Saturday, 11 March 2023

I Chant And We Cheer

I know the more sophisticated of my readers may be disappointed to hear this, but I have been to the football and I have been chanting, but not like a nun. I understand that some imagine me as a well-behaved lady poet, sitting behind my typewriter and waiting for poems to come to the rescue, but after the events of last weekend, I feel compelled to reveal the darker side to my character. 

What happened was this. My brother, the middle one, the one who has Arsenal written through him like ... well, a stick of rock, organised for me to go with my sons to Arsenal vs Bournemouth on Saturday 4th March, 2023, kick off 3pm. It's worth being precise about the date  and time because history was made. I've supported Arsenal since I was a kid growing up in Highbury, but that support has come to life again recently, as my eldest son has become as keen a fan as his uncle. 

The goal Bournemouth scored in the first few seconds of the game felt like a kick in the stomach. The familiar feelings of resigned defeat, learned on the netball courts in 1976, washed over me. "It's only a game," I lied to myself. I felt tense. Responsible. As if me being there was bad luck for this game that Arsenal, top of the league, should win easily. I remembered this feeling of old. I wanted something different, something for my boys to remember. 

The crowd was silenced by the shock of the early goal for a few beats, and then the chanting began. Ars-e-nal, Ars-e-nal, Ars-e-nal. I joined in - the words weren't hard to learn. It was a relief to sing. I breathed deeply. 

I'm not a football expert but I did notice that for most of the game Arsenal players had the ball at their feet. But this majority possession didn't result in goals. It felt unfair, as if luck was against us.

After half-time, Bournemouth scored again from a corner. 2-0. The mood was brooding in the stands, but the regulars knew what to do. Ohhhh Martinelli ... We've got super Mik Arteta ... We're the north bank ... Somehow, Arsenal scored. "We'll get another," said my eldest, with a football confidence which I've never managed for myself, but which I have learned to trust in him. We did. 2-2.

Feeling success within reach, it became increasingly unlikely as the minutes of the match ticked away. "It's only a game," I said to myself again, and this time I believed it. I embraced the truth of it. It being a game doesn't make it not matter. Games are important, I reasoned, because they're an opportunity to release our inner children. Hadn't Michael Rosen said this, in his book Play?

Freed up by this thought, I starting jeering when the Bournemouth goalie got a yellow card for time-wasting. It's only a game, I thought, so I can let go. "Send him off!" I heard myself shout. "Lo-ser! Give him a red card! Red ca-ard!" I looked across at my sons - they were roaring at the goalie too, shaking their fists. It was wonderful.  

I was enjoying the game, but time was running out. Some fans  started pushing along the row to get out of the stadium to beat the rush to the tube. One older man, let's call him Thierry, stood next to me in the gangway. There were only a few minutes left, injury time. I felt a mix of emotions, was clinging to a thread of hope, was building myself up to be brave.

Like a reprieve from a sentence of disappointment, like compensation for the netball defeats of old, like an acknowledgement that this day was special, my lads at the Emirates for the first time, all of us in Arsenal shirts, Arsenal did it. They scored again. 

The moment had a poetry and drama I've never experienced watching sport before - with uncanny timing, the goal mirrored Bournemouth's at the start of the game. We looked at the scoreboard, hoping it was true. 3-2. It was.

I found myself being hugged by Thierry, who was transformed from grumpy to ecstatic. Then we were hugging and being hugged by fans of all ages as the stadium was split by a grin and a roar as wide as north London and as long as 30 minutes. 

3-2 to the Ars-e-nal, 3-2 to the Ars-e-nal! 

I'm so grateful we were there and that I learned, at last, to the ends of my red and white scarf, that football is a game. 

Dedicated to David, Jess, Gabriel, Jonty, Jeremy, Paul and Roy - crazy Arsenal fans


  1. Your chanting wrought the magic. Please come and let your inner child play some more!