarkable 24 hours than that (Eva was born about 25 hours after the final whistle at Wembley in the end). He will never know that, of course. But I will. We will.