An accidental ‘football mom’
I brought my Arsenal-supporting son to see his team take on Villa. It all started so well
‘Spend some f***ing money. Spend some f***ing money.”
North, south, east and west of us, the crowd were chanting. They were expressing their disenchantment, and angrily (though not intemperately) venting their feelings of despair.
For someone who purports not to like football, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time watching it, driving to and from it, being rained on next to it, listening to it being talked about (and wept about) on the way home in a foggy car, or banging my head off the draining board and trying to shove Brillo Pads in my ears so I don’t have to listen to another impassioned debate about the transfer window.
Years now, years and years and years of football. Years of mud and studs. Worse, years of people who don’t have to get out of bed at 8am on a wet Sunday in November to drive to a sodden, barren, mind-numbingly bleak field in the middle of nowhere, calling you a “football mom”. I’m not a bloody “football mom”; I’m a parent and 11-year-olds can’t drive.
Having said that, I’d never been to a really big football stadium: never witnessed a Premier League fixture in the raw. I’ve taped endless images of overpaid blokes with decorative hair to bedroom walls, but I’d never seen the gods at play. So . . .
We went to the Emirates Stadium, my eldest son and I, to watch his team, Arsenal, take on Aston Villa. Our seats were high above the pitch, in the Clock End. On either side of us, red-backed seats undulated like a great wave around the ground. Below us, on to a verdant carpet, doll-sized gladiators ran out of the tunnel, and 60,000 voices roared their approval. And I thought I was going to cry. Me?
It was overwhelming, the collective emotion, the passion. It was football.
Earlier, on the way to the ground, in a fit of enthusiasm for the project, and thinking it might be a long time until we were back in civilisation, I bought my son a sandwich on foccacia bread in an Islington cafe with a carefully distressed wall. I had haricot-bean soup, served by a skinny young waiter with a ponytail and arty tattoos who looked like he’d shatter if a ball hit him. Not a supporter in sight.
“Where’s everyone else?” I asked my son, suspecting that I hadn’t quite got the hang of match-day fare.
“Having a pie and pint down the road,” he said, through a mouthful of walnuts.
The game started and when all the shorts were still pristine, and hope fresh, Arsenal scored! We, the thousands, roared; we were on our feet, our blood was fizzing.
I had thought English football would be rougher, more feral. I had thought it would be like a Bay City Rollers concert circa 1972; all stripy scarves and bovver boots, and boys with bad haircuts chucking cans on the pitch. But we sat among groups of men with tasselled loafers and girls with manicures, and bonny youths with nothing more malicious in their minds than defeating the opposition.
By the end of the first half Villa had equalised. I reminded myself that half-time isn’t called “the interval” and that when the dollies ran back out, play would change ends. I desperately didn’t want to embarrass myself by jumping out of my seat and cheering if Villa scored.
It was a premonition. Villa did score, and scored again. An Arsenal player was sent off. To my left Arsène Wenger stood on the painted white line, tense, still.
The dolls were dropping to the ground. Every few minutes another one would collapse – a puppet with shorn strings – and medics would run on and off with empty stretchers. The referee was still standing, despite the invective: presumably he closed down all his chakras in the dressing room.
And then the chant started. “Spend some f***ing money. Spend some f***ing money.” It was as riotous as these reasonable fans had got. This repeated message to their beady, cerebral manager to loosen the purse strings and buy someone who could put the ball in the back of the net.
Below us the Villa fans, in their own micro-climate, took off their shirts and waved them in the air. The Arsenal crowd sagged, heads dipped into palms. People began to leave: the magnificent stadium began to empty.
We walked in a long ribbon of disappointment through Islington. “Are you gutted?” I asked my son, because I know the vocabulary. His answer was lost in the throng of disheartened fans gliding down Upper Street, past the chichi boutiques, piquant antique shops and delicate restaurants, where everything, except a world-class striker, is available at a price.