On Becoming an Arsenal Fan, Nick Hornby, and all that

From September, 2012

Give me an A, my dad chirped. He jigged behind the new burnt caramel striped couch and followed it with an R and an S. He stopped at E. I found it funny. A nine-year old should. Reason one I became an Arsenal fan. More compelling though was the allure of the yellow shirt, the colour of Brazil, Pele and the sun: a shirt of wonder and skipping heartbeats.

I watched the game and fell asleep.

A few years later they claimed JVC and Arsenal were the perfect match, I begged to differ. For those “not in the know” the moniker of Boring Boring had long been attributed to Arsenal. When you're born however, reputations matter little to imagination.

I woke up to find Arsenal had lost.

It was a year later before I would see them again. A year without another game, a year interrupted only by a blue and white rosette making its way from England along with the ticket of a game attended; QPR vs Everton. The ticket was pinned against the wall. It seemed colossal. But a year after “first contact” those teams would remain as exotic as Brazil for a few months more.

Shepherd's Bush. Exotic.

I can't remember exactly the question a friend posited on match day as we headed to a birthday party swallowed by the red back seat of his mother's car, but it went something like Who do you think will win rather than Who do you want to win. In the event think meant want to.

Based on the knowledge of one game from a year before — a defeat at that — and no soccer other than an attempt to score in a match from just over the halfway line on my tenth birthday (it bounced once into the reaching hands of the goalkeeper), I deliberated as if this was sort of question monarchs, prime ministers, and presidents had considered over the ages.

While the mind remained quizzical, the heart was certain. Arsenal I said.

Why would I choose the team who had lost and put me to sleep in the process? Why didn't I plum for the impressive sounding “Manchester United” with all those extra syllables? Was redemption in my bones before I was cognisant of its meaning? What did my left clavicle know the left-brain didn't?

The birthday party divided. The boys watched the game, all wanting one or the other team to win, and the girls...

I don't know, my pupils were magnets to the ball rolling across the turf.

Arsenal reassuringly wore yellow; a colour I still didn't appreciate was their away kit. They held a two goal lead with five minutes left, the heart and head ballooned at the accurate prediction it had made earlier — there's nothing like being right — and before you could say hickory dickory dock, the mouse went up the clock, Manchester United scored twice.

The brain hadn't quite processed anything like that before. It was about to process... well... a man with a perm.

And he had a moustache. He wasn't a clown, he was a soccer player, and he scored the winning goal. He wore yellow. And we went nuts. I went nuts. The universe went nuts. You know, I'd never gone nuts like this before in my short lifetime.

And so it was sealed. A year earlier the vampire had bitten me, now I tasted the sweetness of victory, of redemption.

Several weeks later my family emigrated to England with a purple Volvo, canisters of gas to combat the expected power failures of a country in trouble, and two orange plastic belly boards on which my brother and I learned to catch waves.

They took me with.

The Volvo didn't last a year, the gas was never used, and the belly boards collected dust in a garage as identities waned and changed. South African no more. Arsenal forever more. Catching waves is all that remains.

A few years ago at Kailua Bay I gave informal body surfing instruction to someone astonished I could go so far on a wave. I insisted it was timing that mattered not the size of the wave. In truth it is in the bones. After several attempts he caught one. After several seconds he didn't surface. Oops.

Time tumbled as I hid my anxiety from his wife, then husband bounced up, alive.

Catching the Arsenal wave was in the bones. It's the longest wave I've ever caught. It started with a jig in a living room, nothing big, my father doesn't remember. Why should he, he wasn't born on that day.



September 12th marks the twentieth anniversary of publication of Nick Hornby's seminal Fever Pitch. I have an unsigned first edition fourth impression. I'm a frequent visitor to the blog Arsenal News Review where fans over the last few years have often eloquently expressed their despondent views. Recently David Kwalimwa, an award winning TV journalist from Kenya sent his reasons for giving up on Arsenal, or at least the current regime. I realised his Arsenal birth was in sparkling victory whereas mine was in defeat. I'm a slight optimist. Does it stem from my birth, trusting from defeat we can become victorious? In Fever Pitch Nick Hornby saw the natural state of the football fan as one of bitter disappointment no matter the score. Maybe I'm not a true fan, but another letter reminded me I once was:

Mukhtar Khan, tired of the incessant whingeing of current fans, wanted to know if anyone attended the game on 1 Jan. 1985, possibly the worst day of his life (Arsenal lost to Tottenham). I did attend, but can't say it was the worst day of my life — they tend to come in clumps in your teens. I did, however, find the nearest thing to a black armband I could wear — the inside of a light fixture — or something like it. My dad took me to see Ghostbusters in the evening and to his annoyance I refused to remove the act of my disgust. Ghostbusters will never be the film it should be because of that day, the day I buried and mourned Arsenal. That man with a perm had in fact delivered a poisoned chalice.

What followed the man with a perm were several miserable years before another bout of redemption. A year takes a decade when you're growing up. That's seventy years of abject misery as an adult when your archrivals are the better team. In good tradition I refuse to watch Ghostbusters on New Year's Day — not that anyone has ever said to me on New Year's Days since passed, “Hey hon, do you want to watch Ghostbusters?”

Perhaps I should welcome the suggestion if it arises and give up the last vestige of being a true fan. After all, I moved several thousand miles away where I can go gobs of time without talking Arsenal to anyone.

[2017 update] It’s amusing to read this again realizing I can’t be outraged at the Ghostbusters remake. I wasn’t. It seemed pretty much like the original with slightly less nuanced performances and chemistry, suitable for today’s audience, in today’s nuance-free world, where the President of the US is Donald Trump.

As for Arsenal it’s generally been more of the same, repeated failings and complaining by fans. I though, have become more passionate in finding my clunky football voice writing in occasionally to ANR.