This is an updated version of an article I originally penned for The Arsenal Collective.
Football has always been a source of conflict in our house. Not because my wife supports another team, she just does not see the fascination. Nor does she understand the tribal culture which is surprising given that her family hail from Barcelona. It’s a strange mix of Catalan pride on their part since they have a long history of supporting Espanyol but anything goes when their noisy neighbours are winning things. And she does not like the antagonism that the mere mention of one of that city’s professional clubs brings out.
And she definitely didn’t appreciate being dragged along to a friendly between Maidenhead United and Arsenal in the summer of 2009. As I explained to her, a rite of passage was taking place; our youngest son would be witnessing an Arsenal match of the first time.
Our oldest son defected to the dark side when Thierry Henry signed for them. Despite having had his photo taken with the first team squad in 2005/06, sitting between Henry and Bergkamp, there was no surprise when he bowed to his grandmother’s pressure and supported Barcelona.
A Faustian pact emerged; she could have the oldest, the youngest was Arsenal’s. It didn’t last though; we had our fingers crossed behind our backs when we made that deal and via a circuitous route, he’s come home this season.
And so to Maidenhead United on a balmy summer’s eve in 2009. Youngsters waited in vain for a close look at their Premier League heroes, oblivious to the fact that they were in Austria for the pre-season training camp. “Is that Arsène Wenger?”, they wondered as a well-dressed gentleman strode purposefully by. Did he hear? Has he lived for the moment with kudos so mistakenly bestowed?
York Road was well-filled, a typical non-league ground with terracing for this rite of passage. It is something that all youngsters should experience at least once in the early stages of their football careers. As for the parents, well, I for one was more than a little misty-eyed as Junior moved to the front, leaning against the advertising hoardings. It was, I am sure, sentimentality but he had the stance, the look of someone who had arrived at the time they were meant to be, the place they had been looking for; his moment in time.
It didn’t matter that this was essentially the Arsenal reserves and youth; it was billed as Maidenhead United v Arsenal XI. It was his first match. My wife turned and observed that there were seats there, we should move. The inference became insistence; I could not accede to such a request, this was a special occasion. Fortunately a neighbour wanted to sit as well, the pair went to discuss the latest playground gossip.
The first half passed, Maidenhead took the lead leaving a six year old boy suffering the initial torments that chasing a game brings. There was the unmistakable banter, the teases, the taunts, delivered in a soprano by his peers, peppered with the staccato machine gun fire of his older sibling’s ill-intentioned bravado about what Barcelona would be doing to the Thames Valley had they been here. Probably wondering what they were doing there is the answer.
Obligingly Arsenal could not let matters rest. An equaliser shortly after half-time settled the banter, within fifteen minutes of that goal two, three and four had turned bragging rights on their head. By the time Chuks Aneke rounded off the scoring with five minutes to go, the ascendency to top dog was assured for the two weeks left before the season proper started.
Seven goals in his first match was, as he put it, the best night of his life. “It’s only Maidenhead” opined his older brother. It meant nothing. It didn’t matter; his club had delivered. It set him up for a lifetime of disappointments but at least he will know that when the highs come, they are worth it.
An indelible mark was left on him, reinforced by a scrapbook put together for him, a permanent memory of my first game. It led to bigger things. His debut at The Emirates has been and gone. Hearing him describe the smells, sights and sounds took me back to my youth. No matter what may be said, there is something unique about the smell of a burger at football. Culinary delight is not something for which the game is noted – nor should it be – but aromas never change, not food nor the stench of an overflowing toilet. A 21st Century rewind to the 1970s.
His first match led to the second, to the number where you lose count. Or stop bothering to count as it becomes a ritual. Little steps, we always tell them, when confronted by something that instils trepidation. Little steps lead to tube station steps to The Emirates steps. And now he can shout, “Stand up if you hate Tottenham“, with the best of them.