Do You Remember the First Time?
With the release of the league fixtures yesterday, that second checkpoint of the summer has been reached. (The first being the release of the end of season review DVD). The fixtures feed that first jolt of anticipation for the new season; they make the misty haze of August seem a little nearer, like a blinking lighthouse in the distance of a dense wintry fog. After the first perusal, I begin to study intently. Which matches clash with family and friends birthdays/ anniversaries/ weddings/ changing of under garments or any other such occasion. (Birmingham away a day after my Birmingham based nephew`s 18th is a result. Just have to hope Stoke at home isn`t moved to the Sunday because one of my best friends gets married that day). Who will I have to let down this year as I inform them that, though I`d love to join them for their birthday shenanigans, I have a coach ride to Bolton that I really can`t miss. Anyway, with the next pre season checkpoint still a month away (first pre season friendly of course), I thought what better time for another dissertation of pointless meandering sentiment?
Because during the summer, even with the welcome distraction of a World Cup, the mind does begin to wander down more abstract footballing corridors. Like any pre season a person`s football supporting career" as it were, is littered with checkpoints. In so many ways football provides a mimesis for every day life its own rites of passage, which serve as bookmarks for the years. The first time you realised which team you would support (around 1990 in a South London sports shop when my mum asked me which football shirt I wanted), the first time you saw that player that turned your perspective upside down and showed you things you scarcely believed possible, causing you to ape him in the school playground (Anders Limpar`s 45 yard lob over Mike Hooper at Highbury in 1991), the first trip to Wembley (April 1993, 1-0 win versus Spurs in the F.A. Cup Semi Final), the first silverware (1991 League title), first trip abroad to watch your team (PSV Eindhoven in September 2002, Gilberto scores after 20 seconds), the first match without parental guidance (Derby County away, December 1998). But by far the most affecting and significant rite of passage any football fan undergoes is that first time you see your team play in the flesh. The first whiff of fried onions and horse cack in your nostrils on the surrounding streets of the stadium, the first wide eyed delight at how loudly and how vociferously grown men are allowed to swear without attracting the slightest bit of attention, that deafening roar of seats tumbling and hands clapping as the team emerge from the tunnel.
The first football match seems so much more meaningful than any of a young man or woman`s other rites of passage. First intoxication usually leads to some incredibly embarrassing misdemeanours and / or complimentary hangover. Loss of virginity is nearly always a disappointment (especially for women I`m guessing), the person you share your first kiss with almost always ends up snapping your heart in two and making you cynical and suspicious of anything vaguely romantic for the rest of your natural life. I can`t recall a single detail of my first day at school and my graduation ceremony was the single most tedious 3 hours of my whole life. All of the aforementioned happened and were ticked off of life`s little list and dismissed with a relieved sigh rather than greeted with epiphinous acclaim. But the first click of the turnstiles left an indelible mark upon my person that could not be replicated by any other kind of tribal passing or manufactured religious experience. The first match was a rare example of an occasion whereby the inflated expectations of a young, barely formed mind were met by the reality. There was no morning after wretching, no 3 hours sitting pensive and bored until your name is called out and no tearful teenage girl who immediately phones her dad and goes home the instant it`s all over. (Yes, it really was that bad).
My first match was on the 22nd March, 1992 for a home fixture with Leeds United. My mum`s friend at work was a season ticket holder in the West Upper at the time. Her son was a soldier who had been stationed in Iraq, which meant his seat was going spare. My mum didn`t tell me she had procured the ticket for me until the morning of the match. It`s easy to assume an eight year old won`t have any prior engagements on a Sunday afternoon. Particularly as the game was live on The Big Match, my only prior plans had been to sit and watch it on the TV. Despite the fact that the match wasn`t kicking off until 3pm, I wanted to leave for the ground around five minutes after my mother told me what was in store at about 9am. My own impatience was borne with patience and good humour, arriving as we did at the ground for 1pm. My mother`s idea, I think, had been to walk down Highbury Hill and around the perimeter of the stadium down Avenell Road so I could absorb the stadium. But my 8 year old mind wasn`t interested in the architecture, as soon as I was there I just wanted to go in, to sit down and for the game to begin immediately. The anticipation was crushing me, each passing thought that whizzed through my brain was crushed by the onset of the next equally exciting thought.
But in my excitable insistence on being ridiculously early, the turnstiles on Highbury Hill had yet to open. So my mother and I sat on a wall adjacent to where the Youth Development office used to be positioned and waited for an old man to sluggishly appear to unbolt the gates and wave me and my Mum towards the turnstiles. It seems incomprehensible to refer to 1992 as "simpler times", but damn it, this is my nostalgic reverie and I`ll remember it how I like. After a hefty shove, I went through the turnstiles and I`ve never really left since. Out of tribal bias, it is of course incumbent upon an Arsenal fan to claim that Highbury is somehow special or even celestial, but it really was. At that point I had no frame of comparison with other grounds, but it wasn`t what I had expected. For a start, as we climbed the staircase to the West Stand Upper tier, out into the main concourse, all of the signage had maintained its retro charm, everything was still decked out in 1930s décor. Everything was painted in brilliant white against striking red, leaving me in a state of optical inebriation. In fact, despite the paucity of people actually in the stadium at this point, all of my senses were tickled into overdrive. The smell of stale cigarette smoke, mixed with the whiff of the contents of the deep fat fryer. My ears were filled with the hum of distant hordes and the clip clop of feet beginning to approach the stadium (at that point in my life, school assembly would have constituted a big and raucous crowd). Even the hotdog my mum bought me from the West Stand Upper tasted far removed from my school dinner experience. The sausage wasn`t of the tinned variety I was accustomed to and the onions were like charcoal, singed to a crisp. It tasted wonderful. After a few pints of Guinness, it still does.
Large swathes of the game itself passed me by. I recall that the score was 1-1, that both goals were scored within two minutes of one another. Lee Chapman was playing upfront for a Leeds side that would go on to take the title that season (we would defend our 1990-91 title win finishing a disappointing 4th) and was booed roundly every time he touched the ball. Presumably because he was so crap for Arsenal in the 1980s. Of course he scored the equaliser. The pantomime villain scoring and shushing his detractors has been a recurring theme ever since, do football fans ever learn? But like most people at their first ever game, it was the stadium and the people in it that caught my attention the most. Maybe the cloud of nostalgia has affected my memory, but I am convinced that there was a visible film of mist and smoke as I climbed the staircase to my seat in the West Upper. The brilliant green grass, with sprinklers gently spraying the pitch, against the concoction of red seats was jaw dropping. I recall being very impressed that our seat was on the very edge of one of the painted cannons, so my mum`s seat was white and mine was red. I was literally watching Arsenal at gunpoint. Many people would counter that that was the only way they`d watch George Graham`s Arsenal.
Slowly the brilliant red and white panorama of seats were filled with the gradual dribble of people into their seats. In my inexperience with football ground etiquette, I took the fact that there were so many empty seats ten minutes before kick off as a sign that the game would be viewed by a half empty stadium and a little disappointment gnawed at me. Thereafter, I became distracted by events on the pitch, with the imminent arrival of the teams, the next time I surveyed the stadium just after kick off, all of the seats were full. The roar of the crowd as the sides emerged from the tunnel, the thundering of hands slapping together and the echo of seats folding in unison were intoxicating sounds to my young ears. They were the loudest sounds I had ever heard in my life. (Yes, even at Highbury!) This game took place shortly before the Taylor Report came into effect, so my gaze was transfixed to the Clock End immediately to my right, stationed as we were in tantalising view of the Leeds supporters. At one point during the second half, there was a surge forward by the Leeds fans, the police stepped in to try and contain it. A minor scuffle ensued in which I saw a young man caught in the melee try desperately to lift his arms from the baying crowd. As he did, he lifted a crutch, waving it above his head before swiping at a policeman`s hat with it!
I remember my breathlessness when the game petered out into a 1-1 draw, the gargantuan queues for the Underground and the perpetual motion of thousands of adults, seemingly charging at each other at 100 miles per hour in their desperation to get home. The liberal attitude to swearing seemed to continue outside the ground, but ceased by the time we got to our packed tube. It was almost like an invisible line had been drawn, the cordon sanitaire had now expired, we were back in the real world now and normal social convention applied. I wanted to go back, everything outside of Highbury`s walls just looked so mundane now, like I had taken some mind bending hallucinogenic and opened a door into my brain that I never knew existed. I`d found my narnia. It`s become easy for me to be complacent about seeing my team now, but I still recall that first time and the impression it made on me. I stop and think about it every now and then on a walk to the stadium or on my ascent to the upper tier. I don`t take it for granted, but now it`s a different type of feeling. It is the regularity of the experience that still thrills me, adhering to the same routines, seeing the same people, being recognised and recognising others. The experience has been woven into the fabric of my life and as time has gone on, I`ve been able to introduce others to it. I`ve taken my sister, my nephew and a two good friends of mine from university to their first ever games and seen the enraptured looks on their faces and their enthusiasm. North London has become my jungle in the ensuing 18 years, but I still remember that first swing off the vine.LD.