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60 years of supporting Arsenal

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By Mike Collins in Canada

Well,

As an avid reader of your terrific blog I just thought I would put down a few musings from my getting on for 60 years of giving hard earned money to AFC; I might just as well have written a large cheque and gone home broke.

As a retired economic historian I know Danny Blanchflower said ‘football is all about glory’, however, I think the sign on Bill Clinton’s desk is much more pertinent ‘It’s the economy stupid’. As far as I am concerned your concentration on the ‘big picture’ and overall view of running a club is spot on. The lower reaches of the Premiership and the lower leagues are dotted with clubs with great histories who have just not managed the jump into a new paradigm in football.

But, as I am now just another expatriate reader of your great articles and follow the team as a television watcher from Canada a short potted history of my credentials to speak on this subject.

I have been a supporter, first under the West Stand before seats were installed and then on the North Bank. Then I was a Standing season ticket holder and then a North Stand Bond Holder and Season Ticket holder before retiring to Canada. On trips back to London I have done the pilgrimage to the Emirates which apart from being the home of the brave is also an architectural gem. Quite a change from my early Highbury days when I vividly remember, being a non smoker, of almost choking to death on the clouds of tobacco smoke held down by the west stand roof, while peeing at the back of the terraces.

I appear to have started my allegiance to the red and white around 1953 and as West Ham was my local side I can only think it was Arsenal’s league championship that year that put the Arsenal in my soul. I had no idea of history or the fact that nobody ever had watched them get relegated; in point of fact I thought the function of every other team was to give Arsenal a game. I find it a bit peculiar when people select a team to follow because for me, and I suspect for most the team, in some way selects us.

I think that is why the book ‘Fever Pitch’ struck such a cord way beyond Arsenal supporters. Mind you I had no idea that it would be another seventeen hard years before we even looked like winning anything. For most of my youth Spurs were the dominant team and for some of those years they had great teams. Even though beating them today is marvellous I have no idea why fans berate each other in some kind of tribal ritual, as today’s Spurs fans are caught in the same web of hope over experience that our end of the Seven Sisters Road used to be saddled with, and they in their turn will never change their allegiance. In fact supporting any club is an exercise in despair and failure as only one team at one time can be champion and all others have quite simply failed.

Arsenal in my supporting time have gone from a management sitting back on its past through a time of rudderless panic to a time of building for the future and accomplishment. And let’s face it the only people the Board should think about is the paying customers at the Emirates, those like me who watch from afar have only bragging rights and even those are a little distant.

Although I have lost the match programme, I was in the crowd in February 1968 to watch what became Manchester United’s last game before the Munich disaster. A 5-4 belter of a game which none of us really expected to win.  A great United team, and how good Duncan Edwards would have been had he lived is open to speculation.

Also I remember the only time in my life I was physically frightened in a football crowd took place on the clock end in an FA cup replay against Brian Clough’s fine Derby County side. Britain was experiencing one of its periodic strikes and 3 day week periods so floodlights could not be used in an attempt to conserve electrical power. The decision was made to play the game on a weekday afternoon and along I trotted expecting three men and a dog to be in attendance. Well, just shows you what I know as half of London converged and they kept packing them in.  The official attendance had to be 15,000 short of actual. I ended up wedged against a clock end crush barrier which at least meant I was safe from getting caught in stampedes up and down the terraces. Anybody who thinks all seater stadiums are not needed should have been there that day.

There’s also some great memories of watching from the north east corner of the ground in front of a huge congregation of black ‘Rasta’ supporters who were a delight to talk to and just enjoyed themselves. But, once again my non smoking took hold as I am sure that aromatic smell was not Virginia tobacco.

Jumping elsewhere, can I make a comment on the huge correspondence you receive about buying every goalkeeper in the world.  Could I point out that once the great Jack Kelsey retired from the Arsenal goal it took many years until the appearance of David Seaman (apart from some good years from an ex Spurs keeper Pat Jennings) until we had his equal. All these armchair pundits going on about buying keepers really should pause and think.  Is it just that simple to flash a cheque-book and bring in greatness?  No of course not.

I also get the impression that many contributors to this and other blogs think 60,000 supporters every week is a natural turn of events for the club. Just think on the 05 May 1966 (World Cup Year) when Arsenal had an attendance of 4,544 for one match. I actually was not in that pathetic crowd but did attend that year as far as I remember in a crowd of around 11,000. I cannot remember the game but I do remember the surreal experience of being able to hear clearly all the players talking to each other. Even so they finished that season with an average attendance of 29,000. Compare this with the average before George Graham took over of 23,824. I do have my issues with Graham’s style of play and lack of attention to the youth team but in many respects he saved the club from financial melt-down.

Trying to ward off dementia and terminal sloth I thought about those who, in my Arsenal watching days, have been best buys and who in the opposition teams were just great to watch. In my humble opinion two Arsenal signings stand out for me. First is Frank McClintock who my new wife and I watched playing against Arsenal for Leicester City in Leicester the year before he was transferred; he scored two goals in a 3-2 Arsenal victory.

For all the years I had been supporting them up until that time the club never appeared to have ambition and was slowly slipping into the realms of mediocrity. It was not that they did not have very good players; such players like Joe Baker would make any Wenger team. But they lacked the drive and determination that made good teams very good teams. The McClintock transfer although it took a time to percolate through the club gave the side the hard nosed skill that Dave McKay had given Spurs coupled with leadership and direction. I have no idea why Arsenal transferred him out of the club as soon as they did.

The second is an easy choice and well within the time frame of most of today’s supporters. Ironical that the fantastic Denis Bergkamp was actually signed by one of the worst managers we have ever had. At the time I was teaching at UEA in Norwich and had attended the home game of Norwich’s foray into Europe when they beat Inter-Milan. A very sad and ineffectual Bergkamp played out on the left for Inter. and looked very unhappy and played like it as well.

It took some courage from the board to sign him and he did make a faltering start. But, when he scored that first stunning goal at Highbury you could see the weight slide off his shoulders and everyone around me had the feeling that we had a talent that was a cut above anybody else. Denis was tactically astute, a wonderful technician and had that hint of steel. He showed Arsenal that a higher level was possible and also showed the board that a youth system that looked after players from a very young age was the future. Like many I would love to see him back at the club.

As for opposition players well just personal opinions; the great Real Madrid side visited Arsenal for a friendly when I was just starting work and if there was a better player than Alfredo Di Stéfano I have no idea where he was. I never thought I would ever watch Arsenal sides, as I do today, playing football every bit as good as vintage Real Madrid.

The other very great player would be George Best, a wonder and full of bravery at the highest level. If Pele could ever come close to those two at a club level he would have been some player. Best of course playing for Northern Ireland never played at the highest level of international football. Best pure goal scorer I have seen would be Jimmy Greaves a wonder and much more skillful than given credit. As for an opposition team a personal choice would be the great Everton team with a halfback line of Gabriel, Labone, Kay. (The year before Kay was given a life time ban for betting). They had a wonderful forward line including the Golden Vision Alex Young and Vernon playing inside. But, from being one of the very top clubs and for some time considerably better than Arsenal the way Everton, although keeping in the top division, have slid down the financial stakes should make everybody who thinks the decision on building the Emirates was a mistake please think again.

I actually have little recollection about great Championship or cup wins apart from 1971 probably because I was in an alcoholic haze. But what are etched on my feeble brain are two defeats in cup competitions, and these were the days when we laughed at a mere 5 years between trophies. In no particular order of magnitude, the first one was something I laugh about now as it was so awful. 30th January 1965 is etched on my memory bank as the day we played and lost to Peterborough in the FA Cup. They crammed 30,000 into their ground and we did take the lead. Despite having a decent side we were well beaten by a score of 2-1. What made it so depressing was that this date was the also the funeral service in London of Winston Churchill. When we made it back to London in the pits of shame and despair the station was covered in black and grey hangings to honour the great man but it really also summed up how we felt.

Second was losing to Swindon in the League Cup final on a Wembley pitch that had been churned up for a horse show. I don’t think any of us really thought we could lose this one for goodness sake but after 1-1 at full time we collapsed in extra time and lost. And you think a few little hiccups today are a tragedy.

Finally a word about this site. It is a credit not only to an Arsenal addict but also to football supporters as a whole. It is just a pity that the standard of journalism is not as high as this site.

More history

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25 comments to 60 years of supporting Arsenal

  • Dark Prince

    Its been 13 years for me now… 🙂 lots of memories to cherish…the most excitin one being the last match….

  • Richard B

    Nice piece Mike. I can only summon up 50 years of memories but many of them coincide with yours.

  • Paul C.

    1958, not 1968, for the Utd-Arsenal 5-4 match.

    And if anyone wonders where I get my passion for Arsenal, it is from the writer of this piece, my father.

  • And_Arsene_Said...

    39 years for me and now expecting the best years still to come. However, as pointed out in this site on occasions we still have to overcome issues like the following. Please read and spread, it might help, just might.

    http://www.7amkickoff.com/2011/the-webb-report-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-man-u/

  • Great read mate. Hope you continue to follow The Arsenal for atleast 6 more decades to come.

    Nice insights through the ages, for someone who started following football in general, and Arsenal in particular, only since the 2001-02 season. And as per your kind words towards this blog, well, you couldn’t be more spot on. These guys are legends!

    Keep up the good work..

  • Shard

    Joe Baker, Di Stefano, the Busbie babes… all names I’ve only ever read about and caught the odd footage here and there. To think you actually saw them in the flesh.. Amazing!!

    Also, the way you can praise other teams, including Spurs, and players, suggest to me that football in those days was about more than just winning. I mean I could never imagine myself ever wholeheartedly praising say ManU or Chelsea even 50 years from now. Though maybe that’s just me romanticising the past I’ve never known??

    I loved the bit about the team selecting you. For me it was the image of the shirt (distinctive white sleeves) and the intriguing name Arsenal that I came across. Knowing nothing about us I was drawn to it and even though I thought we’d be a mid table team or something I knew this was my team.. Well.. We won the title the following season 🙂 (97-98)

    While my time following the Arsenal may be paltry compared to yours, this write up has brought forth all the memories that will forever be cherished by me.. Thank you, and may WE have lots more memories to cherish in the future.

  • Simon Bailey

    Nice piece Mike. I loved the mini history lesson especially where you bring into context getting knocked out of cup competitions and the part about laughing about a mere 5 years between trophies.

    The bit about Dennis brought a smile to my lips as well. I have only been supporting our lot for 20 odd years, so 60 is my target now. Just got to give up smoking.

  • Vic

    Bloody great article with fantastic memories and perspective too.

  • I am absolutely speechless (unusually for me, ask my wife), thanks for sharing it with us Mike.

  • Richard B

    Re the Swindon Town League Cup Final loss – I bought a scarf to wear for that match from a stall outside Highbury. It cost, I think, four shillings (20p). It’s now 42 years old and has seen many many victories since that sad day. I’ll be wearing it again at Wembley next Sunday.

  • dats

    Great memories Mike – Oh, that Man U game in ’58. That diving header from Jimmy Bloomfield! What a goal! Goalkeepers, well, Jack Kelsey was king, but don’t forget Bob Wilson and Jimmy Rimmer – they were both great. That awful night in ’66, all time lowest gate, p*ssing with rain, a 3-0 defeat with Ian Ure playing centre forward! I was there and it still haunts me today. I also remember arsenal playing Southern League Bedford Town in the Cup in 1956. As a lad of 13 I went there happily expecting a cricket score and then had to endure Arsenal hanging on for a 2-2 draw! As for great goals, anyone remember the Alan Skirton winner against double holders Spurs in 1962?

  • Adam

    Thankyou mike probably the best read ive taken in on this site, which has a very high standard.

  • Mihir Saudagar

    Awesome article!
    There is one place where I would beg to differ!
    The management should care for fans apart from those who pay to watch it at the Emirates!
    For those who do not have that privilege, it would be a pilgrimage of a lifetime to even be there once! Just Once!
    For now, am just thankful that I get to watch the games on TV. Its such a far cry from the days when I would be lucky to get to watch 1 game a year.The rest of the supporting would be done through rosy recreations of moments in my imagination looking at black and white pics on broadsheets.
    On a lighter note, we buy the T-Shirts too! 🙂

  • Sixty years of supporting The Arsenal? Based on my own much shorter tenure having done so, I’m thinking you must have put a couple of cardiologists’ kids through college.

  • Aussie Jack

    Enjoyed the blog and the reflection on so many names I remember since first going to Highbury in the 1947/48 period.

    In my youth I did a bit of a shuttle service between my aunts in Manchester and Highbury so I saw the best of both world`s including a school boy stint with some who were to become part of the Busby Babes like Dennis Violet.

    Having lost my parents at a young age football became my life until I joined the Royal Navy.

    The last 42 years in Australia caused me to lose track, we couldn`t even get results, but with the advent pay TV I try to make up for the years I missed.

  • John Reid

    Thanks for the blog. The memories come flooding back. The first
    match I watched was a 5-0 thrashing of Newcastle at Highbury. Jimmy Schooler was playing for Newcastle –1958? Heroes,what about little Georgie Armstrong on the wing and the class of
    Derek Tapscott and George Eastham.Highs,when we beat Ajax and Johann Cruyff to win the Inter Cities Fairs Cup. Lows, agree about the loss to Swindon,but Wrexham in the Cup was hard to take.
    My father was an Arsenal supporter so Cliff Bastin and Alex James were household names. Now let’s go to Barca and do the business.

  • Gooner S

    What a great article. Arsenal vs Huddersfield in 1970 was my first game as a very young boy. I can only remember the colours and noise and the thrill of seeing the pitch on a sunny day. That thrill still stays with me today. Oh and what about rosettes, you don’t see them anymore! There’s a difference between going 5 years without a trophy and not really being in with a shout for anything and what we have experienced in the last 5 years. 1971 – 1989 without a Championship and 1980 to 1993 without a cup final appearence. We really have been spoilt under Arsene Wenger.

  • Flint McCullough

    Great stuff Mike!!

    You appear to predate me by about 3 years & I concur with most of your memories. I was at the Leeds game with 4k or so other because for me it was more painful to miss a match than suffering the usual consequences of watching them, in those dark days. Not so dark however that there were no great games. With the Newcastle 4-4 just past, who remembers taking a very early 3-0 lead at WBA in an FA Cup tie only for Don Howe to inspire the comeback to 3-3? We did fortunately win the replay with an inspired torturing of the same DH by Geordie.

    For me Jack Kelsey is still the best Arsenal ‘keeper ever, so he has never been replaced. Bob Wilson, Pat Jennings, ‘Safe Hands’ & ‘Mad Jens’ were pretty good too, but Jimmy Rimmer should not be forgotten because he virtually kept us in the top flight.

    The saddest change in football, from our early days, is so often the support is more about abusing the other team than supporting your own. It was much more friendly then.

  • jack king

    Very good memories almost reflecting my own, and it’s good to see credit given to other teams & players. There was no hate back then was there? I was at the Swindon match and as I remember it some of our side wouldn’t normally have played as they were recovering from a bout of flu that had affected most of the players, but that Don Rogers was something else wasn’t he? I recently met Bobby Gould at a cricket fund raiser and we discussed his headed equaliser. He still has fond memories and lots of memorabilia (which he brought with him) of that time.
    Are you sure it was Derby in the power strike FA cup replay? I thought it was Liverpool.

  • Flint McCullough

    Definitely Derby, Jack. 0-0 draw I think.

  • jack king

    And I could have sworn it was Liverpool. Time dims the old memory and to think I was there. I didn’t see that much of Kelsey so can only go on his reputation as the best in UK, but some of the early sixties, McKechnie & McClelland were among the very worst I’ve ever seen anywhere,but Furnell was OK, he lasted about six years I think. And not forgetting the excellent Lukic. It’s so hard nowadays to find a decent keeper, and to think that England once had some of the very best.

  • jack king

    One or two people here are a bit surprised that Mike gives credit to other teams & players.There was no real hate in football in those days. I knew people who travelled all over visiting other teams grounds just to see a good match. My stepson visited all 94 grounds in the football league and enjoyed it no end. I’m old school enough to have supported any British team that was involved in European competitions and was so proud of Celtic, Man U & Liverpool for their successes. In fact I still am!!

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Nice one ,Mike ,a fine reflection of eras past.Having supported the Arsenal for 40 years , your article awakened old memories.
    Truth be told I did like watching games involving Man Utd ,Spurs
    & Chelsea in the early seventies ,while tried to hate Leeds and Liverpool .
    Those were the days when Arsenal’s season would be over in Jan/Feb after the 3rd or 4th round of the Fa cup.A top 4 finish would have been considered a great year.
    Hope this season brings success and that you may have more fine memories to impart to your grandkids !
    Cheers !

  • Mike Collins

    I had no idea how many people were almost as senile as me. Love the comments when other memories flood back. I would never have thought about Alan Skirton.