Out of the blue, on the eve of the match, a friend asked if I would like to go to Wembley, he had a spare ticket. Oh no, I do love Wembley, part of our heritage, but I was staying in for a Sky engineer, due between nine and five, possibly.
He was coming to add Sky Plus to my wife’s telly – a facility she had repeatedly said she did not want, she was happy with her ancient analogue set, but I’d got it into my head she must somehow be able to record progs. So far I’d had four engineers – from Curry’s, John Lewis and Sky, each failing – and each time my wife shouted I TOLD YOU I DID NOT WANT IT!
But I’d invested so much time and energy and money, I had to go on, achieve closure, as we say in modern journalism. I rang Sky, gave a sob story about suddenly being offered the Wembley ticket, and they came first thing and sorted it.
I parked as usual across from Finchley Road station, as I’ve done for 50 years, on the Hampstead side, near Freud’s house, knowing he wouldn’t be in, being dead. I feared the parking regulations might have changed since last I went, but I shut my eyes and ran through the underpass, straight on to the Tube, one stop to Wembley Park.
“Glazed Chicken Fillet’s”, said the sign on a van as I walked down Wembley Way. It wasn’t just the punctuation but the retro van, circa 1950s, that attracted my attention, painted vegetarian green, with some tasteful strings of garlic and onions artistically displayed in the front window. Have football fans gone healthy eating? While the driver was serving, I put my hand through the front window. All the veg was plastic. But it looked nice.
The Arsenal fans seemed to be totally outnumbering the Wigan supporters – but the strange thing was, they didn’t have any fave players on the back of their shirts. I spotted more Bergkamp or Henry than any present-day player. None of the Gooner chants mentioned, least of all praised, Manager Wenger. The songs were mainly anti-Spurs. I kept my head down.
Loads of excited kids, because Wembley, even for an FA semi-final, is a happy family outing, all taking pics of each other. Fans want to enjoy themselves, not hating the opposition, just glad to be there. It took me back to the 1966 World Cup, happy days.
My friend Jason was wearing his Arsenal scarf. For his sake, I wanted Arsenal to win and provide a south v north FA Cup final, but I didn’t care, either way. Massive amount of empty seats at the Wigan end, which was a surprise, but every Arsenal seat was taken. And they were loving it, singing their little hearts out. Till Wigan scored . . .
The atmosphere around me totally changed. The affable families, men, women and children, were suddenly full of hate and fury, standing up shouting, f***ing this, c*** that. I was shocked. Not far away, a fierce fistfight broke out – between two Arsenal fans. I could not believe it. Why try to kill each other? Jason, being a man of the world, Arsenal section, explained it would be pro- and anti-Wenger factions. He’s noticed that the hatred of Wenger on the Arsenal websites has become more violent and disturbing, with frequent fights at away games.
Fans have always been volatile, going from love to loathing in the same game, but I think today it has got worse. They feel entitled, paying all that money, their heroes being spoiled multimillionaires, so they are furious when things go wrong, as if they’ve been let down personally, attacked even. So they fight back, usually at the manager.
There’s a theory that football provides a perfect release for the worst of human emotions, that you can scream and swear, let it all out, then go back to being civilised. I’d have asked Sigmund on the way home to explain it better, but he was out . . .