Thursday, 26 April 2012


As an Arsenal fan of nearly 30 years, it is quite hard to put into words just how inept the early to mid-80s team could be. On their day they were a match for anyone, as this 3-1 destruction of Liverpool in September 84 emphasises. But when the mood took them, they were often capable of displaying levels of mediocrity that simply drove Arsenal fans insane.

As Nick Hornby concluded in Fever Pitch: "That Arsenal team – full of cliques and overpaid, over-the-hill stars – would never be bad enough to go down, but never good enough to win anything, and the stasis made you want to scream with frustration." Precisely.

So when I agreed to follow in my Dad's footsteps and support the mighty Gunners in 1983 you would have thought I needed my head examined. Rather cleverly, the old man failed to show me a league table, or any recent (post-Brady) results, so I was blissfully unaware of any potential issues with following my Dad's lead.

Since that day I have been eternally grateful that my Dad showed me the light, although as an 8-year-old boy I was already beginning to regret my decision ever so slightly. Going to school/football training would often be taxing, with the masses of Liverpool, Man Utd and Tottenham fans hurling abuse at me on regular occasions. When even Watford fans are laughing at you, then as a child you start wondering if it is all worth it.

There were the occasional moments of hope: beating Tottenham 4-2 away in the league on Boxing Day 83; Tony Woodcock's five-goal salvo away at Villa in October 83; beating Tottenham 2-1 away in the League Cup in November 83. But the latter victory merely served to highlight our inconsistency.

Having beaten our fiercest rivals away from home in an intense cup tie, we then proceeded to lose 2-1 at home to Third Division Walsall in the next round. From high to low in the space of 20 days. Terry Neill departed shortly afterwards but with Don Howe replacing him, it seemed very much a case of same-old-same-old.

If I had hoped that an FA Cup run in 1984 would provide some light relief then I was greatly disappointed. A 3-2 defeat at Second Division Middlesbrough was a hammer blow to my already fragile esteem. To make matters worse I'd had to endure a trip to the local panto to watch Mother Goose, and on returning my mood was not improved when my Mum replied negatively to my "Did Arsenal win?" question. I was fast coming to the conclusion that this team were going nowhere fast, not a bad assessment for someone so young.

Of course, being Arsenal in this period, we did get some rare glimpses of what might be possible. For the first 12 games of the 84-85 season, we were flying, winning 8 of these games and topping the table at the end of October. It couldn't last of course and within a few weeks we were back to our annoying best, even managing to throw in a League Cup defeat to Second Division Oxford (I'm getting sick of these divisional prefixes). Come January my hopes for an FA Cup run were minimal to say the least.

We did get past the third round this time, although this wasn't as easy as it should have been. A 1-1 draw at Fourth Division Hereford (there I go again) was almost disastrous, Hereford's Ollie Kearns contriving to miss a guilt-edged chance late on, and the giant killing was averted at Highbury in a 7-2 thrashing. We were only delaying the inevitable however.

Bootham Crescent, York, Saturday January 26, 1985. A sentence as chilling as the day itself. An ice and snow covered pitch up north was a recipe for disaster for our "song-and-dance brigade", and as I listened to the game on Radio 2 it was a gut-wrenching experience. As the goalless game drifted on I stupidly allowed myself to think that we had avoided the ignominy of defeat, and contemplated that school on Monday wouldn't be half as bad as I had expected.

I even considered whether we could better the 7-2 Hereford score in the replay, and pondered who we might get in a favourable fifth round draw. I should have known better, as Jim Diamond had noted a few months earlier. All of a sudden I could hear a raised voice on the radio and the enormity of the event hit me: York had been awarded a last minute penalty.

Fancy this Arsenal?

When an incident such as York happens to you in sport it is hard to describe just what emotions you go through, but I will try and have a go: shock, anxiety, disbelief, panic, hope (that they might miss), anxiety again, despair, anger and resignation. As soon as Keith Houchen scored that penalty, all I could think of was Monday morning at school, grinning faces, mental torture, and the sheer embarrassment of it all. And I wanted to run away, never go to school again, quickly wishing that my Dad had not introduced me to such a stupid game and abysmal team. Of course Arsenal might equalise, but deep down, even then, you know that they won't, and the final whistle goes and you're in state of sheer panic at the prospect of ever meeting anyone vaguely interested in football again.

I'm sure I tried to invent a mystery illness to avoid the "banter" at school. My parents probably knew what I was up to though, and sure enough I made it to the school gates, my fear growing with every step. On entering the playground they were all there of course, pointing and sniggering, thankfully unable to think of any witty songs that might lead to my stiff bottom lip quivering with the shame of it all. But as soon as the jibes had begun we all moved on, and it was hardly mentioned for the rest of the day. My concerns had been slightly exaggerated, somehow the inner turmoil I was suffering had allowed me to think that my life would never be the same again. Even so, I'm still not sure I've ever fully got over York.

In time Steve Williams would become one of my favourite Arsenal players, but at the time I wasn't sure I could ever forgive him. Of course time moves on and the fickleness of us fans means our memories can sometimes be short and we forgive and forget a little. Anyone who saw me celebrating Coventry's second equaliser in the 1987 FA Cup final would certainly vouch for that.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha ha, Manchester City fans loved that Coventry 87 win as well... we all loved David Bennett, and were mystified why John Bond did not, and there had been needle with Spurs since the 81 Cup Final, plus the fact that they *always* seemed to LET UNITED WIN!!

    We only truly felt we'd got our own back with the famous Balotelli game last year... I finally feel more relaxed about Spurs now, lol.