One of the questions a bloke gets asked is “who do you support?”. In some cities there is an assumption: “Blues or Villa? Liverpool or Everton? United or City?” As an Arsenal fan born in the North East and never having lived further south than Birmingham I always get the question “Why Arsenal?”If I had been just two year’s older I could maybe have been classified as a glory hunter off the back of the Double season. I suspect I am casting modern values on the time though. TV can create Arsenal fans in Asia these days but when I was learning about sport my reference point was the magnificent Shoot! Magazine and highlights coverage of football either through two matches and occasionally three on Match Of The Day or the local roundup on ITV. Live football was reserved for European nights, cup finals and internationals. This was all within 8 years of the World Cup win by England – heady times. No-one could play football around the world except a small select group of nations (Uruguay, Sweden, France and Hungary had forgotten how) and Ireland and Netherlands seemed like serial under performers given the talent they had.
My exposure to Arsenal through TV was limited and therefore, given my timing, I wasn’t wooed by the mighty Derby of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor either. Leeds United were a different proposition. They were sufficiently local that it was feasible to go and see a game at Elland Road if I had known someone who was a season ticket holder or someone who could go and queue at the ticket office. They were the glory boys and the playground was littered with Leeds kit. The little garter tags with numbers on were a Don Review creation so that the players could throw them to the fans as souvenirs. The yellow, blue and white strip ruined the Real Madrid comparisons but looked modern and stylish. But lots of friends were fans. They’d made their choice and I was beginning to make mine. My first ever live match on TV was the Cup Final in 1972 when Alan Clarke scored the winner for Leeds against Arsenal and it clinched one thing: Leeds would be one of my disliked teams.
The second obvious influence would be the local team. For me there were limited choices. The most local was Middlesbrough at a time they were a Second Division team (later they would have a glorious rise under the tutelage of Jack Charlton). There was a real local affinity with local players and local coverage. John Hickton, David Armstrong, Alan Ramage, and Stewart Boam were local legends. Every now and again a kinky little player would come along touted as the next George Best. Most fade into obscurity but I do remember seeing players like Craig Johnstone and being amazed when he first did the heel flick over his head during warmup. Generally though, Middlesbrough played an agricultural game and local loyalty didn’t work for me. Middlesbrough managed to avoid the Leeds fate but even now I have an interest in how they perform but no emotion over the result.
My real influence was my best friend Des. He was a couple of years older and had far more sporting aptitude. He dragged me into playing a decent standard of most sports by taking every possible spare hour to play them with me on the playing fields near where we lived. Different times…we’d just wander off up the huge playing fields for a kickabout and return when it was tea time. He enjoyed cricket and football above the other sports and talked of the stars of the game. He liked the great West Indian cricketers and this was at least supported by live Test Matches and Sunday League 40 over matches. And he talked about Alan Ball. I bought football annuals and read avidly. Even then I used to love facts and figures. Where Des was interested in the “how to play”, and could, I was supported my lack of ability by being interested in history and rules. I learned about Alan Ball. His father was still managing at Blackpool and he sounded like a fascinating character who brought Alan Jr up to be a consummate professional. As someone who had to work hard and was a ‘busy’ rather than gifted I appreciated that part of the game (and therefore have Kevin Richardson, Freddie Ljungberg and Brian Talbot among my Arsenal legends). Following his father’s drills he would head the ball against a wall until his forehead bled and chip a ball onto a chair repeatedly. I know this through his double page weekly Shoot! spread. As children most of our football was played against a wall due to limited space and time. Wally was the usual playtime treat – the objective was to kick the ball (usually of the tennis variety) against a section of wall; taking turns until someone missed. You’d start with thirty players and dwindle down over a break to the final two trying to get the ball behind dustbins, round corners or in the far distance. Somehow there was a resonance with Alan Ball’s story and we all stood a chance of making it. It really was everyone’s dream that they could be a professional footballer. I thought I had the makings of an Arsenal right back or centre half until secondary school. Alan Ball won the World Cup with England and earned a reputation as a tireless midfielder with a combination of skill and grit. He was made for the rise of colour TV with his red hair but sadly didn’t have the voice for it. He moved from Blackpool to Everton and won the league with them and was then transferred to Arsenal for a record transfer fee. From then on Arsenal was my club. There would be second and third teams and other dislikes. I have soft spots for Hartlepool United, Derby County, Celtic, Barcelona (who doesn’t?), Birmingham City, and Crystal Palace and delight in failure for Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham, Scotland and Chelsea. But Arsenal is the team I strive to find out the score for no matter where I am.
The mid-70s were transformative times for Arsenal – a team of talents but never quite gelling. At a time when Manchester United impossibly got relegated they had some iffy seasons themselves. Players like Brian Kidd, Alan Hudson, and Malcolm MacDonald came and went. Like the 1966 England team, the Double winning side overstayed its welcome and took a downturn before finally a new team started to emerge. Sadly in England’s case the reemergence is yet to come. Arsenal’s revival appeared to be off the back of an excellent scouting system in Ireland. They had Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson historically but Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, and David O’Leary now came into the side. In the First Division at this time there were very few foreign players but lots of Irish, Scottish and Welsh sprinkled across every team. There was also very little god-given right to a place at the top table. Most teams were relegated at some stage and both Bristol teams, both Sheffield teams, Oxford and Cambridge achieved promotion (I just missed Carlisle United). The Home Internationals provided an end of season diversion. They were pretty competitive and the Scots enjoyed them more than most. I remember some excellent live matches with Leeds losing to Bayern Munich in the European cup final, Alan Ball captaining England and then oddly losing the captaincy to Gerry Francis as England trounced Scotland 5-1.
Arsenal’s revival was through the FA Cup. They won one and lost two in consecutive years in the late 1970s. A thrilling win in 1978 against Manchester United when Alan Sunderland recovered a rapidly declining position in the last minute was bookended by defeats against Ipswich and West Ham. Energy was back in the tank for Arsenal fans but further success would have to wait.
The foreign players began arriving. Ipswich brought in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thyssen. Spurs had Ricky Villa and Osvaldo Ardiles. The game was changing forever but the dark stain of football hooliganism still ruined English football.
I used to go to see Arsenal whenever they came to Ayresome Park but I always had to go in the seated area. We would go to the player’s entrance to see the coach arrive and then watch the game from the safest area of the ground. The atmosphere on the streets of Middlesbrough could be nasty. Police horses helped guide the shouting visiting fans through the streets but there were always running scuffles. In the ground there were darts and bottles thrown. There was horrible racist chanting at any black players and foul-mouthed chants of threatened violence rather than support. Then, with the Heysel Stadium disaster, the plug was pulled on English football. The miracle that saw a succession of English teams winning the European Cup – Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa – was snuffed out as the ban began.
And for me that was a turning point. I can remember the winners and goals of most cup finals and league championships to that point but it then goes into a haze of years and dates during which the safe answer to most football questions is either Liverpool or Manchester United. It’s the same with music – from then on the number ones lose their sequence or connection to my life. I was deep in my teenage years with exams and relationships.
Of course Arsenal had unprecedented success after that with George Graham and Arsene Wenger but I do miss the variety of those days. A single player – Tony Curry, Liam Brady, Glenn Hoddle – could sell tickets and keep fans happy. A manager – Jack Charlton, Brian Clough, Kevin Keegan – could transform a club and a town. There were dominant clubs but they achieved it through a boot room rather than a bank account.
And Alan Ball is now sadly dead. He played in a glittering Southampton team of fading talents – Peter Osgood, Kevin Keegan, and Mick Channon – before becoming a manager with mixed success at Portsmouth and Manchester City. Then, given the choice of all footballers of his time, he chose the racehorses over the pub trade.