It all came about when my former work colleague Val's son, Calvin, became a Junior Gunner. Poor Calvin, blighted as his life is by a Tottenham supporting Pa and Man U, worshipping Ma, was in the bitter sweet position of having easy access to match tickets, but no one prepared to take him to see his beloved Arsenal. Step in 'Uncle' Bob.
I offered to go with Calvin, in loco parentis. Well, for a start, the chaperone tickets in the family enclosure are about a tenner cheaper than I usually pay and it had been a rather lonely - if ultimately transcendental - experience going to the Bergkamp Testimonial game alone (see Bobcast 1) So far, so good. But as with most things, there's often a catch.
I'm about to order the tickets for last night's Dinamo Zagreb game online at work when Val hands me a wadge of Junior Gunner membership cards. Do I mind if a couple of his mates tag along? So, in a trice, novice child minder Bob has become novice playground attendant Bob. OK, there are only three of them, but when you're as goood with kids as the Arsenal backline is at defending set pieces*, this spells triple trouble. Still, I figure it might be quite interesting (and gives me something to blog!) and what - short of one of the kids dying in a freak left-unattended-for 90-minutes-by-an-otherwise-distracted-football-fanatic-with-no-pastoral-ability-style incident - can possibly go wrong?
I head to Val's straight form work, rehearsing my uneasy exchanges with Spurs fancier Jm:
Bob: "I hope you don't mind me leading your son astray like this...."
Bob: No, I mean by taking him up the Arse..."
and wonder if it will be possible for me to say anything at all that doesn't mark me out as his worst nightmare - an Arsenal paedophile..
I arrive to be met by Jim, Val and my charges for the night. Jim's great - down to earth, engaging and indulgent of my well-meant jibes about the 1961 era Tottenham replica shirt Calvin tells me his Dad has just bought. "Last time they won anything, wasn't it?? etc... The boys are great. Calvin (Pootergeek, aged 8), Zaahib (an Asian Pete Doherty, aged 7) and Arjan (an Asian Tiger Woods with even more impeccable manners, aged 9). I'm immediately impressed by their burgeoning football anorak-ness - they rate Rosicky, say if we can't beat Villa, what hope is there? And generally sound like Arsenal fans 5 times their age. In short, they sound uncannily like me.
The getting there is all a bit of a rush. Although they are very well behaved, I see enough examples of errant journeying off alone and irrational sprints to nowhere in prticular from the lads just on the train to Vauxhall to realise that I'm going to have to be pretty switched on tonight.
Running late after a prolonged amble through the Arsenal World of Sport shop (Zaahib buys a brand new nike Arsenal ball - £18.00 - Arjan buys last year's for £3...) that does nothing for my increasing PMT**, we fall in behind a group of Zagreb supporters. They are wearing t-shirts saying things like "we are the bad boys in blue". There are only half a dozen of them but they are making quite a racket, bullishly "giving it all that" as they sing their guttaral slavic songs and do their "We Will, We Will Rock You" hand claps and saluting. I've never seen a flicker of testosterone-fuelled aggro all the times I've come up here, but you can't help but see it all through younger eyes when you are taking kids along. I see in Arj's face the slightly uneasy wonderment at it all that I remember feeling when I first joined this coarse, adult throng at around the same age.
We're in the children's enclosure which is a whole length of the ground away (quite a walk, believe me) from where I sat for the Bergkamp game. So, the six of us trot alongside the Close Encounters of the Third Kind spaceship that is the Emirates Stadium at night. Finally reaching turnstile R, we dig out our deck of membership cards and bid farewell to the apostate Val and Jim (you can only enter the ground with your oyster-style membership card now and the new system is taking a while to bed in, I think). It takes a few goes for all of us, but finally I headcount three young gooners and relax a little now we are in the confines of the stadium.
Walking to our block, little Zaahib (he seems about a foot tall to my 6 plus) reaches up a hand and grabs mine as we move through the crowds coming towards us. It's done so instinctively and trustingly that I feel a little pang at the absence of things like that in my life. This must be a bit like what it feels like to be a parent, and it seems to come naturally - the all-else-obliterating concern, the multiple threat sensing eyes in the back of the head and so on. It's almost as if one has been switched into some innate "parent" mode in which the normal compliment of limbs and sensors has been quadrupled. And is still not sufficient.
I'm annoyed because there don't seem to be any programme vendors (there were millions inside the ground for the Bergkamp game) and I'd promised the boys I'd treat them to one each. But any disappointment they or I may have evaporates as we take our seats and drink in the grandeur of the stadium's arc and the glowing, shimmering floodlit green stage laid out before us. I glance over at Arjan, his face transported into a dumb, all-my-dreams-have-just-come-true grin, and recall the same look on Dad's face when we took our seats at the old Wembley for an Arsenal Champions League game a few years back. That same feeling too that I had then - a closeness shared that couldn't have been achieved any other way.
I note with calm approval the way all three of my Junior Gunners pick up the rhythm and flow of the various chants. Hearing them as they tag behind the 58,000 taunting the by now shirtless Zagreb mentalists with "you're not singing anymore" when we equalise, is akin to watching fluffy ducklings frantically paddling behind their mother. By the end of the game they are all three Jerry Springer Show-style downward pointing like seasoned campaigners. Arjan's face, like mine, visibly entralled by each peice of van Persie magic, or the sight of Thierry Henry jogging over to our corner as he warms up to come on, clapping his hands above his head and kicking against his butt cheeks with his heels as he runs in a supremely insouciant demonstration of just how supple and agile he is*** It cheers my heart to see his face lit up like that - "youth undiminished" and all that...
I feel very privileged to have spent an evening with these vivacious, polite and charming youngsters. I'd half expected a nightmare, but in the end, I think I was the one who had been given a treat. They were a mirror on a younger me, I suppose, and gave me an insight into my own past - one that soothed the heart. There must be many moments like that when you have kids of your own, I suppose...****
*really not very good at all.
** Pre-Match Tension
*** Spinny - you *well* would, believe me...
**** I'm in no hurry to find out mind, ladies - so don't be *too* concerned....
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