By The Spotter
What you are about to read is an empathetic tip of the hat to all those who, at some stage in their lives, have experienced obsession via an unhealthy following of a sports team and along the way experienced more than a few crushing disappointments. And whether the obsession at its heightened, most intense form lasted for weeks, months or years (or in the following case, in particular for a few weird weeks at a young age), this is for you:
Almost all true-blue sports fans I have ever known from my generation have a favourite English football team whose results they always keep an eye out for. Even the staunch Rugby and League heads. Every Sunday in the early to mid ‘80s, from 12.02-12.50pm we would tune in to ‘Big League Soccer’ with the iconic Brian Moore. The show that so many will no doubt recall; it screened the highlights of three English League games from the previous week. The ‘Letters’ section was always a highlight too, with the overseas viewer requests.
The only sore point for some of us being the programme perhaps should have been renamed as ‘Big Liverpool Soccer’, on account of the Merseysiders being on it so often. In fact it seemed as though they owned the damn rights to it. But fair play, the ‘Pool were consistently the best team in the whole of Europe at the time.
Then there was the team I would come to adore. When people spoke about Arsenal Football Club in the late 70s to mid 80s, they often used to place the adjective ‘Boring’ in front of the team name. Some others also said a lot worse. There were no echoes of ‘Boring’ though when I decided that ‘the Gunners’ would be the ones I was going to follow, after they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 in an FA Cup semi-final in April, ‘79. There was something about that great combination of the red shirt with the white sleeves that drew me in. And the two goals from the Double ‘S’ strike pairing of Sunderland and Stapleton confirmed a new-found devotion.
Then three weeks later we beat Manchester United, ‘the Red Devils’ in the oft-called five-minute final. My head was buried in the corner of the couch before United’s Sammy McIlroy’s equalising goal even started its agonising slow roll into the far corner of Jennings’ goal for 2-2. And next I’d hardly looked up when, in almost some divine way, the ball looped over Gary Bailey’s right hand and was hooked back across and in by Alan Sunderland for the yellow shirts of The Arse to cancel extra time and steal the Cup 3-2. And that was me hooked for good. But as well as ‘Boring’, others painted my boys as ‘Lucky’.
I once had a teacher; an Ipswich Town supporter who derided Arsenal every chance he blimin’ well got. Actually I always sensed that his mirth emanated out of the 1978 FA Cup final, when Ipswich not so much as beat ‘The Arse’, but played them off the park. The boys from Suffolk hit the frame of the goal untold times. The final score should have been something like 3,4 or 5-0, and not the 1-0 it ended up being. Arsenal that day were more insipid than the NZ Warriors on Valium. Not that I saw this game until years later.
PS: ‘West Ham will win 1-0’. So wrote the person I just described; my Standard Four teacher, Mr Turner at Belmont Primary School. Because while most other kids’ red and white obsession was Father Christmas, mine was Arsenal. And that written taunt of his cut right to my bones.
And was that goading note scrawled in the back of my school exercise book or on a slip of paper even? Worse. It was on the back of a school certificate I had just received for…in fact I don’t recall (probably for doodling on desk tops). It was that final sign-off that always stuck in the memory.
Easy to recall because it became a pivotal juncture in my soccer-obsessed world, the event Mr Turner was alluding to occurred on May 10, 1980- the day of the FA Cup final of that year between my Arsenal and West Ham United, ‘The Hammers’, at that time a Division Two team.
As football-philes will recall, Turner’s prediction came true the following day as Trevor Brooking scored a rare headed goal after the ball had pinballed around the Arsenal goalmouth until Brooking finally dinged it in from the edge of the six-yard box past the flippers of Pat Jennings for 1-0 in the unlucky thirteenth minute and sent the East End into delirium, contrastly sending myself into such a damaged state that I kept feeling chest pain for days after; basically convincing myself I was going to become a victim of a heart attack as a direct result of all the agony. And that last part is no exaggeration. I can remember the feeling and the trauma as clear as anything.
It all felt an age ago since we had beaten those practically invincible bastards known as Liverpool in the third replay of the epic semi-final saga at Highfield Road, Coventry’s ground.
Now my daytime and bedtime reality was in dealing with a shame-felt fear that was to last the duration of the two-week May school holidays- of having to face the hordes of fans of the Liver back at school after defeat to a side from the Second Division…from the Second bloody Division- and not even promoted to the First at that season’s end, either. What happened Mr Brady, Rix, Stapleton and Sunderland? This was never how it was all meant to go.
The penalty shoot-out defeat to Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup Final only days later was tough to take, but it didn’t matter nearly as much as the Wembley debacle. You almost could sense it coming really. And just to absolutely put the tin hat of abjectness on their scarcely believable 1979-80 season that encompassed SEVENTY matches, the Arse finished things off losing 0-5 to Middlesborough. Somehow, it seemed appropriate. The final epitaph complete with dagger thrust into left ventricle. They finally finished fourth, miles away from the brilliance of the Liver, the champions.
I still follow Arsenal of course, but with nothing quite like the fervour of that crazy time in 1980 when my obsession with Jennings, Rice, O’Leary, Young, Nelson/Devine, Brady, Talbot, Price, Rix, Sunderland and Stapleton and the wearing of my Arsenal shirt for numerous days (and nights sometimes) on end drove my teacher into penning some kind of footballing curse. I guess I forgave him eventually. He was a pretty good teacher, I and everyone thought. Well, the above apart.
The reason I never came close to the fervour of that time again? Thinking back it was probably my sub-conscious mind which made a kind of vow that such further suffering just wouldn’t be worth the physiological and psychological consequences. Or something like that. Because I’ve never come remotely close to such strong feelings for them since. Maybe only fleetingly when Michael Thomas scored his famous, one time-in-a-century, Championship-stealing winner in 1989. But on the intense scale, it was still a distant second to 1980.
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