It feels strange to be writing like this, not knowing what will happen next. It's more of a performance than anything - a ritual, even. With 'proper' writing, you see, you have some idea of where you're going. In fiction, your route map is the plot, that sturdy handrail of events and happenings, sneakily sprinkled breadcrumbs that will guide you back through the forest, from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the trail; of the tale you have already traced out in your mind. But this feels more like stepping out on to the pitch must feel; or taking your pew among the rest of the believers, uncertain, apprehensive and a little bit afraid. Because tonight, it could all be over, having barely even begun.
It happened to Celtic a couple of seasons ago. They went to play some former eastern bloc side, started poorly and were hammered for five or six. They won the home tie well, but couldn't find that one last goal that would have seen them through to the group stage where the competition proper can begin. And that would be it. Curtains. The end of The Road to Moscow with barely a step taken. If this were fiction, I would have planned out my denouement months ago, rehearsed it, honed it, sent it off to publishers already. I would have researched every last nuance of the biomechanics that allow AH13 to Cruyff-turn past the last Real defender, round the keeper and score the last gasp goal that wins the European Cup for Arsenal. But there are no such safety nets here. Fiction has its comforts, doesn't it?
B.S. Johnson: Glenn's bigger brother? Not so carefree now, eh?
But not for the novelist B.S. Johnson. 'Telling stories is telling lies', he wrote, and in his seven published novels, he earnestly set about reinvigorating the form, trying to stop it telling tales. Using a variety of techniques (gimmicks, some thought) such as cutting holes in the pages so that the reader could see what happened next and his famous 'book in a box', whose pages could be read in any order as the reader saw fit, he sought to make explicit the artifice of the novel and make it work in different ways. I finished Like a Fiery Elephant recently. It's not, as I'd mistakenly assumed when I picked it up, the ghosted autobiography of Chelsea and England midfielder, 'Fat' Frank Lampard (that's called I Ate All the Pies, I believe), but rather a fascinating portrait of Johnson by another novelist, Jonathan Coe. In his time, Johnson wrote match reports for the Observer and Indian Times and was a keen follower of football, despite having been a Chelsea fan. Indeed, until fairly recently, this extract from his second novel, Alberto Angelo, could have stood as a timeless testimony to the unswerving nature of his beloved blues:
Chelsea's play is intensely aggravating, by turns appallingly bad and supremely skilful. They always play like this. Chelsea supporters are men of a special cast of mind, and widely cosmopolitan: all they have in common is this need to become emotionally involved with a team which can play as well as any and worse than any. Men who need to experience a wildly fluctuating range of emotions within ninety minutes. They would not come to Stamford Bridge if the team played any differently. Whoever manages the team, whoever plays in the team, the tradition is the same, is perpetuated.
Though a small handful of the more died-in-the-wool Chelsea tradionalists will be nodding their heads in sage agreement at that passage, I doubt that Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho will be joining them. Chelsea's time-honoured consistent inconsistency has been replaced by an almost metronomic ability to grind out the necessary result. They have not lost at Stamford Bridge in the league since Jose Mourinho (Alain Delon) took charge of the side. And that's how much a hostage to fortune this tale is. Before Abramovich arrived out of nowhere with his petro-billions, there was only one team in London. Now, many fancy Arsenal's older, fiercer rivals Spurs to edge the reds out of the lucrative and prestigious fourth spot and deny us the Champions League football we have come to expect. But at its core, regardless of the moneymen and the way the game's traditional followers have been priced out of its stadiums, football still just about retains its ability to slice through the barriers of class and privilege. We are all of us united in serfdom in this democracy of the unknowing; no one else has a clue what will happen in the end either.
Mourinho: "like the titfer? It's from Matalan.
I break away from typing this to try to buy a ticket for the Portsmouth game. I join what I expect to be the long virtual queue to reach the sacred hallows of the Arsenal Football Club box office, my progress visualised on screen for me by a long, thin horizontal bar of white along which I, a slowly extending oblong of crimson, edge painfully along; blood being pulled up a syringe. You have to time it just right, try to join the waiting throng so that you don't arrive too soon, before the tickets go on sale at 9.30 a.m., but not too late so as to be sent, a naughty schoolkid who's been cheeky to the dinner ladies, straight to the back of the line. I get it wrong, bursting into the inner sanctum two minutes too soon. I refresh the screen and see the tortuous journey start again. I think I've blown it. Last season, you'd queue patiently for three quarters of an hour only to find the game had sold out when you got there. But this time, when I click on the blue quadrant of the stadium map, I see a bank of green, all unsold seats arching away behind the goal. It's good for me, but bad news for the club. They're good seats mind, the upper tier gives you a good view of the whole pitch - although at £46 (plus booking fee), it should be a spectacular one.
So, tonight, Sparta Prague await. We played them in early November 2005 in the Champions League group stage. I fetch down my programme from that game. On the cover, Robert Pires is hugged by Sol Campbell, Robin van Persie, Jens Lehmann and Gael Clichy. Pires and Campbell have moved on, as have - scanning the teamsheet on the back - Ashley Cole, Fredrik Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes, Dennis Bergkamp, Lauren and Thierry Henry from that great Invincibles side. It was the last game I went to at Highbury.
B.S. Johnson worked as a supply teacher in North London and describes in Albert Angelo the area around the ground that I know so well:
Dead cinemas and a musichall sadden corners. Only Arsenal Stadium, older looking in its outdated modernity than the last century's homes, competes in height with the dark red stone brick, stonedressed schools.
He died in Islington on November 13th, 1973, having taken his own life. By the side of the bath in which he'd slashed his wrists was a bottle of brandy with a note next to it saying 'Barry -finish this', and a card on which he'd written,
This is my last
Four days later, at Highbury, Arsenal and Chelsea played out a goalless draw.
I'm normally filled with a very particular mixture of emotions when I go to see a game. For the most part, this has not changed with the move to the new ground, the journey being much the same as it was until that part where the Emirates stadium's curves begin to loom like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There's a distinct sense of nostalgia - no, that's not quite right - timetravel is more apt. I seem to go back in time to that very first Saturday I came to see a game here. That is mixed with an optimism quite ridiculous in its intensity - the oxygen common to all fans. That last November night was quite different, though. I had my bag stolen outside the Auld Triangle pub, it rained its arse off and I was soaked all the way through the game; all in all, a thoroughly miserable night. Who knows, maybe such a night as that on which B.S. Johnson took his life? But we won 3-0, van Persie scored a beauty and we were through to the next stage. I'd settle for 1-0, tonight, with the scrappiest of goals.
L.U.V. on y'all,
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