A love letter to Arsenal and football

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I have watched football from the age of seven, meaning I am lucky enough to call Martin Tyler’s shrieks and Sergio Aguero’s flying sky blue shirt of 2011 one of my core footballing memories. Every football fan will talk of the emotion one experiences at the match, but it took almost five years until that feeling would reveal itself to me in the most spectacular fashion.

My aunt bought me tickets to see Arsenal play Leicester City at the Emirates in February 2016. Relegation fodder. A guaranteed win for my first game as a true Arsenal fan. Except, by the time February rolled around, this was first versus second and billed as a title decider. Leicester’s fairytale had come up against my own.

I was nervous. A proud Mancunian, my mother showed me L.S. Lowry’s ‘Going to the Match’, forming an image in my mind of shadows shuffling into a stadium on matchday. Yet here, on the Ken Friars Bridge, these matchstick men and women had grown mouths and muscle. Every pair of shoulders was dripping with red and white; every pair of feet sure of their step.

And there was the stadium with Tony Adams, Thierry Henry, Liam Brady painted onto the side. These were not men, but titans. In my mind, they will always be 30 feet totems, and with their faces pointing into the artwork, it was almost a sacrilege to have seen them. I knew the players, I knew the statistics, but it was only once I crossed the threshold that I would know the club. I think that’s what irritates stadium fans about armchair fans. It’s the feeling they simply haven’t experienced the club. Knowledge will only take you so far as a football supporter. Interaction with the people is what brings fandom.

As it was my first match, I was concerned my allegiances were still malleable – Leicester was closer to my home and the team were on the brink of a truly historic league title. I didn’t have to work hard justify my choice of the Gunners as the heroes. Jamie Vardy dropped to the floor thanks to a gust of wind to earn a penalty, and Danny Simpson’s red card nine minutes after half time painted Leicester as the cunning villains Foxes are often said to be.

Knowledge will only take you so far as a football supporter

Everybody in the seats around my Dad and me seemed flat, with many heading to the toilets or bar in silence or muttering. Why couldn’t they see we were going to win? Of course we were – it was my first match as a Christmas present. There could be no other outcome.

Theo Walcott rammed Arsenal level with twenty minutes left and suddenly the entire stadium recovered their voices. Ten more minutes passed. Heads around me were glancing more and more frequently to the scoreboard and clock to our right. Ten more minutes. The board went up. Six minutes were left. They passed.

Then Arsenal earned a free kick.

The Emirates was a ripe fruit ready to burst. Its luscious green skin stretched across the four corners; the seeds perfectly arranged. Mesut Ozil floated a ball into the penalty box onto the head of the striker. There was the perfect silence that only blesses a stadium a microsecond before the home team scores. And just like the Aguero goal that brought me into the sport, it would be this goal that bound me to the Beautiful Game forever.

‘WELBEEECK!’ Only this time, I didn’t hear the shrieks of the commentator or roar of the crowd. It was the thud of my own heart that would keep my grinning face up late that night. As that thick ecstasy came tumbling from the stands, I turned away from the celebrations on the pitch to face the Clock End. These fans were real people, not matchstick men and women. Their joy was real and unfiltered. Football was real.

So this is my love letter to Arsenal. Thank you to a club that has given me friends, astonishing experiences, and a valour that only six consecutive years without Champions League football can bring.

14th February 2016 will forever be the seminal moment of my footballing life. A year after the match, I would pick up a book from the local library called ‘Fever Pitch’ by Nick Hornsby, ignorant of the keystone position it held in football fan culture, especially Arsenal’s. Whilst huge swathes of the book resonated with me, it was the following extract that I will forever associate with that day.

‘So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.’

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