By Christopher Flanagan
I was born in 1984, which means I have been fortunate enough to witness Arsenal's most consistently successful period this side of the war. The corollary of witnessing such success is that it is easy to become blase about its permanence and for its worth to become diluted. As a result of this, some trophies will inevitably mean more than others.
The 2014 FA Cup, arrived at through 9-years of tantric nearness, is one such. The reasons for this are obvious and will apply to most Arsenal fans – that whole messy, near-decade without a trophy business – but this trophy has additional resonance for me because, amongst other things, it reminds me the first trophies I remember Arsenal winning.
I was born into an Arsenal household; before I knew what football was, my father and his father had ensured that I was an Arsenal fan. This was lucky, because my nearest club growing up was Brentford, and besides them, most of the kids on my estate supported Chelsea. The former were a bit rubbish and the latter were also a bit rubbish and were also Chelsea.
So, I have a quirk of footballing genealogy to thank not only for gifting me some of my best childhood memories but also for ensuring that I wasn't subjected to the cruel thought experiment that is wanting John Terry not to fall on his face. I'm not really sure how a South London family came to support Arsenal; I have always assumed it was the Irish connection the club had influencing my granddad, but he died before I was old enough to take the time to enquire. Whatever the reason, I'm glad we were Arsenal.
I'm too young to remember Anfield '89 beyond its folkloric connotations. Mercifully, the upshot of this is that I am too young to remember Gus Ceasar and the League Cup debacle that scars people a generation older than I am. Nor can I really claim to recall anything about the 1991 title winning side - a league season in which we lost only one game - but I do recall the FA Cup semi against Tottenham that year, Gascoigne scoring a flukey free-kick, and knowing that them beating us and then going on to win the Cup (their last major trophy) was a Very Bad Thing. These, though, are fragments of memories.
In the summer of 1992 life changed. My parents decided that they would get a divorce and that my sister and I would be exiled to Devon with my mother, like a wartime evacuee. Devon, for those who do not know the geography of southern England, is a significant number of hours from London, from Arsenal, from football, from my friends, from Dad. It's a large, sparse, rural area on the other side of the country. I didn't cope well with the transition and became a Difficult Child. My one safe harbour from Difficult Childness was the football, the Arsenal.
It was around this time that I had started to attend matches, which was clearly about to become a rarity. My family didn't have a lot of money - my father was a decorator and my mother had just taken up a new post as a single mother in judgemental rural England - so regular match-going was not be something with which I was blessed. Still, the prospect of the occasional match once things have settled down a bit and that Junior Gunners membership with the nice signed photos of David Seaman and Ian Wright and Tony Adams and all those others each year was still brilliant, wasn't it... until we couldn't afford that any more either.
And it goes without saying that we could not afford the Sky subscription needed to watch the newly formed Premier League on the telly. So instead, I had a weekly subscription to Match magazine, which I would read with an obsessive fervour from cover to cover, right down to the attendances and substitutes in the games between Division 3 relegation candidates. I entered every competition going but only ever won one: a Coca-Cola Cup t-shirt that I wish with all my heart I still owned, as I do my replica shirts from that year (home kit birthday, away kit Christmas - best presents a boy could want). In retrospect, I don't like to think what sacrifices my parents made to afford those kits, which weren't cheap even then, but I've since clung to them like an infant to its blanky, so I'm glad they did.
Football then wasn't like it is now. It still permeated society, but the ubiquity of coverage precipitated by the Internet and Sky Sports News, was still several years away. The only football I got to watch was Football Italia on Channel 4, presented by the then young and now evergreen James Richardson; Match of the Day once a week, when my parents let me stay up; and the cup matches that were shown live. As if mindful of my plight, the Arsenal ensured I had plenty of matches to watch, including three domestic cup finals to watch in full that year: the Coca-Cola Cup, the FA Cup and the FA Cup replay.
Those finals were glorious. Not because of the football, which, beyond flashes of Wright and Linighan, I cannot claim to remember with any degree of accuracy; and not because of the ephemera surrounding the matches, which, beyond cracks of Morrow and Adams and being allowed too stay up late for the final, I cannot really recollect; but because of the glorious sunshine, because of the celebration of football, because of the live TV coverage starting some time around dawn and continuing until there was only one set of ribbons left on the trophy, and because we won.
To a boy unhealthily preoccupied with football in general and Arsenal in particular, to a stranger in a strange land whose closest links to the comforts of home were the club he supported, that seemed like the most important thing in the world. Here was Arsenal, some glorious Deus Ex Machina to show me that everything would be ok.
Fast forward 21 years and there are similarities: the aesthetic cues of the flashes of blue and red on the sleeves of the kit (I just knew this one would be lucky); beating Tottenham en route to the final; a defender getting a key goal; an inability to resolve the matter within 90 minutes; not the first trophy of my lifetime, but the first trophy in what feels like a lifetime.
Except things are totally different now. I'm not a child anymore – although my childlike compulsion to football remains an indelible part of my composition – and I can go to watch Arsenal whenever I please (insofar as time, money and other commitments allow). And now, well, now I'm the parent. My first child was born just over a year ago, into an Arsenal household in Bristol through a quirk of footballing genealogy.
"Here was Arsenal, some glorious Deus Ex Machina to show me that everything would be ok"
We sat and watched the final together. Or, I should say, we sat together for some of the final, her in her Arsenal replica kit, me in mine, and her mother in hers. And then she unleashed hell into her nappy to save me the effort of unleashing hell into my own underwear as Hull took a horrifying, dumbfounding, terrifying 2-0 lead. And then she played with a ball and some toys as Arsenal clawed their way back into the game. And then we desperately clung to one another through extra time (I may have been doing most of the clinging) as Aaron Ramsey cemented himself in the pantheon of cup final heroes and she cried and I cried and it was the zenith of existence.
I hope she gets to see Arsenal win as much as I have, and I hope to be there with her every time that happens. And should she choose to have children of her own, we will repeat the process ad infinitum, through the European Super League, on to the Intergalactic Mega League, toward the Inter-Dimensional Hyper League and whatever lies beyond. Where there is Arsenal, we shall go.
The 1993 FA Cup led us to victory in the 1994 European Cup Winners' Cup, which remains the only European trophy I have ever seen Arsenal win, despite the club having reached 3 further European finals since that year. Here's to hoping the 2014 FA Cup has similar progeny that I can enjoy with mine.
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