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Who Are We? Who Are We?
I don’t remember the blows at all. All I remember was the shout. “Hey you little bastard”. And the sudden airiness as an adult pulled him off me. My brother was startled by the gripping hands, focused as he was on punching me. “What the hell are you playing at?” But it was our neighbour who froze in bewilderment when I leapt from the ground, blooded as I was, and pointed the finger “Don’t you talk to my brother like that” I shrieked like a furious reanimated road kill.
This story was rehashed with great relish and admiration by our neighbour over the years. In a flash I was forever transformed from a battered little brother to a stand-up guy. “That little kid, he gets it”, he’d say and nod to me, beaming. I didn’t get it, but it didn’t matter. I became a vessel into which our neighbour poured his hopes and dreams, the screen onto which he projected his inner world of family ties and loyalties. When we moved house, as we drove off, he gave me a salute.
This incident came a-bubbling back to my consciousness after being forgotten for decades, when I started thinking about the way football is a world onto which we project our own hopes and dreams. But what else, I wondered, is going on in our fan world? So, as the dog and I meandered through the trees, whilst he projected his hopes and dreams onto the hare’s of the forest, I thought about our mysterious relationship with football and what is actually going on.
When I got back I wrote this. Enjoy.
On the way to winning the title in the 2001/2 season, Arsenal beat Juventus at Highbury. At one point, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp were steaming toward the Juventus goal. Pires on the left, with his distinctive running style, like a person who wanted to walk as fast as they could without actually breaking into a run, Bergkamp piling up the right with his graceful long-legged surge and Ljungberg, like a kid in his big brothers kit, steaming up the middle with the ball.
Freddie sent the ball right to Bergkamp who slowed down and stopped by the corner of the box, three Juve players freight-training towards him as he passes the ball from foot to foot, waiting for them, come on then, when suddenly he twists one way, spins and twists the other and, as the Juve players are tumbling though empty space, Bergkamp with the outside of his foot lofts a sweet lob to Freddie who had watched, had waited and then darted toward the space the ball was now dropping into only to deftly lob it again, over the onrushing keeper and into the goal.
This goal, and the “Don’t worry it’s only Ray Parlour” FA cup goal against Chelsea or the iconic Bergkamp goal at Newcastle where he flicked the ball one way and spun his body the other, leaving the defender jilted on the dance floor as The Iceman side-footed the ball past a bewildered goalie and into the net, amazing even himself with the flowing dexterity of the whole thing.
All of these goals had that Arsenal trademark, that interesting, attractive, attacking football. Smart, athletic and balletic football. Where football had lumbered along for years in a sweaty physical conflict, suddenly an Arsenal team under Wenger forced the game to evolve. They took that old time power and strength of the English style and, like a Jujitsu master, used it to their advantage. Where once there was emptiness, now there was space, once there was confusion, now there was possibility. Arsenal fans floated above the ground that year, on nodding terms with anyone else in a Dreamcast kit. We were Arsenal. And we loved it.
And now, finally, once again there’s a saunter in the rolling stroll of the Arsenal fan as we sashay about with our new hopes and dreams. We’re beautiful again. Arteta has renovated the Emirates and brought back the Highbury Swagger. It’s not the old days, it’s the new days. And it’s wonderful.
But of course nothing comes easy. With 10 games to go our delicate dreams are on a collision course with harsh reality and there’s nothing we can do but watch each game like it’s the last one we’ll ever see, take a deep breath and wait for the next one.
So what is going on? What is this feeling? Where does our fan swagger come from? Is being a fan a simulacrum of those mysterious bonds that form the “family” (that my old neighbour so obviously cherished as fundamental to the human condition) or is it something else?
Well, let’s start at the core. Being a football fan is a bit like being in love. I know, I know, but hold on, hear me out. Think about that heady mixture of invincibility and vulnerability that comes with the cocktail of cortisol, oxytocin, testosterone and adrenaline. That feeling of being unfurled where the barrier between the self and the rest of the world becomes deliriously sketchy. That astonishing delight when your mirror neurons generate an experience you didn’t actually have yourself. How wonderfully unified we become when the achievements we witness seem to belong to ourselves, as if, through some sixth sense we’re inhabiting the lives of others.
A perfect description of fandom and love was expressed 400 years ago by the metaphysical poet John Donne who wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. Isn’t that what we crave as fans (and as humans) to transform from isolation and become united in our mutual belonging? Wasn’t Reece Nelson’s (sensational) 97th minute winner against Bournemouth the perfect example of us all inhabiting each others lives for but a moment in an explosion of mass connection? Can’t you still feel the warmth just thinking about that goal?
Often we hear (from those who know little of the game) that football (and sport in general) is a substitute for war, a safe way of channeling aggression and the territorial tendencies of we homo sapiens. These peculiar (and false) assumptions merely reduce the complexity (and potentiality) of human behaviour. They ignore the interweaving of culture, self-reflection and the ever-changing definitions and fluctuating meanings that drive our social webs. It all seems so reductive, convenient and (class) biased.
Isn’t it more likely that football is a complex manifestation of the human impulse to play? And, although we are “win” orientated as fans, aren’t we actually more participation orientated? When humans play the act of playing is an ends in itself, but along for free come positive side effects like learning, connecting, stimulating the imagination and fostering communal empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy. These are the realms in which my, and dare I venture, your football fandom really exists. Not in some bizarre live-action role-playing hostility substitute.
The experiences we all shared during that glorious 2001/2 season (and so many others, including this amazing season) are, for me, the epitome of the most beautiful aspects of the human condition, not the worst. Football can drop you into the shoes (football boots) of another with the same power as art, literature, film or music, when for a while at least, the focus is outside of oneself, the conductor someone other than one’s own ego.
And that is ancient ritual in its purest form: the act of transcending the self and the unification of the participating group (and wider membership) through a communal performance expressed within a set of rules. Sound familiar? The Chauvet Cave painters 30,000 years ago would know what I’m talking about. The chain of humanity that trails back deep in time reveals itself in the stands at the Emirate’s where there’s a powerful sense of belonging and transcendence. My sister and my nephew were at the Emirates for the Palace game. Afterwards she confided that “It was great. I felt so emotional, after years of going to Highbury, this was my first time at the Emirates and when we sang “we are the North Bank”, it was overwhelming, the tears started rolling and it was hard to stop”. Don’t those words echo the ancient rituals of belonging and transcendence stretching back to the beginning of time?
Ok, before we get lost in a deep cave of extended (and ambiguous) metaphors and I begin to claim some dippy Stone Age affiliations, let’s bring this thing back to today, or rather, to the next 10 games of the season. 10 games to find out what future holds, 10 games to build great crescendo of Arsenal togetherness. 10 games to find out who we are.
Now, I’m not utterly blind to the lurking dangers beyond the firelight. Of course, there’s the bubbling fear that, during these next 10 games we will, like last season, somehow lose our momentum and release those terrible Arsenal Zombie Narratives to once again rule the land. But then I ask myself what am I in this for? Who am I? And who are you dear reader? Can we satisfy ourselves that this has been one hell of a season, a triumph no matter what happens? Must we have our hands upon the chalice and nothing else will do? When Arteta said 100 wins are not the title, what then are they?
We denigrate glory hunters for seeking the very rush long-suffering fans desperately crave precisely because they haven’t felt the pain, shared the agony and exalted in the eventual joy. In my piece The Unbearable Lightness Of Being A Football Fan I wrote that “Even when we’re winning, we know we’re always on the precipice of losing, and it’s that very betwixt tension that makes winning so truly enjoyable. Its very fleeting nature is the source of its everlasting sweetness”. And yet, even though I’m in for the long haul, even though I’m taking it One Game At A Time (™Mikel Arteta) and even though I’m reveling in the ancient ritualistic practice of being a fan, I’m also desperate for the return of the rolling strolling nodding warmth of triumphant victory, the realigning of my mirror neurons so that I too can score those goals and throw up my arms and roar in delight.
So, I say that if we don’t win the title let’s rally together no matter what, just like that 7 year old me who so impressed my neighbour. I say we stand together in glorious union and paint our caves, and sing our songs and stand as one, as we get back up to fight another day.
And if the stars align and the gods smile upon us and these next 10 games deliver unto us that which we (oh so) deserve. Then I say we stand together in glorious union and paint our caves, and sing our songs and rejoice as one, dear reader, as our mutual memories are laid in stone forever more, oh yes, forever more.
So there you go Gunners, have a playful week and don’t forget to subscribe and share the joy of Arsenal Wonderland with your (ancient) Arsenal clan!