A football has come back from next door. It’s one my eldest son lost two or three years ago and looks sad and worn, as if a family of foxes have been regularly sharpening their teeth on it. My son has pretty much gone off football since the ball disappeared - though to be fair he lost about six balls altogether, whacking them high over the fence while trying to do extravagant keepie uppies. One day those balls will probably all return. But it will be too late for my son, who now is too busy playing Shoot Smash Gore Scream 3.0 on a regular basis to worry about football.
On Lordship Road a thin figure walks slowly along the pavement bouncing a leather football. Occasionally he does a few juggles on his knee and feet and I think to myself this is good, this is what football is all about. He then kicks the ball onto the trunk of an old tree on the other side of the road, narrowly hitting a white van that is speeding past. Further up he confronts a group of Jewish women standing in a group and threatens to kick the ball at them, while making strange Lon Chaney gurning faces at them. Then he stands in the road kicking the ball in the air. A car brakes suddenly and the driver leaps out of his car, shouting and swearing.
I always hated Arsenal. With their in your face Knights Templar style strip and their fast, over-eager and efficient football and their holier-than-thou attitude to wage structures. Part of me will always presume that George Graham is Arsenal manager and Tony Adams still has his arm in the air. But another part of me likes Arsenal. It’s partly that they now play football like everybody’ second favourite team. But I miss living near the ground. I miss the sound of the matchday roar (though it’s not really a roar, is it - more an excited mumbling) and miss the strange stalls selling pencil sketches of Perry Groves or obscure programmes to obsessives with too much disposable income. I miss the smell of fried extruded meat products. I miss the thrill I always got seeing European fans walking up and down Blackstock Road with confusion on their faces thinking “Is this Arsenal?” I miss being close to the human heartbreak of supporting a team like Arsenal. The suffering of being brilliant yet brittle.
Maybe I don’t hate Arsenal now because I know that, if we go back, my kids will become real Arsenal supporters. My daughter stopped being a Leeds fan when she was five, in the season they were relegated and Arsenal went undefeated in the league. I told her I’d live with it but that’s it - she wasn’t allowed to change again. In a few years Leeds will be in some obscure part of the non-league structure so any memory of them being rivals will be long gone.
Coinciding with a massive hangover, the Hackney Brook appears to have resurfaced on Blackstock Road, just south of the Arsenal Tavern. Not caused by heavy rains this time but a large yellow JCB, which has dug a huge hole in the side of the road. Water shoots out of a pipe and into what's becoming a quite decent sized pond. My little boy Seánie is well impressed. "Digger!" "River!" He dances up and down on the pavement. We go to the Gunners Fish Bar for lunch, where we meet a group of Bayern Munich fans in town for tonight's Champions League game. They have come for some hot Pukka Pies. Blackstock Road is certainly at its most beautfiul for these visitors - shit weather, grey skies, soggy chips. and huge puddles in the road.
I suspect an Arsenal plot, some kind of pitch waterlogging thing must be going on here. I notice that one of the Germans looks like Nigel Winterburn and mention it to Seánie. He is not impressed.
Which reminds me of that poem, 'Arsenal fullbacks try to change the world in a night':
Lee Dixon came to our local pub
And tried to convert us all
To the cause of International socialism
"You're too late mate," said the landlord
"We had that Nigel Winterburn in here last night.
We're all Buddhists now."
As I was flicking through the Stoke Newington OS map from 1868 (it's a gripping read) I noticed that, north of the avenue and embankment that was once the New River, was a stone. No other explanation. Just "stone". Was it a milestone, like the one on the bend of the New River near St Mary's church? Maybe this is the same stone and it was moved into an enclosed area for safe keeping. Or was the "stone" something else, something older still? Like a neolithic marker which, though long gone, still gives off a strange magnetic pull that attracts summertime frisbee throwers and the Turkish football team (it's near the spot where they do their windsprints).
After about two years of claiming "we are Leeds" whenever one of her little Gooner pals asked who she supported, my five year old daughter has now succumbed to the lure of glory. The double whammy of Arsenal's title-winning run and Leeds' relegation was too much for her. I have had to console myself with the idea that Arsenal are just her local village team.
"You can still support a big northern team as well, love."
"Who's a big northern team, Daddy?"
"What about Manchester United?"
"No, the rules say you can't support both Man Utd and Arsenal."
"Shall I support Leeds as well then, Daddy?"
The little print shop next to The Gunners pub has collapsed. For several days workmen* had been gutting the building and digging down into its foundations, presumably in a madcap attempt to burrow into the public bar of The Gunners and steal some valuable signed photos of '71 double-winning skipper Frank McClintock. Blackstock Road was closed for a couple of days so the buses had to come down our road. On Monday morning, as I tried to confront the usual nappy shit, Weetabix globules and The Tweenies at full volume, some people looked down into our sitting room from the no. 19 bus and collectively let out a sigh of relief that they weren't me.
* I use this term loosely - it was actually just a few blokes with digging equipment which they were obviously using for the first time.
Back home to the sticks to watch it in a crowded smoky East Midlands pub. I'm stood next to a scouser and we get into one of those Glanevillesque conversations about history, technique and tactics. He seems like a reasonable fellow and I buy him a pint. As the pints flow, he starts to take the existence of David Seaman and the Neville brothers as a personal affront.
In the second half some younger lads come in and slightly obscure his view of the big screen. Words are spoken. It looks like it's going to kick off. I try to calm him down, explaining that it's only a friendly and not worht getting too upset about. He gives me a look of withering contempt and spits "It's football. It's ALL important." Then goes to stand at the bar with his mates.
1-1. England were ploddy and Brazil having a laugh.