By Steve Whittle
I knew I was an Arsenal fan very early on in life.
I was just 4-years-old in fact and staying at my Nan’s in North London because my mum was working. My mum's younger sister, something of an "it" girl who worked up Smithfield [market] and earned a fortune for her age was set to bring her latest bloke (or victim as Grandad referred to them) around for tea. This new man worked in football apparently and for a First Division club to boot. When my nan answered the door and was introduced she was quickly informed this man worked for Tottenham Hotspur.
Nan, a matriarchal Islington mother-of-six who held down three jobs during the blitz, just shook her head at her daughter with a disapproving look. Standing there in front of me with her trendy clothes and sixties' hairstyle my aunt was told in no uncertain terms: "He ain’t coming in here. This is an Arsenal house.”
It was harsh and abrupt, but for Nan there was no breaking her family code. Indeed when I recalled the incident to her twenty years later, she laughed and stressed that she had meant it, even if part of the decision was influenced by her dismay at the way youngsters were living their lives in the sixties. I guess she wasn’t used to all the independence and carefree living and didn’t much take to kids challenging authority!
Even as a small kid it was obvious that Arsenal was an important thing in our family. As if it needed ramming home, when my aunt’s boyfriend later offered to take me to White Hart Lane my grandfather strictly forbade it. He used a few choice words according to my dad, but I wasn’t in earshot.
The following Saturday I was dug out of bed at 8am and informed I would be going out that afternoon... to the Arsenal.
It was pouring with rain when we left for Finsbury Park station and I remember wishing when we arrived that I was at home watching Flipper and Stingray. As we walked under the bridge all you got was a whiff of urine. We kept walking through the backstreets until I was bought rock and chips and told to stay put on the doorstep of the Plimsoll Arms.
After that I basically spent every other Saturday there until I was 16. I’d hang with the other kids while Dad and Grandad slaked their thirst. It’s not exactly childcare in the modern sense, but I loved sitting there and just spending time with Dad because he worked all week. As usual at 2.45pm they would appear from the pub and we’d leg it up to Highbury, arrive late and annoy all the guys in our row in the East Upper by forcing them to stand up as we squeezed by.
My grandad bought me my first season ticket in 1967. Unfortunately I don’t have it anymore, nor can I remember how much it cost, but I do recollect him telling me when he put it in my hand: "That’s yours son, look after it. Never give it away, or give it up. And don't give up on them; they represent where we come from, where we live and where your great-granddad worked.”
I renewed that season ticket every year until 2001. After 34 years though I had to give it up. Travelling from Poland (where I now live) to get to home games coupled with a young family eventually made it financially impossible.
That first game I attended was Arsenal vs Burnley on September 17, 1964. We won 3-0, but I remember little of the match. What I do recall though was the imposing art deco entrance to Highbury with its red crest, the steps up to the front door and my dad asking the commissionaire if he could take me in for a peak of the marble halls and the bust of Herbert Chapman.
As a kid brought up in the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney and whose mum often hid from the tally man, the sight was amazing. So much style and finery, the cannon emblazoned on the floor, the marble, the opulent lights and the great old manager proudly standing in the entrance. “This must be how rich people live,” I thought.
There’s also all those other things you remember. The bustling crowd, the shoving in the queue as you try to get in, the food vendors shouting, the programme sellers hard at work, the pushing through the turnstile, the red and white scarves, the noise and the bit where my dad left me for a moment to take in the vivid green of the pitch as the players were standing and waiting for kick-off.
As I said before, I know we won 3-0, but I’ve no idea who scored - every time we did though it sounded as though the roof was going to come off the East Stand. I couldn’t see much, but you still experienced all the joy and the congratulations and cheering. There was also the way the sound reverberated from end to end, the North Bank and Clock End sending songs back and forth. It all just stuck in my head.
I was struck then, as I continue to be today, by the sheer politeness of the Arsenal environment. Whether rich or poor, respect and accord was shown to all. Everybody was united in their common adoration of the club, it was a huge family spanning the classes. This is where Dad and Grandad disappeared to every other Saturday, this is what real men did.
At the end, we happily trooped down St Thomas’ road, Dad nipping in for a cheeky pint in the Supporters’ Club and then another in the Plimsoll, while I was confined to the step again.
I was hooked and went with my father and grandfather to every home game until I was 15, at which point I started standing in the Clock End with mates from school. On my 18th birthday I was finally welcomed into the pub and promptly told to get 'em in. After that I was made to pay for every bloody round!
My most-cherished Arsenal memories come from my early years. I was just 10-years-old when Dad took me to White Hart Lane to see Ray Kennedy head in the goal which won us the league and then to Wembley where local hero Charlie George smashed in to seal the double.
I was at Wembley when Alan Sunderland broke United hearts to win the FA Cup in 1979. But it wasn’t all good. I went with dad to Heysel for the Cup Winners’ Cup Final a year later and watched us lose on penalties with Brady and Rix missing and the Valencia fans going mad while we sat glumly in out seasts.
In 1974 the Great London Council [GLC] moved 3,000 families, including mine, from Islington to Bognor Regis. The area was suddenly awash with Gooners and we used to have to travel to London every week on the train. Obviously we bunked our fares as we did our best to look like Charlie George in big collared shirts, platform shoes, high-waisted flairs, scarves tied around our wrists and with hair down to our shoulders. We’d leg it from Finsbury Park tube up the Blackstock Road to the Golden Fish Bar where the two Chinese twins would serve us fish suppers while making clear no bad language or any other mischief was tolerated!
We also spent every Christmas jumping up and down on the Clock End singing Slade’s “Here it is Merry Christmas,” wearing Santa Hats. It was our place. It was where we celebrated with our family and friends and shared the all-too often experienced bitter taste of defeat. It was also where we drank without needing ID. Pints only cost about 28p back then and a ten pack of cigarettes was only 10p; not bad even if people only earned 15 quid a week.
Football was what we looked forward to all week. The Arsenal was all we had during a bleak decade of strikes, electricity cuts, oil crises, demos, battles with the police and no money. It all came out on the terraces, sometimes fights broke out between fans, sometimes between fans and the Old Bill.
I remember returning home covered in blood following a 5-1 defeat at West Ham after I'd caught a bottle in the head in the aftermath of Charlie Nicholas' consolation for us. I walked out of the ground to the tube, took a kicking, ran home and then hid from my mum knowing she’d ban me from going again if she saw the damage. The next morning my Dad came upstairs and asked what had happened and whether we’d legged it when faced with the Hammers fans. I told him we’d stood our ground, were outnumbered and just took a hiding. He patted me on the back for my bravery. The best thing that happened from that result was the inept Terry Neil getting the sack as manager - despite my black eyes I still found the time to smile at that.
The addiction continued and I found myself 20 years late travelling 48 hours from Warsaw to Trondheim, braving a Norwegian air traffic control strike along the way, just to watch Arsenal draw with Rosenborg in the Champions League. I even caught a punch-up between Patrick Vieira and Lauren on the team bus and stood amazed as David Dein stopped the fisticuffs by announcing, “It’s not our way gentlemen.”
It has been 46 years since my first match and my love for the club is as strong as it always has been. I’ve travelled all over the world since the age of 35 and wherever I have been I’ve managed to find out the Arsenal score somehow. Even when I moved to Poland for three years I flew from Warsaw to Heathrow, jumped on the Piccadilly Line and never missed a home game. I even continued going to away games in the Champions League.
I kept it up like that until my daughter was born. She is now 11, half-Polish, but still a mad little Goonerette with pictures of Thierry Henry, Bobby Pires and Dennis Bergkamp on the wall. She’s built up a pretty good collection of replica shirts which I’ve been forced into buying, but her favourite t-shirt is one I bought from a stall outside Highbury which depicts a fatherly English bulldog holding a little bulldog’s hand alongside the slogan: “Me and my Dad support the Arsenal.”
The baton has well and truly been passed on to the next generation.
“That sums it all up,” as Martin Tyler once said.