Here’s the third Gooner piece I wrote, for the Gooner Gold feature that had started not long before this appeared in issue 97, back in August 1999. A memorable match for me, if no one else.
I’ve been supporting Arsenal for as long as I can remember, but in my younger days seeing a live game was a rare treat. Although my Dad was a fanatical supporter, we lived 200 miles away from London, so visits to Highbury were few and far between and whenever we did go it was always the middle of winter when it was either freezing, raining or both.
One such occasion was for the visit of that giant among Lancashire clubs, Burnley. The day was grey in every way and a constant misty drizzle descended. Arsenal’s form and the weather combined to produce the lowest home crowd of the season, just 16,459. I don’t think many Burnley fans turned up, but it was so grey I could hardly see the Clock End to find out.
In those days my Dad liked to stand about halfway up the North Bank, to the right of the goal. On this particular afternoon he could have stood pretty much anywhere he liked, the crowd was so sparse. I left him and wandered down to the front to lean on the railings. There was no one else around me, as most of the crowd were sensibly standing further back, sheltering under the roof of the old stand.
For most of the game nothing much seemed to happen. Even in Arsenal’s darkest days Burnley were a worse team than we were. The whole thing was about as entertaining as a display of clog dancing. But that didn’t matter to me at the time: at ten years old the very fact that I was there was enough. Then the one memorable incident – for me – of the game occurred. The ball bounced off a Burnley player, over the dead ball line and ricocheted around the railings before settling into one of the ‘dug-outs’ which the plod used to watch the game from. Except that on this occasion the dug-out was empty as the token police presence were probably keeping themselves dry in the tea bar at the top of the stand.
Eddie Kelly trotted over to retrieve the ball, but clearly didn’t relish clambering down from pitch level onto a slippery wooden bench, particularly as I was there to assist. The railings between me and the ball prevented me from actually picking it up, but I reached through and managed to hook it up into Eddie’s waiting hands. “Thanks, kid” said Eddie. Then he turned and jogged back into the drizzle.
And there you have it. The first time an Arsenal player ever spoke to me, and the one and only time in over 25 years and hundreds of visits to Highbury that I have ever thrown the ball back. I’ve stood and sat in every part of the ground over the years and it’s never come near me again, before or since.
For the record, Arsenal won 1-0 with a John Radford goal. We finished the season 17th and Burnley got relegated. I just went home to tell my mum all about it. The other games I saw in the seventies have largely faded from my mind, but that one, thanks to some slack Burnley play, a crowd that only Wimbledon would be proud of and a couple of words from Eddie Kelly, will live forever.