By Jon Shay
I still remember finding out about Arsenal for the very first time. Growing up in the US in the late 1970s and early 80s meant that I lived in a football wasteland. Come to think of it, the only sports that really attracted anyone’s attention were baseball and American “football”.
I had been playing the real kind for a few years, but at that point it felt like a hobby more than a sport. We had no professional league, just an abortive indoor one, and we had no knowledge of or access to international football.
I only knew Pele, for example, as a guy who must have been pretty good at one point. I only heard about Maradona’s “hand of God” in a story buried in our newspaper’s sports section days later. Like I said, a wasteland.
At any rate, it was somewhere around 1982 and we had just gotten cable. To that point in my admittedly young life, I had subsisted on the thin gruel known as Duran Duran, not yet knowing that actual music existed. I would stay up into the wee hours to watch Friday Night Video Fights, The Young Ones, and Headbangers' Ball.
During one of these late night fests, I was scrolling through channels in a daze when I stumbled across actual football. The idea that professional football existed blew my mind, and the fact that it was on TV blew me away even further. At any rate, the picture was pretty grainy, and I could barely make out the players, nor could I understand the broadcasters very well due to their accents. Still, I awoke from my stupor.
When the table flashed on screen, I snapped to full attention. Amid a sea of unfamiliar or downright irritating names, at least to these Yankee ears, standing out in that hodgepodge of cities and -hams and -wiches and and -tons, one name seemed to shine forth like a beacon: Arsenal.
Even at my tender age, I knew the definition of the word, and it floored me to learn that teams could have any other name besides the city in which they play their home games. What a perfect, perfect name for a team.
Even now, when my pacifism and generally liberal political bent might otherwise agitate for a more politically correct name, "Arsenal Gunners" wins, hands down. I was hooked. Further helping matters was that they were not in first place, appealing to my early preference for underdogs.
Had I known then that Arsenal is hardly some pluckly little underdog, things might have turned out differently, and I might have ended up rooting for Sheffield Wednesday or something. There but for the grace of God…
"I knew the definition of the word, and it floored me to learn that teams could have any other name besides the city in which they play their home games. What a perfect, perfect name for a team"
When the highlights came back on, I was drawn more deeply into the Gunners' embrace through the uniforms - that pitch-perfect shade of vivid red and high-contrast white not only just works for my vision (I have mild red-green colour blindness), it’s bold and stylish. Put it all together, and the romance flowered and has bloomed ever since.
Each night, still too young to realise that the Premier League was more of a weekly thing, not a daily one, I'd turn to ESPN hoping to see more Arsenal action. I figured it out after a week or two when I finally saw that highlights only came out on the weekends, and in a five-minute installment at the end of the broadcast.
Think of that - I subsisted for years on little more than a minute or two of Arsenal-specific news a week. I could get no names, no statistics, no information of any kind about Arsenal’s players, not to mention anyone else, except whom Arsenal played, how they did, and where they stood.
Ever since then, I have followed this club through thick and thin, surviving on a meager trickle of ESPN highlights in the days before the internet and the growing popularity of football in America prompted newspapers, magazines, and television to cover European soccer.
I’m sad to say, therefore, that I missed almost all of the drama and glory of the Invincibles, except in those little bits and chunks, filtered through a flimsy coverage that didn’t do the team’s style or achievements justice.
Now, instead of hoping to get to ESPN in time to catch a 30-second rundown of the best Premier League games, as I did in the 1980s and early 1990s, I can actually watch complete games. The difference has not been unlike going from flirting with someone through text messages to actually embracing and kissing. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I hope to some day soon make it to the Emirates to see a game. I love history and roots and origins, so it breaks my heart that I’ll never get a chance to see one at Highbury.
"I love history and roots and origins, so it breaks my heart that I’ll never get a chance to see one at Highbury"
I see fit to consort with fans from other clubs, like Man City, Chelsea, or Man U. It's like high school community service - I listen patiently to their stories and ask polite questions, making sure to say mm-hmmm and "oh really?" from time to time to give off the appearance that I'm listening. Inside, I feel sorry for the poor saps who learned about football only recently and who cast their lot in with whoever happened to be in first place or whoever had won the FA Cup at the time.
For the most part, these fans have never had their loyalties tested and have know little else but salad days (except City). Do I envy them, even ever so slightly, for having experienced their successes while we wonder why our club has faltered? I guess I do, but, still, I would never trade what I've had and will continue to have for what they have. Am I crazy? Yeah, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Diaby tore his ACL in March 2013, when Wilshere came back from injury to score against Montpellier in November 2012 or when Henry came back to score against Leeds in January of the same year, each of these moments brought a tear to my eye, each for very different reasons.
Diaby’s injury saddened me because, like the team itself, it seemed that he had finally rediscovered himself and was seizing his moment. Henry’s goal was an encore, a poignant curtain-call on a glorious career and a wondrous reminder of those heady days. Wilshere’s goal was a resurrection, an announcement that he had returned, and so would the team.
These moments, triumphant though they were, did not launch me from my seat in the way that other goals have. Instead, I stayed rooted to my seat, palms over my nose and mouth, as I quietly absorbed every detail available. I’ve never known the delirious glory of celebrating a moment like that jostling with fellow Gunners as the Emirates crowd registers itself on the Richter scale.
Someday, someday soon, I will.