In 1983 I was a pimply-faced Gridiron football fan and absolutely infatuated with the Seattle Seahawks. All of the players and coaches from Chuck Knox and his famed “Ground Chuck” offense to the quarterback Dave Krieg I loved them all. Maybe it wasn’t “love”, I didn’t feel love, I actually felt envy or something stronger than envy: I wanted to be them.
Every morning before school, a bunch of us would show up to the bus-stop an hour early and play football. Every pass I caught I imagined I was Steve Largent, picked out on a perfect post move by my friend Matt who wanted to be Dave Krieg. Every time I ran the ball, I imaged I was Curt Warner, juking the Pittsburg Steelers’ iron curtain with a hip swivel. And on defense, my favorite part of the game, I really felt like I was my hero, strong safety Kenny Easley. I hit harder when I imagined I was Easley. I closed space faster. I read the game better. At least in my mind.
I don’t remember if there were replica jerseys in those days but if there had been and I had the money, I would have bought one that said “Easley” with the number 45 on the back because then I could pretend to be Kenny Easley: Kenny Easley didn’t have problems with girls or money, Kenny Easley was powerful, and Kenny Easley was loved by millions of fans for his dedication to the team.
I never did make strong safety. When I eventually made my High School football team, I was too small and instead I was given the number 42 and played as a free safety. And through all the years I played football I would never win the number 45 shirt as it was always taken by the more athletic boys.
Despite my disappointment at never being Kenny, I never suffered what would have been an even bigger letdown of having Kenny Easley say one day that he loves the Seahawks, loves the fans, wants to win the Superbowl with the Seahawks, and a few months later do a 180 and make irrational demands of the club in order to force the Seahawks to sell him to the San Francisco 49ers. Easley’s career, instead, was allegedly cut short by the Seahawks who he blamed for feeding him pills which eventually led to kidney replacement surgery. Bitter statements were followed by lawsuits and plenty of bad blood but none of it ever reflected badly on Kenny in my eyes. My 14 year-old self will always easily slip under the veil of number 45 in order to imagine myself a towering strong safety, picking the ball off in the flat and running it back for a touchdown against the Niners.
In my first few years watching Arsenal I had a similar experience to my youth as I fell in love with the Arsenal: I appreciated Theirry Henry’s languid talent and Bergkamp’s fiery temper. Patrick Vieira was a mountain and heroic almost every minute he was on the pitch. But this time, I wanted to be Freddie Ljungberg. Hell, I would have just been happy by that age to be able to rock Freddie’s red hair.
In the run in to the 2001/2002 season, when needed him most, Freddie went on a tear. From matchday 32 Freddie stepped up and scored in consecutive games against Charlton, Tottenham, Ipswich, West Ham, and Bolton helping Arsenal to a title showdown at Old Trafford in matchday 37. He didn’t score, but his run cut through the Man U defense and after his shot was parried by Barthez, Wiltord (who started the move) finished the Red Devils off. In my mind it was always Freddie who won that game. And then days later, Freddie shucked John Terry to the ground and curled in the winner in the FA Cup final to put the red dot on the exclamation point of that season. From that moment on I wanted to be Freddie. I dyed my hair red and for the first time in my adult life bought a replica shirt, the gold lamé away strip.
But the thing is that now days I don’t have a single player on this Arsenal team that I want to be. Sure, I’d take their wealth, talent, wives and girlfriends, and all that but it’s not the same. And it’s not about the talent of the players, surely Robin van Persie is a talent to aspire to, it’s just that I don’t see myself in him. For me and I suspect many others, the players on this team have become nothing more than entertainers: interchangeable legs in a never-ending chorus line of talent.
I do understand that many others feel his trade to Man U as a deep betrayal. A psychological twinning if you will: you could see yourself as him, and yet here he is (you) doing something that violates everything you believe in. I understand the desire to wipe his name from the record, remove it from the back of your official strip, as an old fashioned Roman Damnatio Memoriae if you will. After all, he will now be teammates and best buds with Wayne Rooney, the player who dived to win the penalty which ensured Arsenal’s unbeaten run ended at 49 games. He will play next to Giggs, who “tore us apart.” He will be wearing the red shirt of Manchester when their despicable fans gleefully call Arsene Wenger a pedophile – and he will probably go over and applaud them after the match.
For me, it’s just business. A particularly nasty bit of business that was unfortunately forced on Arsenal by the irrational demands of a deluded nincompoop and his agent who we now know thought they were bigger than the club. But Arsenal’s hands were tied and the deal is done and no matter how angry we are at the club right now, it will pass.
That said, I empathize with those of you who wanted to be Robin. I never suffered the same fate with my hero, he didn’t go out by burning down the Danny Fiszman bridge; he just faded away and bought a car dealership.