A guest post today from @TheSquidBoyLike
I have a confession to make. I was originally a Liverpool fan. Well, the label of “fan” might be too much – my dad loosely followed them, so when the 1992 FA Cup final came about I copied him in cheering the Scouse Reds onto victory.
Thankfully I was a mere impressionable six-year old at the time. When you’re that age, you look up to those around you. And my eight-year old cousin Neil was the epitome of cool. More importantly he was a Gooner. Even though I was only young, I knew imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. I had no qualms in adopting Arsenal as my team to get in his good books.
Since then, my love for the club has blossomed far beyond Neil’s. He still supports them but they aren’t a priority. On the contrary, being an Arsenal supporter defines me.
During my early days as a Gooner, football wasn’t anywhere near as popular or widespread as it is now. Being so young (and with a dad who had yet to fully convert to the red’n’white), going to matches wasn’t going to happen. Sky hadn’t gone stratospheric either, so watching live games on the telly was a novelty I didn’t have. Instead I was limited to Match of the Day on Saturday nights. And inevitably, the recurring highlight of the show was a slender Arsenal victory with Ian Wright grabbing the all-important goal.
I can’t specify my favourite goals or moments of the great man from that era, largely because I don’t remember many. My recollections of Arsenal in the early-to-mid ’90s are very hazy indeed. But I do have some treasured memories.
I remember cheering Arsenal on in the 1993 FA Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday, having already vanquished the same opponents a few months earlier to win the League Cup. We stood on the brink of history as the first club to ever win the Cup Double. Wrighty opened the scoring but they equalised, sending the game to a replay whereby we had an encore of Wrighty breaking the deadlock before an Owls equaliser. As the game ticked into extra-time, I physically couldn’t take it anymore and literally reached Fever Pitch. I burnt up with a temperature of 104F and my mum sent me straight to bed, despite my protests. Yet the following morning I awoke to the sweet news that Andy Linighan had scored a winner in the last-minute. Exactly a year after Liverpool beat Sunderland 2-0 at Wembley to win the Cup, my conversion to Arsenal was complete.
We reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final the following season against a favoured Parma outfit. Shorn of the suspended Wrighty, I didn’t have much faith that we could overcome the likes of Brolin, Asprilla and Zola. But I was wrong as we held onto Alan Smith’s volley to seal a famous victory. I remember Ian Wright in his suit cavorting on the pitch afterwards. In hindsight that was an important moment for me; even though my hero wasn’t playing, I still felt the same passion and love for the team.
It was mixed emotions in the same competition a year later. The happiness came from Wrighty scoring in every round leading up to the final. An incredible achievement – surely he would put the icing on the cake by scoring in the final against an unfancied Zaragoza side? Not only would this be his own bit of history, but it would also help Arsenal become the first to successfully defend the CWC. That night I suffered my first footballing heartbreak as Nayim fluked a win for the Spaniards from the halfway line. As disappointed as I was that Wrighty couldn’t grab a goal to complete the set, I was more crestfallen that the team had been cruelly denied.
With Euro ’96 on the horizon, I remember taking a greater interest in the fortunes of the national team. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Wrighty was out of favour: how could someone who scored four goals in one game past the mighty San Marino not be an automatic starter? It’s fair to say that his international career never reached the heights it could have – he never made it to a tournament, for various reasons – but I always beamed with pride when he wore the Three Lions because the entire country could share in the joy I had when watching him play.
I have two favourite personal memories of Wrighty. The first was when I went to an open day to check out my prospective high school. This is the school I really wanted to go to; any sane kid would have a proper nosy round to get used to the surroundings. But I had more pressing issues. The previous weekend I’d gone to the club shop in Finsbury Park to get my shirt and shorts printed with Wrighty’s name and number. To my horror, during the week I realised that the number 8 on the shorts had been printed upside-down! My OCD self couldn’t handle this, so a first visit to my eventual high school was cut short as I dragged my parents from Elstree to Finsbury Park to right the wrongs and get it reprinted.
My other favourite memory again involves my time at school. In art class we were asked to make a sculpture of anything we wanted. I decided to make a 3D one of Wrighty’s famous number 8…with a difference. The top “hole” of the 8 was in the shape of Wrighty’s gold tooth (with added sparkle effect), whilst the bottom “hole” was a tick to symbolise his association with Nike. It would of course be coloured in red’n’white. To this day, 8 remains my favourite number.
Back to the man himself. He may have been under-appreciated in the white of England but never in the red of Arsenal. His crowning glories came in his final season at Highbury as he broke Cliff Bastin’s goalscoring record and finally won a championship. Although his influence on the team had dwindled due to age and injury, it was a fitting farewell to the greatest natural goalscorer the club has ever seen.
Even though his exit was rumoured for a while, I wasn’t sure how I’d react when it came to pass. There was bound to be sadness, but would there also be resentment towards the Club for getting rid of my hero? Would I feel different towards Arsenal sans Wrighty? Predictably, the answer was no. My love for the club remained as great as ever, in no small part due to the man himself.
Since his departure, it’s fair to say Wrighty’s relationship with Arsenal and its supporters has been chequered. Amidst claims that he still loves the club come criticisms of the way we conduct our business and the fear that we are being left behind by financially-doped rivals. Gooners of a more sensitive nature claim he is no longer one of us because he is sometimes less than complimentary. I respectfully disagree. He may be misinformed and ineloquent in the way he makes his point, but you cannot question his passion for us. And he doesn’t say it to spite the club, he says it because – like any true fan – he loves the club and wants us to do well.
I’ve heard many say that his more recent proclamations and conduct devalue his legendary status. To which I again respectfully disagree. It isn’t confined to him either, for some no longer regard Patrick Vieira – the captain of our greatest ever team – to be a legend simply because he is doing his job and helping another team. In my eyes, if you become a legend due to your on-pitch achievements then it is very difficult for that to ever be retracted. Actions will always speak louder than words.
The issue of legends and heroes is especially pertinent in this day and age. Over the past twelve-months, we’ve seen two heroes in Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie depart before they attained legendary status. We were also blessed with the return of King Henry. Many people have scribed how fans should no longer put their faith in players and deify them, because they’re likely to get hurt. While this notion is fine and dandy for mature fans who are more cynical, I’d hope younger, more innocent fans ignore it and continued to marvel in their favourite players. Why? Because if I had taken that sage advice, I’ll never know whether I’d love the Club as much as I do right now. My advice to the new generation of Arsenal supporters: don’t be afraid to get emotionally invested in the Wilsheres and Walcotts. They may end up betraying you, but loving them will nurture and solidify your affinity with the Club for years to come.
My cousin may have led me to Arsenal, but Ian Wright ensured I’d be a Gooner forever. You could even say that he saved my life.
Don’t forget to come back on Friday for a chance to win a signed Ian Wright poster and football courtesy of wehustle.co.uk.