They say never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed. Supporting a great club like Arsenal means I’ve been fortunate enough to have my pick of heroes, I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have met a few of them too.
I briefly met, shook hands and shared pleasantries with Bob Wilson, interviewed Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour and had the distinct pleasure and responsibility of sharing drinks and a meal with Nigel Winterburn, enthralled by his anecdotes and affable character, whilst ensuring my friend Jok didn’t hollow him out and make a skin suit out of him (that was the responsibility).
Jok isn’t a danger to these wonderful servants of our club, we in fact share a giddy excitement at meeting these living legends, it’s just where my excitement focuses my energy into being good company and a fluent interviewer, Jok’s explodes with ferocious adulation and forces his endorphins drenched brain into Tourettes-like outbursts of inappropriateness and worrisome forward behaviour.
Keen as I was to get Nigel’s thoughts on Monreal’s development being aided by his stint at centre-back as Nigel’s was at right-back, Jok was equally as keen to offer to write “Nige” Winterburn’s biography in his own blood. Jok’s blood, not Nigel’s. It was over-exuberance like that made me feel responsible for Nigel’s security and keeping Jok from incarceration. It should be said I am a fervent admirer of Jok’s openness with club legends – his sunny demeanour instantly puts the most puckered of personalities at ease.
Earlier this week I was also blessed to spend a generous few hours chatting like old friend’s with another great from Arsenal’s history, another almost Invincible like Nigel, a hero from the 1990-91 season, Alan Smudger Smith.
Jok and I have been good to one another, sharing our good fortune when opportunities to meet our heroes come along and this time it was Jok who invited me to tag along to his interview with Smudge. Ever humble, he claimed it was because he required my assistance with fine tuning his interview skills, questions and to reign him in should his starry-eyes cloud his judgement and he kidnap the voice of FIFA.
In fact it was just an act of generosity and repayment for favours that never came with a price to start with. It was friendship in action and by the end of the day, which also included us bonding heavily over Final Fantasy 7 trivia, I believe we were much closer than we were when the day started. It may seem soppy but I believe Smudge has magical abilities – the ability to create and enhance friendships for one. He may not know it but he has gained two friends for life in Jok and myself.
A more generous, amiable character I’m sure would be hard to find. He was in no rush to leave and not only answered all of our questions he also offered keen discussions off the main topics. Most impressively he seemed to be genuinely interested in us as people. We weren’t just some doe-eyed fans or more faceless interviewers asking the same old questions. Even if our questions were ubiquitous he answered each one as though it was the first him he had been asked. There wasn’t even a hint of exasperation.
Alan didn’t quite have the naughty schoolboy glint in his eye of Parlour or Winterburn but he had a wry sense of humour he wasn’t afraid of showing. Sol Campbell was probably the most eloquent and practiced footballer I have met, possibly because his career was more recent than the rest or maybe because of his political aspirations, but was also the most guarded. As someone who is actively involved in the media I expected Alan to be much the same but it could not have been further from the truth. He was open, frank and decisive in his opinions.
I can’t divulge too much of what he said as the majority of the conversation will form part of a project Jok is working on and I am honoured to be helping with in my own small way but I can say I was pleased to be proven wrong when he answered a question on media bias against Arsenal in his day and in the modern game. I expected a politician’s answer but got a straightforward one.
This Sunday I am once again fortunate to have been invited to the Membership Rewards supported by Europcar event at Old Trafford which includes another chance to spend some time with Ray Parlour who is a bundle of laughs.
I don’t know if the next generation of fans will be as lucky when they meet their heroes as footballers seem so detached from the real world these days but I do know that if they want to look to Arsenal’s history there will always be humble and friendly chaps like Parlour, Winterburn, Wright and Smith who will appreciate them.
Copyright 2024 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.