I started following Arsenal in 2001. When Wiltord played in Fredie Ljungberg and the Swede, with his plume of red hair, fired a shot which Batrthez parried back into the path of Wiltord and the Frenchman, gold lamé SEGA shirt rippling, slotted past the helpless Barthez I was hooked. They had beaten the team I most hated and won the title on their home turf. I knew that this was my team.
My first act of fandom was to buy a replica strip. I ordered it on eBay. It arrived in a yellow DHL van. It was from Malaysia and probably not authentic merchandise. But I still have that gold away shirt, with the old crest and filled with the memories of Freddie and Wiltord and Old Trafford.
I liked Arsenal because they weren’t Man U. I’d seen many Man U’s in my time watching sports. The Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers were a Man U. The Jordan era Chicago Bulls were a Man U. Swaggering bullies who win everything because they are good, because they have more money than everyone else, and because they seem to have an aura about them.
If Man U was the jock running around giving everyone wedgies, Arsenal was his opposite — the iconoclast. You need only watch one minute of almost any press conference to figure out that Wenger is not going to do or say things the way you want. It’s a whip that’s used to beat him, in fact. But, as I would later come to find out, that’s the Arsenal way: there’s a right way, a wrong way, and an Arsenal way.
The Wenger way is that he is simply going to do things his own way. He’s parsimonious with money in a footballing culture which treasures spendthrifts like Harry Redknapp. He refuses to take players off at half time in a culture which feels like early substitutions are a sign of strength instead of a sign of weakness: you have to admit it takes cojones to give a player a chance to redeem themselves when they are struggling. On and on, Wenger simply doesn’t toe the line and I love him for it, even if I might disagree.
And for the first 8 years at Arsenal, no one cared about Wenger’s eccentricities, because it worked. A mixture of steel and grace. Arsenal would pick teams apart and leave them wondering what hit them. Watching that Arsenal team you could see Vieira getting ready to set off on someone, like the opening bass line from Minor Threat’s “I don’t want to hear it”. That rumble that let you know something hard is going to hit at any moment. You also knew that any time Pires had the ball the opposition was soiling themselves – who was he going to pick out for a perfect pass, Henry, Bergkamp, Freddie?
By 2006 I considered myself enough of a fan to make the trip to London. I felt it would have been a huge waste to have loved this team, to have fallen in love really with the art deco stadium itself, and to not see Arsenal play at Highbury one time before they turned it into condos for the wealthy.
I’m an iconoclast too: I didn’t know how to get tickets, I didn’t know anyone in London, and I didn’t know anything about the city. Yet I cast myself headlong into the unknown. I stayed at this horrible hotel in Picadilly Circus where I was probably lucky not to get bed bugs. I drank beer every night. I went to the National Portrait Gallery and marveled at the Seurat. I smoked cigarettes everywhere. And I got my match tickets from the concierge.
Arsenal beat Charlton 3-0 that day with Hleb, Pires, and Adebayor all getting on the scoresheet. Cesc ran the show in the middle and everyone around me marveled at the young Spaniard and his uncanny ability to create time for himself and space for others.
It is true that watching the game on television and watching the game in real life are two totally different experiences.The grass in the stadium truly is greener, the songs are more heartfelt, the smell of history more pungent, and the stadium much more majestic. I was a fan before that match, but after, I was changed.
I was changed so much that I started writing about Arsenal every day and I’ve been over to London every year since. I’ve seen dour 0-0 draws against Sunderland, 5-0 wins over Porto, 2-1 wins over Liverpool at Anfield, and I was there on that ecstatic night that Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0. I count myself among the luckiest people in the world that I get to see Arsenal live, home and away.
And on Friday, I will be in London again, this time to see my very first FA Cup match. Probably the most important match of the season for Arsenal. Our best hope at silverware.
I’m so excited I can barely think straight. FA cup matches seem different than regular matches on television, there seems to be more power and fight in those games. The crowd seems livelier and the action more intense. And here is Arsenal, the season really in the balance and in many ways Wenger’s tenure on the line. I expect the spectacular and nothing less.
After that, I will return to Munich to complete the circle. One season, from Munich to Munich. From negative spiral to “Newcastle equalized”. From challenging for fourth place to challenging for the title.