My boyfriend is a football fan, the kind of fan who isn’t sure where football ends and he begins. He can recite the statistics of players who became irrelevant long before he was born; knows his own team like he knows his family. “Wolves” he says to me, not “The Wolves”, shaking his head as if I’ve forgotten his mother’s name. His mother’s name is Alison.
My cousin, who lives in Bristol is an Arsenal fan. Sometimes, he says, he is taken for a glory supporter, someone tired of chancing their luck on a down-trodden local, and hitching their wagon to a million pound star. “Fair enough”, I say, to a shaking head. He is a legitimate Arsenal fan he says, because I was born in Camden. My birthplace is his ticket into Arsene Wenger’s coterie. “Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?” No.
I am an Arsenal fan. It happened accidentally. We moved to London, to Finsbury Park, where it seemed like every day the station would choke with Gunners, loud in red and white, and LOUD. Once, on my way to the gym, walking past a pub, three of them picked me up and ran the 20 meters to the gym entrance, and deposited me by the door. “At least they didn’t drop you”. And I am grateful for that, I guess? I walked around Emirates stadium on a sunny day, admired the shiny husk of it – I’ll probably never be able to afford to go inside.
Game days are days when the carriages of the Piccadilly line become a crush of red, of small boys in uniform and men guarding them with proud bellies. The rule that people don’t talk to each other on the tube doesn’t apply when you’re all wearing the same colour. They talk over my head, over the earphones I wear even when I’m not playing music, about odds and injuries. They pile off the tube at Finsbury Park and Archway. The Arsenal stop is closed to them, too full.
People start having conversations with me about football, and I don’t know why. I understand gap-fill conversations, about my hair colour and my accent and what I do for a living – but when did I become someone whose very aspect belied their interest in football? Maybe it’s the scarf that’s appeared about my shoulders, the red and white crisp and clear. Maybe it’s the way I nod with authority when the conversation turns to Arsenal. Theo Walcott. Nod. Mezut Ozil. Nod. Giroud, Ramsey, Podolski. Yes.
There are people who shake their heads when I tell them that I am an Arsenal supporter, even when I tell them that I was born in Camden. “You’ll be disappointed,” they say, and I am. “Arsenal never win anything”.
When Arsenal won the FA Cup I was in a sports bar, drinking ale with one old friend, one new friend, one boyfriend and two flat mates. The man behind me leaned over. “Do you know what’s going on?” “Almost never”. I could see my boyfriend watching, as this man touched my shoulder and smiled into my face and then asked “Where’s your accent from?”
His girlfriend’s dad lives in Christchurch, he explained. He moved there ten years ago, and could not be persuaded to move on post-earthquake. This man with strange teeth, and absolutely no interest in the football, had visited Christchurch with his girlfriend in March. “There’s nothing there. There’s no people”. I nodded. “I didn’t think it looked like Lord Of The Rings, really”. I shook my head. There are no shopping malls made of shipping containers in Lord Of The Rings, no flooded ruins filled with floating plastic ducks, no raked green squares where buildings stood. Aaron Ramsey scored the winning goal and I turned back around.
The whistle blows and I hold up my scarf. My new friend high fives me, then grasps my fingers in his sweaty palm. “Congratulations,” he says, “what are you going to do now?”