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I’m cold, I’m six years old, and the warmth of a flask of stewed tea is long gone

The Arsenal History web site (which is where you are) sponsored by AISA, is currently inviting all Arsenal supporters to write in with details of their first time of seeing the Arsenal play.   If you would like to write for this series, there are details at the foot of this article.

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The first time I saw Arsenal live

By Brian Baker, Lancaster

Highbury in the dark, a cold December afternoon. Floodlights pick out Jimmy Rimmer standing in front of the Clock End, he’s had nothing to do all match. My Uncle Allan, who had taken me to the game, sees me watching Rimmer and says, ‘He’s been in his armchair all afternoon.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but Arsenal were in the middle of a terrible run of form, winning only 4 of 18 games from Autumn through to early Spring. We’re grinding out a one-nothing win against Burnley, who would be relegated come May. I’m cold, I’m six years old, and the warmth of ham sandwiches and a flask of stewed tea is long, long gone from my stomach. But I feel something else in there now. Arsenal are going to win, and it’s a few days before Christmas.

I’m hooked.

We’d finish a moribund 17th that season, and I was there with my Uncle Allan on the infamous opening day of the next season, 1976-7, when we lost to a promoted Bristol City side on a beautiful August afternoon. I enjoyed it all the same, at the time, but I realised only today why I’ve always remembered watching Final Score on the opening day of a later season, 1979-80, sitting in the forbidding front room of my Auntie Margaret’s flat in Harlow. Arsenal won 4-0 at Brighton to top the embryonic table, and I was unreasonably excited. The first day of the season, it’s not a proper table, I know, I know; but I’d never seen Arsenal top of the table before.

Of course, being six years old at the Burnley game, I didn’t know how terrible that Arsenal side were. The bounty of Wenger’s time throws those Barren Years into stark relief. Uncle Allan had bought me a glossy book from the stall beneath the West Stand called ‘Arsenal, Arsenal’ and I’d marvelled at grainy colour pictures of Arsenal scoring against Ajax in the 1970 Fairs Cup semi-final – against Ajax of all teams, the kings of Europe, whose players I’d idolise during the 1978 World Cup – and knew that I supported a club with history. A great history.

Highbury, on a cold dark afternoon in December 1975, against fellow relegation-candidates Burnley, still spoke of grandeur, of tradition, of that great history.  The glorious nights against Ajax and Anderlecht still shimmered behind the mundane performances of the 1975-6 team, who were scratching around the bottom of the Division One table as though the Double had been fifty, not five years before. It would be more than thirteen years until I’d see Arsenal win another title, and at times, supporting the team seemed a bit of a thankless task. But I never doubted we were a great club. You only had to go to Highbury to see that for yourself.

What really thrilled me and terrified me, that day, was the crowd. Being seated in the West stand, it wasn’t the surge that lifted you clear of the ground that I’d feel as an adult, standing on the terraces, that shocked me, but the sound. The songs, the shouts of the fans, the swearing at the players. Being a young boy in a mass of men, who generated some kind of visceral, primal, exhilarating and gut-wrenching swell of voices, voices in unison, as one entity, one thing, the Arsenal, it was an unearthly experience. Like nothing else I’d experienced, and by God, I loved it.

I was totally hooked.

The ham sandwiches and the flask of tea were packed in a small vinyl holdall, with a red-brown tartan on the side. As I watched the final minutes of the match, it was at my feet under the West Lower seat, and it also contained a programme, which I’d pored over for an hour while we waited for the match to start. Uncle Allan and I would later board a bottle-green Eastern National 400 bus back home, back to Essex, from King’s Cross coach station, which to me seemed as outlandish and dangerous as the Cyclops’s cave. The dark city outside and the dark station inside blurred together, an overwhelming swirl of dark and light and smells and sounds. I’d read the programme over and over again as the lights on the A127 swung by, reliving the whole day in my head.

It’s the sounds that stick in my memory, 35 years later. The press of people and the whooshing air being pushed in front of the Piccadilly line train as I edged nervously backwards on the Kings Cross Underground platform, the wind tugging at my hair as pieces of litter began to swirl about. The urgent roar of the Arsenal crowd as the team tried to drive home an attack, my own boyish shrieks as I attempted to join in. Overheard banter of men, North Londoners, alien but reassuringly familiar, sounding like my Granddad Jim and my Dad who, like his brother Allan, were part of the post-war London dispersal. And the release, the relief, of the full-time whistle, the clunk of the seats returning to upright, and the shuffle of thousands of feet on the steps.

The return journey has gone from my memory, in truth. I only really remember the bus rides and Underground journeys to the ground, not the ones taking us back home. There’s only one return journey I remember, literally skipping across the road as Uncle Allan and I went back to my grandparent’s flat in Laindon (part of Basildon) to meet up with my Mum and Dad, my heart full of joy for Rix’s sumptuous strike from the corner of the box. In my memory it’s early summer, a hazy sun still in the sky in early evening, golden light and long shadows. I don’t know now whether I remember what was outside or what was inside, whether that Saturday evening was real (I remember it as a 3-1 win against Villa, but trawling the records I can’t find a match that meets the criteria) or whether it was unreal, just some kind of amalgam of my memory, my emotion and my imagination.

Jimmy Rimmer, though, standing somewhere near the penalty spot, all alone, his team-mates attacking the goal at the other end, he’s real. Why was I looking at him rather than at them? I don’t know. It must say something about me. But he’s there still, at Highbury in December 1975, in a green goalie’s jersey, clapping his hands together to keep out the cold, inside my head.

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If you would like to contribute to this series please email Tony.Attwood@aisa.org with your story, ideally written as a word file (if not then in the text of the email).  I also need your address and phone number, although these will not be published.  In writing for this series you are giving us to right to publish the piece on this site, and in other formats (we are working on a book etc, but nothing is completely fixed at the minute.)

As luck would have it, just at the moment that we are launching this piece I am off to Italy for a week, but when I return – prior to the Blackpool game – I will get down to the regular publishing of the articles that are being sent in.  Tony

The AISA Arsenal History Web site

Untold Arsenal

Making the Arsenal

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