Thursday, 24 January 2013

Why I'm praying for Arsenal to lose for the first time in my life - The Independent (blog)

brighton fan 300x225 Why Im praying for Arsenal to lose for the first time in my life

A young Brighton fan will be hoping his side can stun Arsenal in the FA Cup this weekend

This Saturday afternoon, for the first time in my life, I'll be hoping, begging, praying for Arsenal to lose. It's going to feel rather strange.

Arsenal, after all, are "my" team. Or at least they used to be.

I grew up on the North Bank at Highbury – not literally, you understand, that would've been impractical – and watched my first game of football there as a podgy, speccy 11-year-old, accompanied by my uncle. Arsenal beat Derby County 2-0 that day. Charlie George scored both goals, one from the penalty spot. And the Metropolitan Police Band, marching around the pitch at half-time, performed a pop parade selection (that's how it's described in the old matchday programme that's in front of me now, I should stress; I don't speak like that in real life) which included the theme from Love Story (vocalist: Const. Alex Morgan) and a selection from The Sound Of Music.

For the next goodness knows how many years, I became a Highbury regular. Not week-in, week-out, that wasn't an option, but enough to fall in love with the place, the team, the curious Highbury traditions, even the frequently derided Arsenal style of football.

This love for the club lasted me through school, university and well beyond, surviving countless changes of management and personnel. When Michael Thomas burst through to score that dramatic last-gasp title-clincher at Anfield in 1989, ending an 18-year barren spell, I sank to my knees on our living room floor (oh, yes, like Colin Firth's similarly obsessive character in the film version of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, I didn't actually attend the match in person) and ecstatically hammered away on the carpet with my fists, to Julie's understandable alarm.

This was it: my passion for the Arsenal embodied in one moment of frenzied joy.

A passion which, after all those years of frustration, was finally being rewarded. A passion that I knew right then would never, ever die.

And then it did.

Well, all right, maybe it didn't "die" exactly – that's a bit melodramatic – but from that moment onwards it began to fizzle out.

The usual obvious factors played their part: marriage, fatherhood, work commitments, relocation, blah blah. Plus, of course, Sky was about to change the way we consumed football for ever (beforehand, of course, the very idea of "consuming" it would have felt not so much distasteful as just plain absurd).

Whichever excuse I may favour now, the fact is I fell out of love with football in general. I'd still watch matches on TV, still cheer for Arsenal if they were the ones who happened to be on, but my heart wasn't really in it. I really wasn't that fussed either way.

But how, you may be wondering, does that bring me to the point I'm at now, in January 2013? Why am I actually praying for Arsene Wenger's side to lose this Saturday's FA Cup tie at Brighton?

Because, quite simply, Brighton and Hove Albion is the club that's helped me fall back in love with the game.

I appreciate that this goes against everything the traditional football fan believes in, but I switched allegiance to the Albion 12 years ago – realising even then that it would be frowned upon by some, but longing for something new to get excited about – and suddenly everything changed.

Since then, the Albion has come to mean more to me than the Arsenal ever did. Believe me, that's saying a lot.

It's given me a football club I've been able to feel a genuine human connection with, particularly through the ramshackle Withdean Stadium years, when we were campaigning for the fabulous, gleaming new ground, the Amex, of which we're now so proud – all that petition-gathering, all that bucket-rattling, all that marching and banner-waving, all that good-natured but persistent pestering of John Prescott (whose governmental role gave him a big initial say in the decision to build our new home). I've made true friends at Brighton who've become part of my life, and not just in a football context.

Obviously, I'll never have the credentials of the lifelong die-hard Brighton supporter, and I wouldn't dare pretend to. But then with current crowds at Brighton a good 17,000 higher on an average match day than they were only a couple of years ago, that's a failing I guess most home fans could now be accused of.

Since our move to the Amex, my personal ties with the club have admittedly loosened a bit. In 2002 I wrote a book, Gullhanger (you can still download it for the Kindle and iPad, and for peanuts, should you happen to be interested), about my guilt-wracked first season as a Brighton fan. I then went through various spells of Albion-themed podcasting, column-writing and spectacularly inept post-match phone-in punditry. Now I just go to the match, revert for 90 minutes to the fantastically puerile oaf that football manages to turn me into (and which I've learnt to embrace) and then trundle merrily off home.

And 'merrily' is usually the word. Our manager, Gus Poyet, has turned this team, which was facing the threat of relegation to League Two when he arrived in 2009, into Championship play-off contenders at the very least. We've made a habit of beating top-flight sides, the most recent example being Newcastle United (for the second season on the trot) in the previous round of this very competition. We are, as the fans frequently sing, jolly brilliant. Although they don't sing 'jolly'.

Off the field, meanwhile, the club is barely recognisable from the Brighton and Hove Albion that first became a part of my life in 2001. It's professional and slick from top to bottom. It's ambitious on a scale that would have once seemed laughable. It doesn't always get everything right – show me a football club that does – but it's quick to knowledge its failings and to fix them.

I'm prouder than ever to call myself an Albion fan.

Brighton and Hove Albion FC may have lost some of its grass-roots qualities, but it desperately needed to. To make any kind of serious progress – which surely is the the whole point of the exercise – there was only so long it could trade on being cute and endearing.

So, yes, bring on the Arsenal. I can't wait. I'll always have a soft spot for  my old club, and on any other day I'd be happily cheering them on, but this is an Albion fixture for which I've waited so long. There's no divided loyalty here. There are no mixed feelings.

Of course, stopping to think about it, I shouldn't actually be wanting Arsenal to lose to the Albion, should I? Not this Saturday. My dream result should be a draw, taking us to a replay at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.

I'm told it's quite impressive.

* Gullhanger, by Mike Ward, is available for the Kindle, price 77p, at

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