In this strange paradoxical little island of ours, it is a curious fact that you can make a pretty educated guess at an Irishman’s age by the English soccer team that he supports.
For instance, there exists a thriving community of fifty-something Irish Leeds United fans, for the simple reason that they were at an impressionable age around the time when Don Revie’s infamous team were kicking and biting their way to FA Cups and Division One titles in the late sixties and early seventies.
The great Liverpool team, later in that decade, ensured that there’s a glut of YNWA merchants on this side of the pond squeezing their middle-aged guts into Standard Chartered jerseys and telling us that Jurgen Klopp is the second coming of Bill Shankly.
I’m an Arsenal fan, for my sins. So I could feasibly come from a number of different eras but suffice to say that I didn’t discover the Gunners during Arsene Wenger’s reign; or George Graham’s. Yes, it is a difficult admission of my advancing years to say that it was Bertie Mee’s double-winning side of 1970-71 that got me happily hooked on my Highbury heroes.
The image of a long-haired Charlie George lying prone on the Wembley turf in his supercool yellow second strip having thumped in the winner, was on that day forever etched on my young mind. Oh the glorious crazy magic of it all.
My love (yes, I think I can call it love) for the north London club was firmly cemented a number of years later when three young Dubliners made the boat trip to Holyhead on their way to becoming vital cogs in the Arsenal machine. David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton and of course the prince of them all, Liam ‘Chippy’ Brady, dominated the walls of my bedroom and vindicated beyond doubt the choice that I had made for a team to ‘follow’.
Needless to say, the love of a football team is a far more serious commitment than any relationship you will ever have in your life. Above all, it is unconditional. Serial disappointments, or even continuous relegation, are certainly no reasons to jump ship.
In those days, Match of The Day with Jimmy Hill was an all too rare treat (as it clashed with Gaybo, me Ma’s true love) but a trip to my posh cousin’s house in Sutton on a Sunday afternoon was the undoubted highlight of my week. They had Granada on their TV and The Big Match with Brian Moore; a sort of a flashy MOTD with a better chance of seeing Arsenal strut their stuff because the station evidently couldn’t afford to send their cameras outside London.
My kind Auntie Barbara would let me sit with my roast chicken dinner in front of their massive (i.e. not portable) telly while I lost myself in the exotic world of ‘cross-channel’ soccer. The Big Match had all the extravagant players; big city wide boys with shiny teeth and outrageous skills. Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Frank Worthington looked liked they’d just arrived from an all-night Soho casino to try a few flicks and score the odd hat-trick, before soaking in the gold-lined team bath exchanging banter and sipping bubbly with the lads.
Even the managers had more bling than the average New York rapper; Big Mal Allison and even Bigger Ron Atkinson puffing on Cuban cigars as ‘their boys did the business on the park’. It was showbiz. It was heaven, It was rock ‘n’ roll.
The irony is that, compared to today, the players were paupers. They were street footballers made good for a few years, a hundred pound bonus here and there to tide them over until Chopper Harris or Norman Hunter finished their career with a crunching tackle on a muddy pitch in a fifth round cup tie in February. But for those few years, they were our heroes. I lived for Sunday afternoons; for that precious hour of highlights and goals.
Today its wall-to-wall football and I can’t spend more than a few minutes looking at it. Watching diamond encrusted multi millionaire pretty boys on £200k-a-week prance and dive around on a giant snooker table is not my idea of fun. The Big Match is long gone and even Match of the Day is unwatchable, unless you want to see who has the nicest shirt this week… Gary or Alan?
Perhaps if I was at the age now that I saw Charlie George sprawling on the hallowed grass, I could invest more of my precious time watching soccer and my heroes would be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or whoever they put on the front of the latest computer game.
These days I’m limited to biting my nails through Ireland games and keeping one eye out for those glorious Gooners.
Because true love never dies, right?
Paul Hennessey, Pundit Arena