The thing about my lifelong obsession with all things Arsenal is that it has at various points invaded every single aspect of my life. For example there’s a girl in Western Michigan who is probably the only person within a 1000 mile radius who has not only been to the Emirates Stadium but also been subjected to countless unsolicited history lessons on the glorious past of what is now a block of flats over the road from the ground thanks to her questionable decision to enter a relationship with me a few years ago. Everyone I’ve worked with, the people I’ve studied with, my friends and my family have all been woven to some extent or another into the course of my enduring relationship with Arsenal Football Club over the years.
Indeed, the ensnaring of unsuspecting family and friends into the world of Arsenal forms a large part of the history of my support of the club. The first victim was undoubtedly my mother, forced as she was to stay up with me as an eight year old boy as we One-Nil-To-The-Arsenalled it all the way to glory in the European Cup Winners Cup (and again the next year with the tragic conclusion of Nayim lobbing David Seaman from the halfway line, the flukey ex-Spurs swine) under George Graham. My Mum’s delight at the triumph of the injury and suspension hit underdogs digging out the most battling of victories over Parma is part of what makes that night, to this day, my favourite night as an Arsenal fan.
I’m responsible for others forming the same obsessive relationship with the club, as an older brother and a cousin I’ve had a large role to play in others deciding to follow the path of an Arsenal fan. I’m sure they must curse me that I couldn’t have been a nice normal Kentish Manchester United fan like everyone else. And again, my enjoyment of Arsenal triumphs is closely linked with these relationships. I was living in halls at Uni when we beat Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final, and the post-match phone call to my brother is one of the enduring memories of that most enjoyable victory.
Even my poor old Nan did not escape. I have been truly blessed in the grandparent department and my Nan was one of those Nans that will never stop trying to do things for you. You drop in on her at home and she immediately apologies profusely for not having anything in for you to eat, and she hurries to a cupboard which groans under the weight of food in it as she opens it. Always a pillar of support, not just for her family but pretty much anyone who needed her, it was no surprise that when I found myself without anywhere to live, her home was immediately open to me to say in for as long as I needed. Attempts to perform rash actions such as doing my own laundry or pay her some rent were swiftly thwarted.
Of course, in return for this unmitigated kindness I set about inflicting the world of Arsenal on her. It wasn’t a new experience, my late Grandfather having been a supporter, and it was from him that I inherited my comprehensive knowledge of Arsenal history via the enormous hardback volume on the club which sat on my Nan’s shelf. Nonetheless, my elderly Nan was compelled to understand the philosophy of Arsene Wenger, the madness of Jens Lehmann and of course the genius of Thierry Henry, whose importance she was keenly aware of but whose name she could never successfully pronounce. Of course they all paled into insignificance to her own favourite, “Little Leo” which was what she called the then 17-year-old Theo Walcott in case you’re confused. I’m not sure what made her take to him, but possibly it was simply the fact that he was so young, and she may have heard him in an interview, in which he has always come across in contrast to the average professional footballer, as a genuinely nice and pleasant young man. I never saw her more delighted than when she finally saw him score (twice) in the 7-0 rout of Slavia Prague in 2007.
Undoubtedly the evening which came to symbolise my Nan’s enforced induction into the world of Arsenal in my mind was the night we faced Real Madrid in the Bernebau. I had a job at the time which saw me get home at about half past seven in the evening, so just in time for kick off. I hadn’t really mentioned the game to her, but I remember being incredibly nervous about it. It’s easy to forget given the dominance of Barcelona over the last few years, but in 2006 honours were at least even between Madrid and Barcelona, and Real Madrid were THE team to beat, the club that signified what winning the European Cup was all about, and in the middle of a fairly poor season domestically, we were taking them on in their own famous stadium. My Nan had clearly taken note of ITV’s advertisement of the game, and I remember as I rushed in through the door I was greeted with my Nan, the match coverage already on the TV and a plate of steak and mashed potato big enough to feed Scotland (which I proceeded to demolish within about five minutes of kick off).
Watching football with my Nan was always enjoyable, and she would always be so tense no matter the situation, not because of her own investment in the outcome of the game but because she knew how much it meant to me. The only exception would be if Arsenal established a commanding lead, and then she would become concerned that the opposition score one goal, lest they go home feeling too downhearted. That night against Madrid was as tense as I’ve ever been as an Arsenal fan, especially after a first half in which we took the giants to task and should have scored on several occasions.
Leave it to Thierry Henry then, to provide the ultimate moment for my Nan and I watching Arsenal together. Early in the second half he received the ball just inside the opposition half and then proceeded to surge like a hot knife through butter through the Madrid defence before finishing with an unstoppable shot into the far corner. I don’t quite remember how I managed to jump off an armchair in such a way that I landed on my head, but that’s most certainly what happened. My Nan did not perform such acrobatics but was just as delighted. Arsenal, uncharacteristically, then proceeded to hold firm to produce an amazing result and a night that was unforgettable for me for the company I spent it in as much as the result.
That armchair was the vantage point for me to watch many Arsenal triumphs over the years, indeed only a few weeks later I saw Jens Lehmann make the save from Juan Riquelme’s penalty which took Arsenal to their first Champions League Final. One of the biggest regrets I have an an Arsenal fan is that that armchair is not where I watched the 2006 Champions League Final, choosing as I did to make the trip to Highbury to watch the game in one of the pubs around there. Undoubtedly, the outcome would have been the same but I can’t avoid the feeling that I messed with destiny by leaving that chair empty that night.
And indeed that empty chair, and the chair that is now empty next to it have been much in my thoughts in recent days. Like everything else that matters to anyone, being a football fan is only made worthwhile by the people you share it with, it is made infinitely greater by the presence of friends and family, and without any one them it is diminished, and indeed may never be the same again. The times that I spent with my Nan will always be amongst my happiest as an Arsenal fan, I will never forget them and I can now only wish that I could have one more night like Arsenal’s triumph in the Bernebau again. Instead though, I have nothing but gratitude for the times that I was blessed with.