The inexplicable hope and anguish of supporting The Arsenal

The line between excruciating disappointment and exquisite pleasure can be very thin. This vaguely philosophical musing may or may not be in the minds of devotees of a wide range of predominantly European football clubs as their respective seasons face the inevitable coup de grace this weekend. 

A discussion about the word “predominant” must wait for another day; even though the question of why, across the globe and especially on the continent of Africa, in a hyperbolic, history-repeating form of neo-colonisation, it should be the case that your average football fan is far more devoted to clubs from European leagues than domestic ones, is such a fascinating one. 

Nonetheless, it must wait. Because we’re at the “business end” of the season as Andy Townsend would no doubt put it. 

And whether it’s front of mind or not, the thin-line point is certainly true. One minute a top four finish is in your hands, the next — if you support The Arsenal — it’s not. Like Liverpool in the case of Manchester City at the apex of the English Premier League, success now depends entirely on another club — Tottenham Hotspur’s in Arsenal’s case — stumbling at the final fence in fixtures where the chance of doing so is statistically very low.

As I approached Les Lions, a modest sports bar in the far east end of Paris, last Thursday night ahead of the most important North London Derby for many a year, John Cleese’s legendary line in the 1986 movie Clockwise came to mind: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

That’s it: it’s the hope that drives us mad. 

Then, as I took a seat on the terrace outside the already-packed bar with an hour to go before kick-off, a second thought: surely one of the measures of whether a club is “big” or not is whether in every major city around the world there is a pub that is well-known to be assigned to the fans of that particular club. 

A moment that united all Gooners regardless of geographical location. Thierry Henry celebrates his goal in front of the Tottenham Hotspur fans during the North London derby on November 16, 2002 played at Highbury in London, England. Arsenal won the match 3-0. (Photo By Ben Radford/Getty Images)

I know from years of globe-trotting that this is the case for The Arsenal. From New York to Singapore, and everywhere in between, I have been able to locate a place where on matchday Arsenal fans will be dominant.

The Highbury, in central Tokyo, is the most extraordinary of all of them that I have visited. Bedecked in Arsenal regalia, with a hard core of around 50  Japanese — not expat —– Arsenal devotees watching the games even though they invariably take place in the middle of the Japanese night. 

And while the toilets of sports bars are never something to write home about, it’s worth going all the way to Tokyo to sit down in the middle of the snug but impeccably kept shrine to the Gunners that also serves as a lavatory in The Highbury. I have photos.

But back to last Thursday evening. There must have been close to 1 000 “Gooners” wedged stoically, and hopefully, into Les Lions by the time the game began. 

Despite its inconvenient location, I had to be there; the high stakes required that one be surrounded by kith and kin. 

As I approached the pub, a confoundingly pale chap named Brian, wearing the unflattering wee-wee coloured yellow away kit, greeted me cheerfully: “Welcome home, mate. How ya feeling?”. Nervous, I replied, with a curmudgeonly tone that I immediately regretted. 

But Brian’s bonhomie was unphased. “Me too, mate. Me too. Been sh***ing bricks all day long”, he replied, before launching into what turned out to be his favourite song about Spurs: “They won the league in black and white, they won the league in black and white, they won the league in black and white”. 

The lyrics, I reflected, may not exactly compete with Stephen Sondheim at his finest but they contain a sharp observation. Spurs last won the highest English league (Division one; now, the Premier League) in 1961, before colour television. 

In a world dominated by fake news and having been brought up knowing that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, this is one factoid that I’ve always found deeply reassuring. Our supposed great rivals have not won the league in my lifetime. And I’m getting pretty old. 

Which, as I nursed my pint of Guinness, prompted a third and final thought. Because as I sat there contemplating what lay ahead, emotion had quietly taken a hold over me with the realisation that this day — 12 May 2022 – was almost exactly 50  years since the day when I became an Arsenal supporter. 

6 May 1972 was FA Cup Final day. Arsenal versus Leeds United. In those days, Cup Final day was huge; the whole country would watch. I was seven years old. My parents, both from the North West of England, quickly decided that they couldn’t possibly support the Yorkshire team from over the Pennines. So the London club it had to be; and even though they lost that day, I formed an attachment to the team in red and white.  

Reluctantly, and with gritted teeth, my opera-loving father then listened to my pleas and took me to Highbury at the start of the next season. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Like a marriage vow: to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death.

I went to hundreds of games, home and away; had a season ticket for several years. And was lucky enough to be there at Anfield in May 1989 when we stole the league from under Liverpool’s nose with the very last kick of the season. 

This is my story. Every football fan has one, underpinning an irrational obsession with the fortunes of the chosen club. 

Yet it goes a tad further. Because as the Parisian spring air cooled last Thursday evening, the meaning of this half century of misguided but stubborn loyalty sunk in. People have come and gone: lovers and partners; parents long departed; five children born, and one tragically lost; many different homes, on various continents; shifting professional interests and ambitions. 

But only one constant in all those 50 years: The Arsenal Football Club. 

It really is so. In a richly diverse mosaic of a life, The Only Constant

I shared my epiphany by text message to Pete Selwyn – a friend of 47 years – with whom I went to most of those first two decades’ of games. But he was at White Hart Lane and too caught up in the atmosphere to respond to my profundity until the next day.

This is the man with the Cambridge degree in modern languages, who conducts opera for a living and who when giving me a lift across North London once insisted on taking a significant detour so that we could visit the old Highbury (now a tastefully innovative housing conversion), even though it was close to midnight on a bitterly cold December night. 

Just because. Just to stand there in the freezing dark and relive some of the highs and lows; to pay homage to its place in our life’s journey.  

But also bonkers. Exhibit A, then, adduced in support of a wider point: that such enduring fidelity to these football clubs defies all reason and rational thinking. 

Exhibit B: Dr Gary Kendall — a physical chemist by training, and one of the smartest thinkers on the complexity of sustainability strategy that I know. Has followed Liverpool all around the world and who often introduces himself with a PowerPoint slide photo in which he is proudly wearing one of many Liverpool shirts, so woven into the fabric of his identity as a human is his passion for his chosen club. Surrounded by science and reason, yet at his core sits this highly unscientific and unreasonable devotion. Perhaps that’s why; that it’s a necessary juxtaposition. 

This is the same man who in a week’s time will travel to Paris for the Champions’ League Final even though he hasn’t got a ticket, but because he just has to be there — just as he was in Istanbul in 2005. 

Those who don’t have such a predilection for the game simply don’t get this. To such people, modern sport — and especially modern football — is the “opium of the masses”, to adapt Marx’s aphorism about religion. 

Which is apt, because for those of us who do, and who happen also to be atheist, this is the nearest we get to religion, injecting both a sense of ritual and a kernel of faith into our lives. 

I came to realise last Thursday that the clubs provide us with constancy in a systemically unstable and uncertain world. Which, given the inherent uncertainty and the dashed hopes that accompany competitive sport, has to be one of the great paradoxes. Fifty years of constant companionship in my case, with many a twist in the storyline. Fifty years. And still Spurs haven’t won the league in all that time. Big club? Nah; you’ve gotta be joking mate. Fack off!

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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