16 January 2014

The loneliness of the overseas Gooner

One of the inevitable pissing contests that arise around supporting a club is who's real and who's, as the epithet goes, "plastic." The good news is that Arsenal's form over the last 16 months or so has given this little debate a new urgency as fans around the world, thanks also to the spread of internet access, social media, and the rest of that lot, have flocked to the Arsenal. The void created by the creaky crumble of Man U, arguably the world's highest-profile franchise, has left otherwise new or fickle fans looking around for other options, and, let's be honest, they usually don't look past the two or three teams at the top of the table. Presto! Gooners.

Their loyalty and devotion, though, are an open question. After all, can they name the full squad? Do they know who's in the Academy (or that there is one)? Can they name former players beyond Henry, Bergkamp, Pires? Before we go too far, I feel that I have to establish my own credentials as there will always be that faction that asserts that I, having not grown up in or around Highbury, am not a real Gooner. Here, then, for what it's worth, is my curriculum vitae:
  • discovered Arsenal at age six (I'm guessing spring of '81 because the kits had no sponsor, which would make me seven—the match highlights I saw must have been near the end of the 1980-81 season and before my seventh birthday in late May).
  • had no idea how good they were. Loved the name, loved the kit, loved the fact that a few Irishmen were in the squad at the time (Devine, Gorman, Stapleton, O'Leary).
  • have followed them then, for roughly 84% of my life.
  • have followed them for 100% of the time I have known that professional football even existed.
That's about it, I guess. Admittedly thin, but I can't be blamed for being born outside of London, and to have my loyalty or authenticity doubted or mocked just doesn't make sense to me on the whole. Okay, so there are elements that do. I'll freely admit, for example, that I don't fully feel in my gut the hatred of Tottenham that seems to define a true Gooner. I've only met two or three Spuds in my life—one being among my best mates—and the visceral hatred just isn't there for me. Then again, I don't have to put up with them on a daily basis, so I don't know how I might feel having gotten into it with Spuds over the years. Knowing myself as a teen, blows would have been exchanged and comeuppances delivered (suffice it to say, your correspondent can make himself understood with bare-knuckles). I know the history between the clubs, of course, and can explain the rivalry. Sadly, though, there's a glaring gap in my "true Gooner" application there, and if this disqualifies me in any way, so be it. I follow the club not to earn the approval of other fans but because watching them play does inspire me in a visceral response. In fact, the relative isolation and privacy of my fandom is something I rather cherish. I don't need people to see that I'm an Arsenal fan; I know in my heart that I am. 

I understand the resentment some of the lifelong Londoners might feel towards the more-recent bandwagoner-types. After all, those who have grown up in or around Highbury do lay claim to a special-status. They've helped to build a culture around the club. More than likely, they've been the ones attending matches, paying those ticket-prices each week or membership fees every year, and that loyalty, not to mention that financial support, has helped to build the club. That matters, and I'm not trying to diminish it in the least. Quite the opposite. I wish I could have grown up close enough to attend matches. It breaks my heart that I'll never see a match at Highbury. I envy those who have seen even one. I haven't had my loyalties tested by an extended stretch of mediocrity. For the first 25 years of my fandom, I could only get shreds of information about how Arsenal were doing, such was the coverage of British football in the United States. As such—if you can believe this—I didn't know of the Invincibles' season until well after it happened. As a result, then, my loyalties, though never tested, have likewise never been truly rewarded, either. The highest I've seen Arsenal finish with my own eyes—on t.v., as close as I've ever come, is third. The first goal I saw Thierry Henry score with my own eyes—again, on t.v.—was against Leeds two years ago. I cried.

When Cesc left, I hung my head. When van Persie left, I wore out my store of insults, epithets, and rage. When we beat Newcastle to claim fourth, I celebrated like a madman, not just because we stayed in the Champions League but because it was St. Totteringham's Day. When I'm out and about and glimpse a certain shade of red on a stranger, I maneuver to see if he or she is a Gooner. It's a bit pathetic, I'll admit. However, in the absence of having had the good fortune of being born in London or being raised in a proper Gooner household, I've had to make do with the few resources I've had available. I feel like I've done well to overcome my shortcomings. I may not yet qualify as a true Gooner as the dyed-in-the-wool types, but I can live with that, thanks.

In the meantime, let's look at the flood of new if superficial fans as a good problem to have. It's a symptom, but it need not be a problem. It's a sign of times, both of the club's recent form and of the times in which we live. It is now easier than ever for a fan in Indonesia or Nigeria or Vietnam or Kenya to follow a British club. Many of them, undoubtedly, will shift their allegiances year to year or month to month, even week to weak. So be it. Those who know and understand will stick around for the longer term, and those who see past the table or the trophies will be the ones who feel it. 

Maybe it was better when each club only drew its support from a certain local fanbase. If so, then, what's the radius for what counts as local? How far does circle extend? My day-job is as an English teacher, and so I'll invoke John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning""
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
to move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
and grows erect as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
and makes me end where I begun.
In other words, all that fancy talk amounts to this: the club is one foot of a compass. I, the fan, am the other. Do not measure my devotion by how close I am; measure it by how deep and how firm the devotion is. The further away I am, the more I am drawn to it. At some point, the club will draw me to it; the legs of the compass will close. I can feel the pull in my bones. I might be more than 6,000 kilometers away, but Arsenal is much, much closer than that. Some day, I'll find a seat at Ashburton Grove, if only for that one time, and it will be a moment I remember forever, whether it's a Champions League final or a play-off to determines whether we're promoted to the Championship. In either case, I'll be singing and shouting and, yeah, probably shedding a few tears to be there.

Just in case anyone doubted me.