Colleagues were quick to rib when my mates at Speight’s invited me on the Great Beer Delivery to London in October, 2007.
‘‘Think of all that free beer,’’ they enthused.
Journalism is the Homer Simpson of professions.
For me, though, the trip meant only one thing: I was finally going to see Arsenal play live.
Passion is a funny thing. One of the crustiest sons of Central Otago I have ever met, who also happens to be the Otago Daily Times chief reporter, is absolutely mad about roses.
I know! Go figure.
So my Arsenal obsession is quite unextraordinary, really.
But, if I was lying on a pyschiatrist’s couch, I would have to admit to being a bit eccentric about Arsenal Football Club.
Friends, family, girlfriends and workmates have all patiently tolerated my football fanaticism over the years.
The ODT editorial department is adorned with several ‘‘Arsenal Champions’’ posters on the walls.
If Arsenal has lost over the weekend, I spend most of Monday morning weakly fending off abuse from colleagues.
‘‘How did Arsenal go in the weekend, Nige?’’ editor Murray Kirkness inquired with a chuckle when I tried to sneak past his office after a recent 1-2 loss to Middlesbrough.
ODT sports writer Hayden Meikle and online editor Sean Flaherty (Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, or the other way around; it’s really irrelevant) refuse to even speak to me about football because they reckon I’m too one-eyed.
Heh. They’re quite right.
Football is a very tribal passion. You love your team and loathe all others. It’s just the way it is.
The first thing I did on arriving in London was head straight to Arsenal’s old stadium at Highbury, which was vacated two years ago for the Emirates Stadium just around the corner.
Highbury is being converted to flats and I got talking with the construction workers on site. They were all big, black West Indians with big, white smiles.
They thought I was hilarious—or tragic—and went and got a brick for me (for which I would later have to throw away a perfectly good pair of boots to make room in my luggage) from the old East Stand. That brick now sits on my desk at work and is the source of great amusement to my colleagues.
I wryly acknowledge their mirth. But it gets much worse. When my family built an extra room at our Middleton Rd house in the ’80s, I insisted we call it ‘‘Patrick’’, after the Arsenal goalkeeper (and my all-time hero) Pat Jennings. The room was henceforth known as Patrick until we sold the house 20 years later.
They did balk at calling a family dog ‘‘Arsenal’’, though. ‘‘What would the neighbours think?’’ Dad sensibly protested. ‘‘We’d be calling out the back door ‘Here Arse, Arse, Arse’.’’
A few years later, for my 21st birthday, my parents had a gold Arsenal ring made for me, which I wear to this day.
Kaikorai Valley High School teacher the late Charles Croot once based an article about graffiti in the Mercury school newspaper on my pro-Arsenal handiwork on his class desks.
‘‘The prevalence of graffiti proclaiming what a marvellous football team Arsenal are is probably untypical and merely a sign Nigel Benson spent many bored English lessons there,’’ he wrote.
I once managed to get my whole class enthused about Arsenal. It was the 1978 FA Cup Final against Ipswich Town and Arsenal was heavy favourite. We lost, of course.
I can still recall the painful memory of a classmate’s hand-made Arsenal rosette ripped into pieces on his front steps the morning after the final.
Any influence I had among my peers died that day.
My first Arsenal match was against Bolton Wanderers at the Emirates.
In a nice bit of serendipity, the first ever Shoot magazine I bought featured Arsenal and Bolton on the front cover.
Football fans look for omens everywhere. The match was surreal and I spent the entire 90 minutes in a dream-like state. We scored two goals and they scored none and I was blissfully happy. It was worth waiting 30 years for.
Afterwards I shuffled into the interview room with a dozen other journos for the postmatch press conference.
I carefully composed a question to ask manager Arsene Wenger, which I put to the erudite, professorial Frenchman at the first opportunity. ‘‘Sorry?’’ he replied. He hadn’t understood a word I’d said.
I turned the colour of an Arsenal shirt and mumbled my question again, which Arsene gracefully answered in some depth.
Once Arsenal realised I was in London they, quite naturally, made a special effort for me.
The next match was a record 7-0 thrashing of Slavia Prague in the Champions League. After the match, I had the chance to have a brief chat with Wenger.
I’ve interviewed half a dozen prime ministers and two Nobel peace prize winners, but felt like a 13-year-old schoolboy again in the Arsenal manager’s presence.
Later I got talking to Brian Glanville, the doyen of football writers. I grew up reading Glanville’s marvellous books about British football.
Curiously, he has always been interested in New Zealand, although he’s never been here.
‘‘I’ve always been fascinated by New Zealand. I’ve still got a lovely letter [former All Black captain] Wilson Whineray sent to me after I wrote a column about the All Blacks in the ’60s. He was a real gentleman. So was [Colin] Meads. They were all gentlemen, those All Blacks.’’
He appeared quite taken with the idea of a New Zealander being an Arsenal fanatic and insisted we share the tube home together from Holloway Station. All the way back he regaled me with stories about Arsenal in the 1940s and ’50s and the early World Cups.
I was in heaven.
Five days later I joined the Arsenal Supporters’ Club on the five-hour coach trip to Anfield to see Arsenal play Liverpool.
The bus was packed and my fellow fans treated me like an honoured guest.
The chap sitting next to me, Ernie, filled me with stories of Arsenal matches and players from yesteryear.
Ernie, who was in his mid-80s, was an absolute delight. He kept busy ‘‘helping out the old people’’ in his neighbourhood, he said.
However, the bonhomie evaporated when our coach, emblazoned with ‘‘Arsenal Supporters’ Club’’ signs, entered Liverpool.
Red strings of Liverpool fans heading to the game threaded the streets and threw baleful looks up at us. The most hateful (fearful) glares came from young boys.
We disembarked under police guard and were similarly escorted out of the city after the game. But, it was a fantastic atmosphere before the match, with Arsenal and Liverpool fans mingling comfortably, if slightly standoffishly, around the ground.
The only real venom came when a section of the crowd started booing me as I walked in the press and official guests entrance. At least, for a horrified moment I thought they were booing me, but it was Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson who was brushing past me on his way in.
As I approached the press boxes looking for my seat, which had an Otago Daily Times reservation card placed on it, I saw a chap sitting there looking at me strangely.
It was New Zealand Herald sports writer and long-time Liverpool fan Michael Brown, who was in England covering the Kiwis’ ill-fated rugby league tour.
‘‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw the ODT was next to me,’’ he said in astonishment.
The atmosphere was extraordinary; easily the most passionate and vocal sporting crowd I have ever experienced.
The Kop made so much noise it was, quite literally, deafening.
Liverpool scored through a Steven Gerrard free-kick after eight minutes and I spent the next 80 minutes on the edge of my seat until Cesc Fabregas got a sublime equaliser with a couple of minutes to play.
When the ball hit the back of the net I hit the Anfield stadium roof. As I floated back down to my seat, I realised I was surrounded by thousands of Liverpool fans glaring at me. I just grinned sheepishly; the default position for a New Zealander.
Anfield was the venue for one of the greatest days of my life, when Arsenal won 2-0 there on May 26, 1989 to win the championship (now Premiership).
I had been following Arsenal for 12 years by then, and never seriously expected to see my team win the title. Liverpool were in a league of their own back in the ’70s and ’80s and I hated them for it.
They were about to win the title yet again and clinch an historic double after winning the FA Cup a month earlier.
Arsenal had to beat them by two clear goals, which no team had done to Liverpool at Anfield for more than a decade. Arsenal had no chance.
I have watched that game so many times I can just about quote the whole match commentary. ‘‘It’s up for grabs now . . . Thomas!’’ the commentator screams as Michael Thomas glides through for our titleclinching second goal.
I used to freeze-frame that moment on my video, so I could watch the look on the Liverpool fans’ faces behind the goal as the ball rolled slowly into the net.
I don’t expect anyone who is not a football fanatic to understand.
The only live English football match shown on New Zealand television when I was a boy was the annual FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in May. It was fortunate that Arsenal were in the FA Cup Final for the first three seasons I followed the team, from 1978 to 1980. We lost two of them, though. Of course.
I used to set my alarm to wake up and listen to the BBC live football commentaries from England around 3am every Sunday morning. The BBC would also read out the results just after 8am and you would try to discern from the announcer’s inflection how your team had gone. ‘‘Arsenal 1,’’ he would say, before pausing dramatically and dropping an octave . . . ‘‘Leeds United 2.’’
And my dreams would be dashed for another week.
Years later, the highlight of my week was Big League Soccer at lunchtime every Sunday. Arsenal was my religion and Big League Soccer was my church.
The Gunners were invincible during the three matches I saw, scoring 10 goals and conceding only one.
On the way back from Anfield in the coach, the other Arsenal fans jokingly suggested having a whiparound to keep me in England for good luck.
You couldn’t ask for much more than all that, really.
Up The Gunners!
Nigel Benson travelled to London courtesy of Speight’s Breweries. He would also like to thank Arsenal Football Club, Liverpool Football Club and the Football Association for their generous hospitality during his stay.