Thursday, April 25, 2024

Connection

Hello from Los Angeles! I had never been to any of Arsenal’s pre-season tours before. It’s not a fact I have ever particularly lamented because, well, I have never been able to afford it and, broadly speaking, these tours aren’t really about supporters like me who have Arsenal on their doorstep.

Pre-season is an incredibly important time for coaches and players- possibly the most important time of the year. However, I have never felt connected to the games as a fan. This is largely because, when I was growing up, pre-season friendly results were barely even attainable. I think at some point in the mid 1990s the newspapers started to publish the scores.

Needless to say, I have never been especially interested in the games or the results. It felt a bit like ordering food at a restaurant and insisting on watching it being cooked. Pre-season having a commercial element is not an entirely new thing but, clearly, over the last decade or so the commercial element has become incredibly important to clubs.

I have been fortunate enough to come to Los Angeles for the Arsenal v Barcelona match and it’s my first visit to the United States to boot. In truth, I almost felt as though I was intruding by coming over. I was always just happy to accept that these games and these tours weren’t really for me.

But I am so glad I have been able to come out here and sample just a part of Arsenal’s US tour because it has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. On Tuesday evening, myself, Andrews M and A and Elliot had the opportunity to host a live show for some Arsenal fans in South Central and we were joined on stage by Gilberto Silva and Ray Parlour.

As some of you may know, Gilberto in particular holds a special place for me because he also played for my wife’s team, Atletico Mineiro and comes from the same state in Brazil that my wife is from. I very nervously babbled with him in broken Portuguese on his Instagram live in what has to be the most surreal experience of my life.

Sharing a stage with two legendary players (Parlour was the first name I ever had printed on one of my replica shirts and he happens to be my mum’s favourite ever player) was a genuine pinch yourself moment. We stayed around the venue and I must have spoken to 100 people on Tuesday evening and, to an absolute man and woman, everyone was so nice and what really struck me was how much this tour mattered.

People had flown, driven and bused in from all over the country, many from Canada too, just to be able to sample a taste of the Arsenal experience. There isn’t much way of me saying or recording this without sounding as though I like the smell of my own farts too much, but it just never ceases to amaze me how much sites like Arseblog do to connect people.

Because football fandom is about community, ultimately. When you go to games regularly, that’s the hook. The football is important, of course, but really it’s the people that infuse it with its essence. Being a football fan is, more than anything else, a feeling of wanting to be connected to other people. Wanting to be a part of something with others and sharing the same vision and the same aspirations.

I am minded of Noel Gallagher’s assessment of Oasis’ popularity in the 1990s in the documentary Supersonic. ‘It was nothing we did. I just wrote the songs. We just played them. It was the thousands of people who turned up and sang them back to us that made it what it was. All the other stuff fades into irrelevance, that lasts forever.’

In all of my years being around football and all of the thousands people I have met or spoken to in some form or other, I don’t think I have ever met somebody for whom being a football fan was an isolated or individual experience. At some point it’s not just about wanting your team to play good football and win, it’s about the fact that other people want that too and you go to, sometimes, incredible efforts to make sure you experience them with others who feel the same as you.

That is an exceptionally powerful feeling. I know because it’s a sensory addiction for me. It is why I go to the amount of games that I do and go to the lengths that I have done over the years of watching Arsenal. However, for me, writing has always been an individual and isolated activity and that is a big part of the reason that I love it so much.

I wrote journals about Arsenal right up until the time I began to write for Arseblog in 2011. I legitimately did this for free, for my own amusement, for well over a decade, for an audience of one. It just so happened that they have this thing called the internet that allowed me to publish my thoughts for others to read if they wanted to.

Can I be honest? The audience part of writing these columns was never especially important to me. Not at first. I am very much an introvert and so writing became the biggest passion in my life alongside football. I combined the two out of convenience essentially. But writing is something I consider essential to my mental health and my ability to function as a social being.

When I write it is, at its core, a selfish pursuit. Or at least it was. But now, the feedback element is as addictive as the writing itself. Hitting publish, absorbing the reaction, discussing it with people, interacting, learning, honing your technique and delivery as you go. I can’t imagine there are many jobs as instantly rewarding and tangible to your growth.

Because you learn a lot by talking to people and doing this has enabled me to connect with people in a way that I would never have been able to do otherwise. It has made me a better writer and a better person and you can’t ask for much more than that from your profession, really.

Having the opportunity to experience that in another part of the world is, frankly, mind blowing. To get on an 11 hour flight, land and see and meet all of these people who love this thing that comes from your home city like you do feels humbling, in a way. It is something I am not quite sure I will ever be able to absorb fully.

What I do know is that fact just gives me the most amazing feeling that I struggle to articulate. I’m not a spiritual person by any means but it almost feels spiritual when you fly to the other side of the world and speak to people who feel the same connection and emotional attachment to the same thing that you do.

When we watched the Barcelona game in the So-Fi stadium which is, honestly, an overwhelmingly incredible arena. I have been to a lot of football stadiums and concert venues but this place is from another planet entirely. And the thing that struck me most was the noise.

It was a different type of noise to the ones I experience watching Arsenal in England but it was deafening. I don’t know quite how to describe it but it is enthusiastic, to say the least. 70,000 people came from all over America to watch this game and it’s just so clear how much it means to people, to grip the hem of the Arsenal garment.

Clearly you don’t quite get that during the season. There is enthusiasm and, at home games, there are always people dotted around who are experiencing their first Arsenal match. But largely it’s people like me, committed and passionate, certainly. But there is a routine and regularity to it (and that feeling of routine is also one I have a sensory addiction to).

But in LA, I have felt totally overwhelmed, in the most wonderful way, by the strength of that connection. The scarcity of it for most of the fans here creates a different intensity and from much of the trip, I have felt saucer eyed (this feeling was very much amplified by the SoFi stadium which is a sensory overload in its own right).

As myself Elliot and the Andrews left the venue in South Central on Tuesday evening, we all described a feeling as though we had taken some kind of drug. The adrenaline and the slight incoherence of our conversation came from a shared failure to process the intensity of that connection with other supporters.

It’s concentrated, it almost over powers you but in an extraordinary way, like having your face licked by a puppy. And it just brings me back to that feeling that being a football fan is about that yearning to bond with others. It isn’t that it means something to you that makes it so powerful and unique, but that it means so much to other people, from all walks of life, from all over the world. And you can’t buy that, you can’t bottle it. It is so, so special.

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