Over the course of last season, we ran a series of features in the Official Matchday Programme with some Arsenal-supporting London 2012 Olympic hopefuls. We continue with Great Britain runner Mo Farah...
It’s rare that a visitor brings Arsenal’s training ground to a standstill - but that’s exactly what happened when Mo Farah, surely the poster boy for the throng of Gunners-supporting Olympians, paid the first-team squad a visit in January.
Not long after that, he was leading hundreds of keen runners on a ‘One Mo Mile’ dash to Emirates Stadium - and it was there that we caught up with the multiple gold medal-winning distance runner to reflect on his love affair with the Club and to catch up on exactly how our Olympic prospect’s preparations have shaped up.
“It was one of the best days of my life, for sure,” smiles Mo when recalling his day out at Shenley - not an insignificant assertion from a man who took the gold in the World Championships 5,000m in Daegu last year.
“As a youngster you never see this happening, regardless of how avidly you support a football team. It was a great honour - to hang around with Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie and Jack Wilshere, seeing everyday things like Mikel Arteta having a massage right in front of me, going through the changing room and outside to have a kickabout, it was amazing! I’ve got a poor touch though, sadly! The players make it look so easy but it’s hard to do, believe me. I had a great day, I was smiling like a little kid all the way through.”
The dream that came true when he visited the Gunners’ HQ had burned for some 25 years. Mo moved to England from Somalia at the age of eight, and from then on he was steeped in all things Arsenal - even if he didn’t get the greatest of help at home.
“I grew up in west London but my dad was a big Manchester United fan,” he reveals. “I’ve always loved Arsenal though - I was inspired by the likes of Ian Wright and Tony Adams, who were great players to watch and look up to.
“And don’t worry, it’s being passed on through the family - I’m bringing my daughter up to follow Arsenal as well. She sometimes mentions Chelsea but she’s just winding me up!”
Mo is based in Portland, Oregon these days. It’s not exactly on Emirates Stadium’s doorstep, but he reveals that keeping up with Arsenal matters remains high on his list of priorities.
“It’s hard to keep up, but I make sure I do,” he explains. “I wake up in the morning and ensure that I get my early run done so I can watch the match if it’s an afternoon or evening one. Things are a little harder if it’s a lunchtime kick-off but I do my best!”
There are other ways in which to show his support. When Mo thrilled the world in Daegu, almost adding a 10,000m gold medal to his haul but having to settle for silver behind Ibrahim Jeilan, he was sporting customised Arsenal running spikes - which he’s planning on dusting down for the biggest stage of all, too.
“My lucky spikes!” he beams. “I wore them in both the 5k and the 10k and they seemed to do quite well for me - they’re nice and light too. Nike designed them for me specially when I told them that I’d love some Arsenal spikes. I really treasure them, and hopefully they’ll get an outing at the Olympics this summer too!”
And perhaps they’ll rub off on one of our current players - with whom Mo has cut a tasty-looking deal.
“Jack Wilshere’s given me an Arsenal shirt so I’m going to give him a pair of my running spikes - hopefully they’ll do well for him!”
In the 5,000m, he pipped long-time rival Bernard Lagat into first place - and it may have been a win with added significance. Rumour has it that the Kenyan-born United States runner supports the ‘other’ side in north London - but does Mo have any further information on this front?
“Well, if he’s a Spurs fan then it’s definitely come down from his manager. But I don’t know for sure, I’ll definitely have to find out!”
The biggest battle of all for Mo and Lagat will, naturally, come on the track this summer. London 2012 is tantalisingly within reach now, and Mo can feel the buzz reverberating around his home city. “It’ll be amazing,” he says. “Not often do you have the Olympics right on your doorstep so I’m looking forward to it. It’s very exciting, the crowd will be pumped up too and that’s exactly what we need. It will be a memorable summer, whatever happens.”
What would ideally happen is that Mo will sweep all before him and be paraded on the Emirates Stadium pitch wearing gold medals early next season - just as he was after the World Championships. He says he’s feeling in good nick ahead of the formidable challenges that lie ahead before that becomes a reality.
“A lot of stuff has changed since the last Olympics and it’s all positive. I’ve changed my coach, moved to the other side of the world and have definitely improved, running faster times and winning more medals. It means my confidence is much higher, and I’m definitely a different athlete to the one you saw in Beijing four years ago.”
Mo came away from China empty-handed, but his career took off after that - and five gold medals from major events since 2009 suggest that he’ll be there or thereabouts in Stratford this summer.
Before departing, he states his strong faith in the current Gunners - and his conviction that tangible success, despite its relative paucity in recent years, is not far away.
“You have to keep faith,” he stresses. “We’ve had our disappointments, but as a sportsman I know very well that not everything goes your way. You just have to keep strong, and I’d say that to all our supporters. Arsène Wenger is a world-class manager, and our time will come. We just need to be patient.”
If Arsenal proceed to reap the benefits of patience half as much as Mo has in recent years, we could be in for a very fruitful time indeed.