London's ghost of football past comes calling

Tapping your feet and getting all bouncy now, you see fellow fans, everyone with that same smile, the same air of expectation. Everyone trying to look blasé about it, but you know they have the same knot in their stomachs, the knot that only a couple of lagers can push to one side.

No pint ever tastes better than the first one on a Saturday match day. The sun is shining, all is good. Conversations start quietly, summer signings discussed, prospects for the season, the pros and cons of today’s opponents. As it gets nearer to kick-off the pub fills up, the atmosphere becomes charged, the songs start.

You quickly neck your last pint, and out onto the street, joining the throng of fellow Gooners — fans of London’s Arsenal — streaming down the road, a sea of Red and White. The nearer the ground, the louder it gets. There is a real bounce in your step now, still trying to look calm, just wanting to get in your seat and get going.

Walking past the old ground brings a wave of nostalgia and old stories. You remember watching the first game of the season against Liverpool from the toilet roof in the old North Bank. Fifty-five thousand people there that day, you were 16 and loving every minute of it. Knowing then you were a real fan, knowing that you would one day sit there reminiscing about that moment.

Now here you are, 22 years later, remembering that same moment, simultaneously sad and happy. Sad that the game has got richer and wiser, while you have not. Happy that you have now been swept along with the tide of great football, football that you have never seen the likes of since those early days. The days of Van Basten and Gullit in Euro 88, playing the type of football you never thought you would see an English club team play.

And so the journey home. Feeling flushed with a collective success, you sit alone on a train, one of 60,000 people. You can smell the beer, fried onions and puff on you. The smell of football, the smell of your heritage, a smell so familiar it makes you ache for a more innocent day.

Every year you moan. The transfer fees, the wages, the journeymen kissing badges they have no right wearing. But on this journey home none of that matters. You are on top of the world. Your support has helped your team, your real family, win. You can’t explain it, no one else can know what it’s like for you. In fact, you jealously guard that feeling, not wanting anyone else to share it, lest it dilutes it.

Pretending it doesn’t mean that much to you when you lose. You are a grown up now, you could never explain it to your wife or girlfriend. How could she ever expect to understand the feelings you have for 11 strangers, when you have to make an effort to talk to her Dad?

You bleed for this team, you always have. Who else knows what you were doing when Micky Thomas scored in the last minute at Anfield? Who else knows that the mates you were watching it with, West Ham fans at that, jumped up and down with you, one of them smashing his head on a chandelier? Who else other than a fellow Gooner knows how long you waited for that moment?

Who else understands that you cried like a baby when you heard David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle had died, and yet you mocked the people that cried for Lady Di? Who else knows you miss the old stadium? That the intellectual part of you loves the new ground and its lovely curves and ease of access, but it will never be the same as your first love, no matter how many designer clothes it wears?

Your journey home is sponsored by melancholy. You can’t help it, but the ghost of football past will always win. But you don’t care. You won, they lost, and life is good again.
Until next week, of course.

The New York Times

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