'Supporting from afar'

By Ben Nugent

Growing up in Clonmel, a relatively small town in southern Ireland, to a family of avid Liverpool supporters (for the most part), I always presumed once I inevitably developed an interest in football that I would be draped in a Liverpool jersey and that would be that.

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This first appeared on The Arsenal Collective

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I don’t have a clear memory of when exactly my interest in football began, I have vague memories of my father roaring at the TV on the rare occasions matches were shown on terrestrial TV here (normally FA cup games on the BBC), and my uncle in particular was always keen on seeing me grow up to support Liverpool. I thought it was a given.

My pre-determined footballing allegiances changed however one fateful weekend when I was eight, at an age where my interest in the sport was developing at a rapid rate. I went on a weekend visit to my cousin’s house, one of whom happened to support Arsenal. The weekend was horrible. I was beat, chased and pummelled into submission. I was to support Arsenal… or else. And that was it. Living in fear of another beating, I made sure that I kept up to date with every result, and jotted each one down accompanied by each goal scorer, by way of teletext and Match of the Day (when I was allowed stay up) every weekend.

At this point, Sky was a luxury in many Irish households, and as such, the only opportunity for a budding fanatic to watch his team play was via the BBC and the FA Cup. My first discernible memory of watching an Arsenal game was the 1998 FA Cup final and Marc Overmars racing clear and nutmegging Shay Given. I was delirious with joy. What began as a chore conducted through fear was slowly morphing into an obsession.

I remember vividly still the day when I received my first Arsenal jersey. Arsenal had lost that weekend (I can’t for the life of me remember against whom it was) and I was still inconsolable going to school on Monday morning, knowing too well what awaited from the legions of sheep following Liverpool and United. I came home that evening worn out from defending my Arsenal and there it was - red with white sleeves and a white collar, JVC printed on the front and Bergkamp 10 on the back. I still maintain that it is the best gift I have ever received.

Being a fan living in Ireland and not being able to attend matches with the frequency with which I would like, I feel as if it is my duty to wear the jersey each match day, as a way of showing support of course, but also as a way to feel closer to the club. If I can’t be there in body every week, I feel as if I am at least there in spirit in some way by donning the jersey, whether it be for a pre-season friendly or a Champions League final (more of those would be nice, please lads).

This is a habit which was born on that day when my mother bought me that jersey. Although I’m sure she thought she was being nice in her attempt at cheering me up, I’m certain she regrets her part in creating this monster and the Arsenal related mood-swings she has had to endure in the years following that purchase.

The natural progression for me was to visit Highbury. I spent two years pleading and begging, but due to the arrival of a younger brother and sister, for my parents to afford such a journey would have been a stretch. I had given up hope; I genuinely thought I would never get to see a match in the flesh.

My uncle accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be supporting Liverpool, and to his credit, he embraced the fact I too was a football fan and brought me to the pub to watch Arsenal on Sky whenever he could. He would even bring me to watch Soccer Saturday if Arsenal were not on the box. At least I am seeing more games in full’ was how I consoled myself each time I longed to sit inside Highbury, even though Match of the Day still amounted to the highlight of my week.

To my absolute shock, my dreams of going to Highbury came true on Christmas Day in 2001. I had finished opening up my presents and was tending to my collection of chocolate, when my dad pointed out a present I had missed: an envelope sitting on the table. I thought I was getting a book voucher. I opened it up to discover two tickets to Arsenal v Fulham on Saturday, February 23, 2002. I couldn’t believe it; I was floating on air for the following two months.

For those Arsenal fans brought up in the shadow of Highbury, Islington, anywhere in North London and its surrounding areas, Highbury would have amounted to a somewhat regular part of their footballing life. Going to games, even passing the stadium on any given day and instantly being struck with memories of the place. For those of us who admire from afar; it’s difficult to put into a coherent sentence the emotion of sitting inside that stadium for the first time.

My father and I arrived in London at 9am on the Saturday morning. Following a brief stop in McDonalds (another novelty for me at the time), we proceeded directly to the ground on my orders. He wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t going to risk a scene in the middle of Piccadilly Circus by telling me I had to wait a few hours to see Highbury.  We arrived in Islington via tube at roughly 11:30am. Stepping up out of the shadow of the tube station and into the shadow of Highbury I was greeted with chills. After an hour exploring the inner sanctum of Highbury and sampling the rubber burgers, I was in my seat in the North Bank by 12pm.

How my Dad managed to get such good tickets I will never know, it was perfect. Around 1:30pm David Seaman and Richard Wright jogged onto the pitch for a little kickabout in the North Bank goal. I trotted down to be near the pitch and was subsequently struck in the face by an errant shot courtesy of the boot of Mr Seaman.

It was the most enjoyable pain I have ever experienced.

I picked the ball up and handed it back to, him, absolutely terrified, and received a pat on the head from those shovels which he calls hands.

The game was brilliant, we could have lost 5-0 and I would still say the same. This was Arsenal approaching their pomp. We beat Fulham, 4-1. Patrick Vieira dominated the midfield and scored. Our then resident lunatic right-back Lauren scored one. Henry ran at the Fulham back four with venom and a bloody-minded determination to win that we have been so sorely missing in the recent past, scoring twice. One of which was somewhat of a fluke, but nevertheless brought a huge cheer from the home crowd, and an iconic celebration from the man himself. I’m sure he was looking at me.

That day was one of the best I have ever experienced. Such is the rarity with which I can attend games, each time I have made the journey to north London since has brought with it the same anticipation and wonderment. That was the first and only time I ever sat inside Highbury. It is only in the past three years, now that I am working and earning my own way in life, that I have been able to prioritise these visits. The Emirates doesn’t hold quite the same aura that Highbury did for me. Working in the local post office (which happens to be the home of Clonmel’s oldest Arsenal fans) I have been well informed of the history of Highbury, and it is where I watched my hero’s do their thing every weekend.

The Emirates history is only beginning, and it is my full intention to ensure that I am there to watch it being written. I will own a season ticket one day. Growing up supporting Arsenal from a distance I feel that if this is not my aspiration, I’m not supporting my club as best I can. Maybe subconsciously I am still afraid my cousin is going to hammer me into the ground if I don’t: he’s moved to London, he sees games regularly, this is the natural progression surely?

Supporting Arsenal from a distance has fostered this desire in me, I am grateful for every match I attend, whereas if I was an Arsenal fan brought up in relatively close proximity to the club, I would take such a thing for granted.

The respect I have for season ticket holders is immense. I feel as if I am disrespecting those loyal attendees by classifying myself as a supporter, I’m not even from the same country, never mind the same part of London, how can I say Arsenal is my club? But these doubts are erased each time I attend a game.

The warmth with which Arsenal fans from all parts of the globe are greeted to the Emirates and the neighbouring pubs by the fans who have been attending week in week out for years upon years is fantastic, but above all else, it is re-assuring. Especially to those of us to whom attending a game is a relative rarity. I don’t know if these fans know this, but they represent this brilliant club in a way which extends far beyond their presence in the stadium each week.

I genuinely believe that supporting Arsenal whilst living overseas has intensified my love of the club. Absence makes the heart grow stronger and all that. And on nights when the fans inside the Emirates drive the team with such ferocious support, I like to think they’re doing it for those fans who wish they could be there as much as anything. 

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