Friday, February 17, 2017

Being a Gooner!

As a child in Scotland, I loved football or, as we called it, "fitba."  I wasn't any good. I was one of those kids that tended to stand back and watch the other kids run around in a big herd chasing the ball. I never wanted to be near the ball. I have to say that I was very proud of my football boots and would wear them even when I wasn't standing around on the football field.

My next-door neighbour, Iain, was a very good player and was eventually able to make a career as a professional player in Scotland and, briefly, in England, spending one year playing for Crystal Palace in London before getting homesick and coming back to Dundee.  He went on to play for Dundee, Dundee United and Raith Rovers before retiring from the game to become a civil servant at about the time I was starting my career as a lawyer.

Being a football fan was not always a joyful pastime. I have a very vivid memory of a brutal 9-3 drubbing  of Scotland's national team at the hands of the hated English at Wembley.  It was April 15, 1961 and it is easy to find today on Google.  I was not quite 10 years old and it was a year before we were to leave for Canada.  The Scottish goalie reportedly emigrated to Australia in shame!

Between 1961 and a few years ago, I didn't pay much attention to my childhood game.   Every four years I would catch bits and pieces of the World Cup but I didn't pay much attention to club football in Scotland or anywhere else.   Starting in 1977, I became a rabid baseball fan, or to be more precise, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.   My passion for the Jays lasted until their second consecutive World Cup series victory in 1993 but with the collapse of their fortunes after that win I found that I didn't really have the stomach to watch them sink back to mediocrity and then rebuild.

I have watched the NFL off and on, and even in a pinch the CFL. However, no US or Canadian football team has grabbed me and made me a fan.  During the 1960s I loved watching the six team National Hockey League but with expansion my interest in the game waned, only to be revived on occasion by the exploits of great players like Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.   On moving to Ottawa in 1993, I tried very hard to care about the Hockey Senators, but largely failed.

Then about six or seven years ago I discovered that English Premier League games could be watched on satellite television and I started watching the games.  For some reason, watching the Premier League reawoke my passion for the "beautiful game."   I started by taking a pure aesthetic pleasure in the experience. Not caring who won or lost, I was able to appreciate the skill on both sides. I could admire the attacking players of both teams, their defenders and their goalkeepers. I could try to understand the different tactics being employed.

Then something fateful happened. I became a Gooner.  A Gooner is a supporter of Arsenal Football Club, nicknamed "the Gunners."

It started innocently enough.  As I watched the Premier League games, I found myself being attracted to Arsenal's style of play.  They were an artful team, and at their best could produce some of the most beautiful goals.  They had players with skill and verve and speed.  They played the game the right way, almost the way Barcelona played it.

And yet there was the dark side.  On a regular basis, the Arsenal team would inexplicably collapse, seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.  They would excel against a poor team but could collapse disastrously whenever they played one of the top clubs.  Being a Gooner was an emotional roller-coaster.

Soon it feels exactly like being in a dysfunctional relationship in which the momentary highs carry you through the inevitable lows.   There are moments when a brilliant piece of play reminds you of what drew you to the team but these moments are immediately followed by the sinking feeling that all your hopes are about to be dashed.

You feel trapped.  You can't just stop caring.  You can't bear to watch the games but watching becomes an agonizing experience.

This has been a typical Arsenal season in the Premier League.  They have spent some time in first place, but over time they have drifted further and further behind this year's league leader, Chelsea.  Last year, Chelsea had a wretched season but a fresh outlook and a new and dynamic manager has rejuvenated the same squad that looked so awful a year ago.  It is now clear that Arsenal have no chance of winning the league;  none whatsoever.  The odd brilliant performance tends to be followed by a dismal falling short.

This week, the Gunners lost to Bayern Munich 5-1 in the UEFA Champions League.  Clearly, Arsenal as a team is not among the very best teams in Europe.  As a result, Arsenal cannot be regarded as a prime destination for star players looking to change teams.

Arsenal has the highest ticket prices in England and probably the highest in Europe.  The team has all the money needed to buy the best squad.  But the top players don't want to come to Arsenal, because they will not win until something drastic changes.

Arsenal's best player now is Alexis Sanchez, the star of the Chilean national team.  As of today, Chileans are literally taking to the streets to register their dismay at the prospect of Sanchez signing a contract extension with Arsenal because he is basically a one-man team.  They want their star to be on a more complete team, a winning team.

I know exactly how they feel.

Arsenal need a fresh start.  Arsenal need a new manager.  Unfortunately most of the leading candidates are contracted to other teams:  Antonio Conte at Chelsea, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Ronald Koeman at Everton, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.

If Arsenal doesn't do something soon, I will have to start figuring out how to divorce my football team!

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