A great part of the fan experience I have is the dialogue with other fans. The debates between rivals, if done cordially, is really enjoyable. With things the way they are, there are no performances, games or formations to debate or analyse that really feel of any worth. At the very least, there is not anything that can compare to the topical nature of week-to-week football discourse. In lieu of all that, I’m choosing to look back at the reasons that I’m a football fan. I realise a lot of people will not be interested, and say this is just a form of egotistical, rambling catharsis. To them I say – you’re right, but indulge me a bit. I hope this helps fill a void left in football’s absence.
9th January 2012. Arsenal were in peak ‘Banter Era’, reflected by the squad available to Wenger (remember him?) for this FA Cup 3rd round tie.
A centre back partnership of Miquel and Squillaci, Francis Coquelin at left back, and the prospect of Chamakh and Arshavin dovetailing in attack – it wasn’t exactly what you would call ‘good’. It’d be ok though, right? Surely the bench has the high-profile starters on it … *checks notes* … ah … I see … So should that elite line-up not cut the muster against an also injury-hit Leeds side, the likes of Ryo Miyaichi, Nico Yennaris, and Chu-Young Park would be needed. This remember was the 8-2 season, the season that saw Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri depart, and the Gunners were fresh from a late defeat to QPR. You really know your form is not good when Bobby Zamora is scoring injury-time winners against you; the man looks like an anaemic baked bean.
Remarkable then that a game as unappetising as a school lunch lamb stew, and with the star power of an episode of Icelandic Big Brother remains one of my favourite matches ever. It is down to one man – Thierry Henry. Recently returning on loan from New York Red Bulls (yes, it had gotten THAT bad), he was expected to be nothing more than a benchwarmer. Yet it meant so much more than that. For me, it was the opportunity to vividly re-live my earliest icon. The symbolism of what he represents to Arsenal is so strong, that he had only recently been honoured with a statue. It is not very often a player is able to set foot on a pitch in a stadium with a bronze icon deifying him just a stone’s throw away. But that is the legend of Henry; ‘Return of the King’ was the easy headline trotted around by every media outlet you could find.
In-keeping with his reverent attitude towards Wenger, he was outwardly trying to quell a fan atmosphere that had begun to become toxic. This season was the real beginnings, in my opinion, of the fan divide. Like a puppy bought to save a failing relationship, Thierry was there, batting his eyelids and reminding fans of a more joyful time. In the game itself, his energetic touchline warm-ups were the eager tail wagging of a young pup that stood in such contrast to his faithful Labrador exterior. He would have been voted Man of the Match without even stepping on the pitch, and his every act was greeted with stadium-wide chants and applause.
So, when he finally did come on, the stadium was electric (or at least as electric as the Emirates can be …). If every fan was honest, they’d admit he looked pretty bad. Being strictly objective, he was a little ‘rotund’, slow, and his touch was closer to the hoover than the player. Those first 10 minutes were not vintage. Then it happened.
“Henry… Chance, GOAL!”
“He may be cast in bronze, but he is still capable of producing golden moments”
I can promise you I haven’t looked that commentary up. That 68th minute goal is etched in my memory. A beautiful lofted ball from Alex Song, gracefully brought down by Henry, and finished like, well, like Henry. It was such an ‘Henry finish’ that the exact type of low, curling, finessed effort into the bottom corner has almost become synonymise with the man. He raced off down the touchline, arms and mouth as wide as can be, before making his way in a frenzy of joy to Arsene Wenger. The man he still refers to as ‘the Boss’; his footballing father. The embrace was so emotional and real that, and this will sound stupid(-er than everything else you’ve already read), but it felt like I was a part of that hug. Exiting the arms of his footballing father, he had tears in his eyes. He began thumping his chest, thumping the badge, and pointing defiantly at the turf. This was his club; this was his home. The fact that with 12 minutes on the clock, he scored his 12th goal in 12 games against Leeds, wearing the number 12 in 2012 is almost too much. If it were a script, the editor would’ve cut it for being too cliché. Somehow though it was perfect. For a brief moment, Arsenal fans could escape the turmoil their club was in.
At the end of the day, that’s what football is for a lot of us – an escape. I love analysing games, tactics and players, but a core part of why I fell in love with football is the pure, unabashed escapism these moments give us. In a time without football, it is what I’m falling back to. I spent 12 minutes watching YouTube highlights of Adel Taraabt at QPR the other day. I’ve watched FOUR separate tackle montages of Bacary Sagna. I even re-watched Arsenal’s FA Cup final victory over Hull. All, for different reasons, bring me an element of escapism, joy, or leave me a little bit gobsmacked. If you’re finding yourself missing football, I really recommend finding these moments throughout your own footballing love story and reliving them. It gave me some respite in what is increasingly feeling like an all-consuming smog of bad news. Anyway, I’ve done enough rambling now. Stay safe, stay at home, and stay positive. When the light at the end of the tunnel seems hard to find, remember – we always have compilation videos of Ricardo Quaresma.