Arsenal for Life: What Stoke vs. Arsenal Showed Me
The mocking laughter, the disbelieving faces, and the sarcastic pats on the back. Just another day in the life of an Arsenal fan who wears the shirt proudly to school/town the next day.
Some people have asked me why I do that. Why wear the shirt and invite mocking from people who might not have known that I'm an Arsenal fan? I could have hidden, but I must admit that I always felt defiant after defeat.
The 4-2 defeat at the City of Manchester Stadium, getting thumped by three goals without reply at home by a strong Chelsea side, going 2-0 down to Manchester United at home within 10 minutes in a major cup semi-final. Those were the strong teams.
Losing 2-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium last season, losing at the same place 3-1 this season, conceding a soft winner to Darren Bent's Sunderland. Teams we should not have lost to.
Some defeats saw us giving our all, some saw us going down without much of a fight at all. All were just as disappointing.
One thing never changed. The very next day, when it was time to pick a top from my wardrobe, my eyes would be drawn to my Arsenal shirts.
The red training top from 2008-2009 that my cousin got for me for my birthday.
The blue away shirt from 2002-2003 that Thierry Henry wore when he grabbed an incredible hat-trick in Rome. This was also the first football shirt I owned, and it was a gift from my mother.
The yellow-and-blue away shirt from 1988-1989 that Michael Thomas wore when he burst through the Liverpool defence in the final game of the season to score the second goal that would seal the league title that year. At Anfield, too. This was a birthday gift from one of my best friends.
The current red-and-white that we are wearing. No history yet, as we haven't won anything in years, but I'm hopeful that this season might bring some long-awaited silverware. This was a birthday gift from my uncle, who's a lifelong Manchester United fan.
I would pick out a top as an act of defiance, pair it with a random pair of jeans, and go to school with my chest held high. The more people taunted and mocked me, the better I felt. The shirt, coupled with my belief that we would bounce back no matter what, was a show of defiance I felt I had to put up.
But last night served a timely reminder to me. It was never just a show of defiance.
I was genuinely proud to be an Arsenal fan.
That was why I never hesitated before pulling the shirt on. That was why I wore the shirts, however baggy and ill-fitting they were. Yes, they might not be the height of fashion. Yes, they might make me look fatter than I already am. And yes, they might not help in attracting any members of the opposite gender.
But after witnessing a match like last night's away game at the Britannia Stadium, it made me remember just why I'm such a proud fan of the Arsenal.
We had not won there since January 1982, and our last two visits there in recent years ended in crushing defeats. We were missing key players in every department of our team, and to top it all off, they scored from a long throw-in by Rory Delap barely eight minutes into the match.
Now, there might be some who brand Stoke City as an anti-football side, with their physical approach to the game and scoring off long throw-ins. However, I don't think we should villainise them because every team should be allowed to play their own game, as long as it is within the laws of the game.
Back to the football match, and it was a familiar sight. Arsenal losing to Stoke City, because of a failure to deal with a Rory Delap throw-in. What happened after that was quite remarkable though.
First, we absolutely dominated the game after we conceded. An equaliser was inevitable, and duly arrived via the head of Nicklas Bendtner, the much-maligned Danish striker. Our continued dominance after the equaliser looked like it was going to bring a goal sooner rather than later, until a truly saddening incident on the field.
Young Aaron Ramsey, the bright Welsh prospect just 19 years of age, was the victim of a rash challenge from Ryan Shawcross, and ended up with a broken fibula and tibia, leaving his left leg snapped in two.
I don't think Ryan Shawcross meant it at all. It was probably an accident, and the fact that he burst into tears while leaving the field shows his intense remorse. But we had been here before, and the look on the faces of the Arsenal players showed that this injury was every bit as severe as the one Eduardo suffered at Birmingham two years ago.
That time, the team buckled under the pressure, giving up a 2-1 lead with seconds to go in the match, which led to our then-captain William Gallas throwing an almighty tantrum at the final whistle. None of that nonsense this time.
Gael Clichy, who gave up the penalty that led to Birmingham's last-gasp equaliser, was immense last night. He probed forcefully while attacking, and chased back like a man possessed whenever we lost the ball. For a man with his slight frame, his determination showed through when he headed a couple of Rory Delap throw-ins out of the penalty area.
He wasn't the only one. There were heroes all over the pitch.
Sol Campbell, 35-years-old, led with experience from the back, and even burst into the opposition half trying to add urgency to our attacks.
Alex Song harried opponents from start to finish, and rather undeservedly got a yellow card for his hard work.
Cesc Fabregas never stopped running, never stopped passing. He provided two goals for Bendtner and Vermaelen, and had the poise and nerve to net the winning penalty in the 90th minute. And to top it all off, when Stoke's manager Tony Pulis tried to influence the referee to produce a yellow card late in the game, Fabregas ran towards Pulis holding his finger to his mouth, Shhh-ing him. He is everything I expect from a captain, and I would dearly love for him to lift the League trophy this year.
We could have let our heads drop after witnessing a teammate break his leg and quite possibly never play football again. We could have used that as an excuse after yet another disappointing result, but we did not.
Instead, we battled back like men. We were not mere "babies", as Patrice Evra has suggested. We showed that we could stand up to physical play from our opponents. We fought hard, and got the result we deserved.
The huddle at the end showed what Arsenal Football Club was all about. We're not just a team that can pass circles around people, that can carve out intricate play patterns on the pitch. Last night, we played for each other, we played on for Aaron Ramsey, and now we've got to keep that going on to the end of the season. We will win this for Aaron Ramsey.
Even if we do not win the title this season, I'm still proud of the players, proud of the manager, proud of my fellow fans, and proud to be an Arsenal fan. We've come back from 11-point and nine-point deficits on two separate occasions this season, and now we are just three points behind league-leader Chelsea.
Anything can happen from now till the end of the season, and we could end up losing all the remaining 10 games this season, but all that means will be that you will see me wearing an Arsenal shirt on 10 different Monday mornings. That will never change.
I still feel the same as I did when I watched Arsenal for the first time on Aug. 9, 1998. National Day for us Singaporeans, yes. A significant day for Singapore, but it was to have an even bigger impact on my life. It was the day I fell in love with the Arse.
Arsenal For Life.
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