By Paul Fowler
I sit and write this because I need to. Arsenal have just been beaten at home, yet again, and to make matters far worse; they have been beaten by Tottenham. My son has just phoned me in a state of shock and absolute misery, and my 21 year old grandson, who went to the match on my ticket, ironically as a birthday present, is slowly making his miserable way up the motorway to Nottingham. Like all Arsenal fans, and I suppose, football fans everywhere, he is discovering the true delight of the long, lost, journey home. At this moment I am drowning in a quagmire of anger, resentment, self-pity, incredulity, and sadness. In short, as my grandson so eloquently put it in his recriminatory text, I’m gutted.
I sit and write this because it’s cathartic. I have no idea as to where it’s going, but it’s going there anyway. I feel like Ray Milland in the 1945 Billy Wilder film ‘The Lost Weekend’; a story which recounts the life of an alcoholic New York writer, Don Birnam, and, in particular, a weekend which is lost because of an alcoholic binge. I am not drunk – yet – but my whole 50 year football life of supporting Arsenal has been littered with such weekends, except, of course, in 2004. Wilder’s film ends with his ‘hero’ not drinking his glass of whisky and looking out over New York and wondering how many other people are in the same position as himself. I, similarly, now look out through this computer screen and wonder how many gooners both far and near are feeling the way I am now.
I’m lucky; I’m semi-retired. I no longer have to run the gauntlet at work on Monday with the usual gibes, taunts and sneers that many of you will suffer. It still hurts me, for example, to recall the lost European Cup Winners Cup Final and Nayim’s ridiculous lob. I arrived at work around 7.30 the next morning to find an expanded cartoon stuck to my office door. The cartoon depicted Wenger in the background giving his half-time talk to the players and warning them about hopeful lobs from the half-way line, while Seaman was standing in the foreground, having a piss in the toilet!
As we all know, there are several ways of coping with this provocation: anger or violence with your ‘colleagues’; anger with Wenger; anger with the players; grudging agreement with the view that they deserved what they got; a refusal to read the national papers; a refusal to watch any football on TV; a reassuring self-lie that ‘there’s always another game’ and so on. I’ve just described my Sunday.
But what about Wenger and his players? At least they can do something about it! We can’t! When I was a 15 year old playing for Harrow Schools District side in the London Gill Trophy we lost 13-1 away to East London Schools one shameful Saturday morning. What made it worse was that we had hardly ever lost any matches since primary school, and indeed, later that season, we lost 3-1 to Hastings Schools in the latter stages of the English Schools Shield, which was quite remarkable for a district with such a small number of schools. As I recall, we had three players on QPR’s books, 2 on Chelsea’s, 3 on Fulham’s, and 1 illiterate (I’m sorry) on Tottenham’s. We were absolutely awful and we didn’t try, or seem to care, as the goals went in and the humiliation mountain grew and grew. The pain was exacerbated by the fact that we had scored first, thus invoking the well known football law that elation/desolation is inversely proportionate to the timing, sequence and grouping of goals both for and against. As an illustration, imagine, God forbid, that your team is three goals down to your hated rivals but they manage to claw two back. Now imagine the impossible; that your team is two nil up against your hated rivals and somehow manages to lose 3-2. With the first result you are angry and upset but you are proud that they gave it a go. With the second, you want to kill someone, even though the score is the same.
I digress; back to happier days at school. Two weeks later, in a parallel competition, the two same sides met at Harrow and we won 4-1. I particularly enjoyed the revenge, scoring two goals and outplaying Paul Went, the future Leyton Orient and Fulham centre half, whom I would play against at a later date in the South East Counties league. So we changed it; why can’t Arsenal??
Like me, you probably get very angry with the fact that you will have to face the crap at work on Monday but the players and Wenger won’t have to. After all, apart from the backroom staff, the only people they will see are each other and, presumably, they don’t berate each other about their respective performances. I would feel much better if they did. I would feel much better if the first thing someone said, for example, would be: ‘For fucks sake, Laurent, how did you miss that?’
I know from personal experience at QPR all those years ago that football clubs are not the wonderful places that many fans think they are. After all, for the players, it is where they work, and as such, it is the place which often becomes boring and the place which has people working there whom they simply don’t like.
I well remember, as a skinny 16 year old, stepping into the dressing room bath after Thursday night training at Loftus/Ellersie Road. For the record, I have nearly drowned twice in my life: the first when I was seven at Wealdstone Swimming Pool when some tosser pushed me in to the deep end after enquiring as to whether I could swim; the second, in the aforesaid bath, when Frank Sibley took exception to Bobby Finch calling him a see you next Tuesday, and the ensuing tsunami took us all by surprise. Incidentally, Rodney Marsh was not there at the time. But their disagreement was personal; it wasn’t about the football they had played in training. Of course, such disagreements spill over into the football like Les Allen’s alleged racist spat with Mark Lazarus and subsequent mutual non-passing, when I was at QPR, but such travesties, thankfully, would never happen at multi-cultural Arsenal – strong characters notwithstanding.
At times like this I recall Stan Barstow’s children’s novel ‘Joby’. It gives me some comfort to know that I did nothing wrong this morning. When the ten year old Joby discovers that his ‘Mom’ is to have a mastectomy and that his dad is having a flattered-old-man’s-touch-and-giggle with his (Joby’s) female young cousin, he, Joby, that is, closes his eyes and walks to the end of the road, aiming not to tread on any paving stones with cracks in them. This walk, if successful, would guarantee his mum’s recovery and his parents’ marriage which it does by the end of the book. I want you all to know, in the light of this, that I did nothing wrong this morning, but there is some gooner out there, reading this, who obviously did! We need to know who and what it was. I made sure I shaved before I cleaned my teeth, and I made sure I was not in the shower longer than 3 minutes. I also did not put any clothes on which could be associated with Arsenal, because I was not going to the game, and to do so, would have been catastrophic. It worked for Joby, so why not for me?
Superstition and football have always gone hand in hand. I never used to believe this until we won the double in 1971. I was working at Kodak at the time and that particular season, strangely enough, I always enjoyed going to work on a Monday, or any other day, come to that. I was working the afternoon shift, on the evening we won the league with a Ray Kennedy header at White Shite Lane. I vividly recall the radio commentary and the euphoria, as I shifted heavy cans of photographic emulsion in the dark cold store. Four days later, I was due to work the early shift from 7am to 11am. I was going to Wembley straight after work and looking forward to it, especially as I had missed the league win on the Tuesday. My foreman, Jack Denning, was a volcano of a man – a rather big Teddy Boy with Robert Newton bulging eyes, blood red lava skin, full to the brim with latent menace waiting to erupt – and he told me on the Friday, that he would come with me because he had acquired a ticket. Jack was a Fulham supporter.
When we finished work, Jack and I got changed out of our boiler suits and kitted up. I wore an Arsenal top; he wore a Fulham shirt. We hurried down to the Queens Head in Wealdstone and started drinking. I don’t know where the bloke came from, but a friend of Jack’s appeared and joined us. I remember thinking that I had somehow got myself caught up in a Kray’s tea party, and I did my best not to drink too much, and I also kept an eye on the time because it would take us 25 minutes or so to reach Wembley Central and walk to the ground. The two of them were pissed, drinking Double Diamond and rum and blacks. By 1.30, I was begging them to drink up. Jack’s mate then leant across the bar and said: ‘Don’t worry, son. You’ll win today. Take this fucking coin and fucking shut up’. The coin was a ‘lucky farthing’ which even then was scarce.
We got the train to Wembley, walked to the ground, and, to my utter amazement, Jack’s friend said goodbye and then walked off like Laurie Lee in the direction of Wembley High Street Station and the North Circular. To this day, I wonder where he was going and why he had joined up with us in the pub. Jack and I had tickets for different sections of the stadium but those of you old enough to remember, will recall that once in, if you could get your hands on the stub of a ticket for a particular section, you would be able to enter it. We duly separated at the stadium perimeter but met outside my enclosure, once we were in. I went in and stood in a space which was subsequently taken up by a very large gooner. Jack, very pissed, wanted to stand with me, so I asked the large man if he would lend me his ticket stub. At first he said no; he quite rightly told me that he had waited a long time for this and the ticket was his golden souvenir. I offered him £5 for the stub but he refused it. He then – and I am not surprised – extended the gooner hand of friendship and gave me the stub, trusting me to return it – which I did.
The match rolled on as you know until during extra time from behind the goal we watched Charlie George score and lie down like a poser. Jack managed to pick me up after the large gooner had leapt onto my shoulders and crumpled me into the concrete. The triumphant return journey to Headstone Lane was indeed triumphant. Jack and I drank in several pubs in Wembley before boarding the Bakerloo train home. We ended up in a Benskin’s pub in Hatch End together with several Liverpool supporters who were drowning their sorrows before starting that long lost route home. I vaguely remember Big Jack chanting ‘Everton, Everton’, and rather lewdly suggesting that the barmaid straddle the Watney’s Red Barrel pump on the bar. At around 11.30, Jack and I, having searched diligently and unsuccessfully for Reggie Kray’s lucky farthing, bid each other good night, several times, and eventually staggered off on our separate paths. It took me 45 minutes or so to cover the few hundred metres to my home. I remember screeching out a rendition of The Shadows’ Apache – Bruce Welch lived a few doors down, and it was also an impromptu tribute to Jack – and eventually opening the front door of our semi. In the living room, sat my best friend, his fiancée, and Jane Wyman. They had been waiting for me to go out for a pre-arranged meal since 7.30. My mum, who was going to babysit my daughter and my son, had long since deserted the ship.
I stared back.
Cast adrift downstairs, I drank whisky all night to celebrate the victory. I can’t remember the Sunday at all but I do remember that just before I slipped into unconsciousness, I caught a frightening glimpse of the football future for all of us, gooners and non-believers alike. A mouse appeared out of a crack in the wall and a bat carrying a lucky farthing was flying around the living room, hovering.
From one lost weekend to another.
Alias: Don Birnam
20th November, 2010.
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