The loneliness of the overseas Gooner

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One of the inevitable pissing contests that arise around supporting a club is who’s real and who’s, as the epithet goes, “plastic.” The good news is that Arsenal’s form over the last 16 months or so has given this little debate a new urgency as fans around the world, thanks also to the spread of internet access, social media, and the rest of that lot, have flocked to the Arsenal. The void created by the creaky crumble of Man U, arguably the world’s highest-profile franchise, has left otherwise new or fickle fans looking around for other options, and, let’s be honest, they usually don’t look past the two or three teams at the top of the table. Presto! Gooners.

Their loyalty and devotion, though, are an open question. After all, can they name the full squad? Do they know who’s in the Academy (or that there is one)? Can they name former players beyond Henry, Bergkamp, Pires? Before we go too far, I feel that I have to establish my own credentials as there will always be that faction that asserts that I, having not grown up in or around Highbury, am not a real Gooner. Here, then, for what it’s worth, is my curriculum vitae:

  • discovered Arsenal at age six (I’m guessing spring of ’81 because the kits had no sponsor, which would make me seven—the match highlights I saw must have been near the end of the 1980-81 season and before my seventh birthday in late May).
  • had no idea how good they were. Loved the name, loved the kit, loved the fact that a few Irishmen were in the squad at the time (Devine, Gorman, Stapleton, O’Leary).
  • have followed them then, for roughly 84% of my life.
  • have followed them for 100% of the time I have known that professional football even existed.
That’s about it, I guess. Admittedly thin, but I can’t be blamed for being born outside of London, and to have my loyalty or authenticity doubted or mocked just doesn’t make sense to me on the whole. Okay, so there are elements that do. I’ll freely admit, for example, that I don’t fully feel in my gut the hatred of Tottenham that seems to define a true Gooner. I’ve only met two or three Spuds in my life—one being among my best mates—and the visceral hatred just isn’t there for me. Then again, I don’t have to put up with them on a daily basis, so I don’t know how I might feel having gotten into it with Spuds over the years. Knowing myself as a teen, blows would have been exchanged and comeuppances delivered (suffice it to say, your correspondent can make himself understood with bare-knuckles). I know the history between the clubs, of course, and can explain the rivalry. Sadly, though, there’s a glaring gap in my “true Gooner” application there, and if this disqualifies me in any way, so be it. I follow the club not to earn the approval of other fans but because watching them play does inspire me in a visceral response. In fact, the relative isolation and privacy of my fandom is something I rather cherish. I don’t need people to see that I’m an Arsenal fan; I know in my heart that I am. 
I understand the resentment some of the lifelong Londoners might feel towards the more-recent bandwagoner-types. After all, those who have grown up in or around Highbury do lay claim to a special-status. They’ve helped to build a culture around the club. More than likely, they’ve been the ones attending matches, paying those ticket-prices each week or membership fees every year, and that loyalty, not to mention that financial support, has helped to build the club. That matters, and I’m not trying to diminish it in the least. Quite the opposite. I wish I could have grown up close enough to attend matches. It breaks my heart that I’ll never see a match at Highbury. I envy those who have seen even one. I haven’t had my loyalties tested by an extended stretch of mediocrity. For the first 25 years of my fandom, I could only get shreds of information about how Arsenal were doing, such was the coverage of British football in the United States. As such—if you can believe this—I didn’t know of the Invincibles’ season until well after it happened. As a result, then, my loyalties, though never tested, have likewise never been truly rewarded, either. The highest I’ve seen Arsenal finish with my own eyes—on t.v., as close as I’ve ever come, is third. The first goal I saw Thierry Henry score with my own eyes—again, on t.v.—was against Leeds two years ago. I cried.
When Cesc left, I hung my head. When van Persie left, I wore out my store of insults, epithets, and rage. When we beat Newcastle to claim fourth, I celebrated like a madman, not just because we stayed in the Champions League but because it was St. Totteringham’s Day. When I’m out and about and glimpse a certain shade of red on a stranger, I maneuver to see if he or she is a Gooner. It’s a bit pathetic, I’ll admit. However, in the absence of having had the good fortune of being born in London or being raised in a proper Gooner household, I’ve had to make do with the few resources I’ve had available. I feel like I’ve done well to overcome my shortcomings. I may not yet qualify as a true Gooner as the dyed-in-the-wool types, but I can live with that, thanks.
In the meantime, let’s look at the flood of new if superficial fans as a good problem to have. It’s a symptom, but it need not be a problem. It’s a sign of times, both of the club’s recent form and of the times in which we live. It is now easier than ever for a fan in Indonesia or Nigeria or Vietnam or Kenya to follow a British club. Many of them, undoubtedly, will shift their allegiances year to year or month to month, even week to weak. So be it. Those who know and understand will stick around for the longer term, and those who see past the table or the trophies will be the ones who feel it. 
Maybe it was better when each club only drew its support from a certain local fanbase. If so, then, what’s the radius for what counts as local? How far does circle extend? My day-job is as an English teacher, and so I’ll invoke John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning””

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
to move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
and grows erect as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
and makes me end where I begun.

In other words, all that fancy talk amounts to this: the club is one foot of a compass. I, the fan, am the other. Do not measure my devotion by how close I am; measure it by how deep and how firm the devotion is. The further away I am, the more I am drawn to it. At some point, the club will draw me to it; the legs of the compass will close. I can feel the pull in my bones. I might be more than 6,000 kilometers away, but Arsenal is much, much closer than that. Some day, I’ll find a seat at Ashburton Grove, if only for that one time, and it will be a moment I remember forever, whether it’s a Champions League final or a play-off to determines whether we’re promoted to the Championship. In either case, I’ll be singing and shouting and, yeah, probably shedding a few tears to be there.

Just in case anyone doubted me.

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22 thoughts on “The loneliness of the overseas Gooner

  1. Anonymous

    I think being a gooner is not geographical. I’m an arsenal fan and daily follower living in east africa and my dream is to support my team in the emirates. I don’t even know an other arsenal fan or even follower in this country. It’s all for manu or liverpool for the older generation. Can u be more lonely than that?

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    It'll be interesting to hear from Londoners who might doubt us, though. I hope we can all see eye to eye that Gooners are Gooners regardless of where they are…

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I can take the us-vs-them stuff when it's come from a Manc or a Chav$ki or Scouse or whaever but come on, we're gooners! the fakes will fade away on their own, no need to get in their faces. the haters, maybe they're not real gooners either. don't go around comparing and quizzing each other. love the game, love the club. simple as that.

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  4. Anonymous

    It comes to my mind that they are extinct species as the club has gone global. Maybe too many of us around the world fulfill their dream at each home matchday and that’s why the tickets price has gone mad… Even on fanzone, I only see african or asian fans calling.

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  5. Anonymous

    you know some purists out there are gonna say, go root for your own club in your city, why support a club you'll never see in person? I've been a gooner from far away longer than some of the “real” fans have been alive, but they're gonna knock me saying I'm not real because I don't have the right accent or whatever. pity. what has made Man U so powerful? They have a global presence and money pours in from around the world. We're late in realizing/exploiting that same resource, and now that we are, the purists have their panties in a twist. they'll come around once they see that money is money regardless of which fan spent it. let the plastics buy a few jerseys. so long as they're not knock-offs, that's a bit more in the kitty to spend on players and the club. if the purists don't like it, maybe they should ask the club to sell off Ozil, Gnabry, Mertesacker, Cazorla, Szczesny, Kos, Sagna, Rosicky, Flamini, and the other “foreigners”.

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  6. Anonymous

    that may be true but that's no really the point. It's not a case of who's a better fan or who outnumbers whom. All I want to say is that we shouldn't worry too much about who counts as a treu fan. Those who know and believe know and believe. Those who don't will make a few appearances and be gone when their attention span is exhausted. There's no need to snipe at or criticize in either case.

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  7. Anonymous

    I certainly welcome all committed gooners to the brotherhood.A foreigner can pick any British team they like, all that is asked is that you keep the faith & don't even consider jumping ship after a bad run for the team. Seems like you're that kind of guy. To be honest I think the true distain for 'plastic' fans is reserved for English residents from a town or city that has top level team to support but go glory hunting after a club they have no physical or family connection to ('Cockney Reds' I'm looking at you here….).Not too sure about you not finding out about the Invincibles season until well after the event though. I know US media didn't cover football back then but the internet was definitely up & running!

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  8. Anonymous

    If he/she was born in late May 04 then you might just get away with that one but let's forgive & forget so long as this youngster is a second generation gooner

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    JonDoes this title imply that when they make a movie of your life, Tom Courtenay (albeit a bit too old now) would play the part of Jon Shay and Alan Sillitoe would write the script?Just wondering

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

    What you've omitted in your tale of the path to being an Arsenal fan is how at age 6 you came to know anything about British football let alone Arsenal specifically at in a country that had zero interest in the 80s.You're a bit too young to be one of the converts I made when I worked as a summer camp counselor in Maine in the 90s (how the Spurs supporting head of soccer hated me, he banished me to lifeguard duty after a fortnight of being wound up by my kids lol)

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  11. Anonymous

    It's all a bit fuzzy, to be honest. I somehow stumbled across some British football highlights on ESPN, and it's taken a bit of detective work to date it: “hey, dad, when did we get cable?” “Um, 1980? 81?” From there, it was doing some logic–they didn't have a sponsor on the kit, so it couldn't have been the 1981-82 season when JVC appeared. I had just started playing football at the time, and the timing was perfect. I'm gonna call it destiny and not ask too many more questions of it!

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  12. Anonymous

    I know exactly how you feel. I live on the other side of the planet pretty much (Malaysia). I have to stay up till midnight for bpl fixtures on weekends and watch champions league football by waking up at 3 to 4 in the morning. Even after risking falling asleep in the middle of class the next day to watch Dortmund play Arsenal, I still get criticism about not being a dedicated fan. It's really hurtful to be honest. Especially when my dream is to watch Arsenal play in person. And no one says anything to the Man U fan who can't name Man U's best starting 11.

    Reply
  13. Anonymous

    As someone who saw Pele play, and never missed a World Cup I am not a stranger to football. Bobby Charlton was radio, sadly I never got the see the great English players until I could see classic games on the internet, but I grew up with them. I remember watching a newsreel featuring George Best in an old cinema and was struck by how quick and how much Best could dribble. I used to think that dribbling was a Brazilian art.Fast forward to mid 90s, I became a Arsenal fan. I don't know why. Something in their style got me. But one day I became an Arsenal FANATIC. I remember it clearly, 1999, I was watching a skinny kid named Kanu rock Chelsea with three “take that and beat your Mama with it” goals. Since then, I wake up, read Arsenal news, read the transfer fiction then go about my day, At night I check updates on Arsenal, listen to Brit radio for any news. When I travel I wear my Arsenal shirt; it breaks the ice in any country. In Germany a Dortmund fan shouted at me “You will never get Goetze” then bought me a beer.Arsenal gets under you skin like a virus.I live it, breathe it and I have never been to London. But have no fear I intend to get there.

    Reply
  14. Anonymous

    As someone who saw Pele play, and never missed a World Cup I am not a stranger to football. Bobby Charlton was radio, sadly I never got the see the great English players until I could see classic games on the internet, but I grew up with them. I remember watching a newsreel featuring George Best in an old cinema and was struck by how quick and how much Best could dribble. I used to think that dribbling was a Brazilian art.Fast forward to mid 90s, I became a Arsenal fan. I don't know why. Something in their style got me. But one day I became an Arsenal FANATIC. I remember it clearly, 1999, I was watching a skinny kid named Kanu rock Chelsea with three “take that and beat your Mama with it” goals. Since then, I wake up, read Arsenal news, read the transfer fiction then go about my day, At night I check updates on Arsenal, listen to Brit radio for any news. When I travel I wear my Arsenal shirt; it breaks the ice in any country. In Germany a Dortmund fan shouted at me “You will never get Goetze” then bought me a beer.Arsenal gets under you skin like a virus.I live it, breathe it and I have never been to London. But have no fear I intend to get there.

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    I am not new to football. I saw Pele play, I grew up Brazil fan, but listened to English games on the radioSometime in the mid nineties I became an Arsenal fan, I don't know why exactly.But I remember clearly when I became an Arsenal fanatic; 1999 Kanu stuffing 3 improbable goals past Chelsea. Ever since I live and breathe Gooner.I wear my Arsenal shirt when I travel, it breaks the ice. 2011 Berlin, a Dortmund fan yelled “You will never get Goetze” then bought me more beer than could drink.I have never been to London, but that does not make me any less a true Arsenal fan. Have you Londoners seen the Arsenal support In Asia and Africa? Have you seen people take the bus at 2AM to see an Arsenal game?We are all Gooners! In this global age, location is trivial ! I have more Gunners gear then most Londoners!We are all Gooners, whether we watch the game in Dublin, Singapore, London, Dorset, Seattle or Lagos!

    Reply

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