Story by Steve Rushbridge –
Both feet – you must learn to kick with both feet. From as early as I can remember, this was my dad’s mantra. He couldn’t understand how most professional footballers – men who were paid to play the game for a living – weren’t able to make good use of their so-called weaker feet. Growing up, this was instilled in me – and I used to practise in the back garden, kicking with my left foot as well as my stronger right.
We were fortunate to have quite a big garden; it was narrow but very long – with ample space for a football ‘pitch’. I badgered my dad to buy some goalposts, so our house was the regular venue for my friends and I to stage highly competitive games of ‘Wembley’ or ‘Three and In’. Dad was very tolerant of the wear and tear the garden suffered. The flower beds took a pounding – and if it wasn’t our garden, spare a thought for next door (on both sides). Many a time we had visits from Mr Dampier or Mr Wade, after a ball had flown across into their gardens. A tennis ball even found its way into Mr Wade’s kitchen on one occasion – this was classed as a six in a cricket match I was playing with my friend!
Dad’s influence was strong when it came to sport, especially football – we were Arsenal fans. I don’t remember having a choice in the matter, they were just our team. Cup Final day was always a massive event in our house – my grandad and my cousin would come round and we would all soak up the atmosphere – the pre-match build-up, the singing of ‘Abide with Me’, then of course the match itself.
The first Cup Final I remember was the famous ‘Five Minute Final’ when Arsenal blew a 2-0 lead, allowing Manchester United to draw level with late goals from Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy, only for Alan Sunderland to grab a dramatic late winner in the final minute. This is also my first memory of my dad’s very loud celebration. “GOAL!” he would bellow – to the extent that our cat jumped out of his skin and scarpered out into the back garden. My wife and son are familiar with my very similar goal celebrations – as is our cat, Charli!
I think I also inherited my dad’s natural pessimism when it came to Arsenal’s fortunes – which was demonstrated every time the opposition crossed our halfway line. “Trouble here!” my dad would exclaim, even though nine times out of ten Arsenal would snuff out any potential danger. I would glare at my dad when he started being too negative but deep down I felt the same.
We watched plenty of games on television together but actually going to a game was a big deal. The first Arsenal game I went to with my dad was at Selhurst Park – Boxing Day, 1980 – a visit to relegation-threatened Crystal Palace. Surely this would be guaranteed two points (yes, these were the days before three point for a win). I was eight years old – and I still recall walking up the steps towards our seats, then suddenly seeing the vivid green of the pitch, the glare of the floodlights, the tinny sound of the music screeching out of the tannoy system and, finally, the players – my heroes. Sadly, my first ever Arsenal hero, Liam Brady, had been sold to Juventus the previous summer but we still had Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Graham Rix and Alan Sunderland. I remember an exciting game – which we dominated but despite leading twice, we were pegged back a brace from Palace’s speedy winger, Tony Sealey. We were robbed near the end of the game though – our big defender Willie Young, not known for his sweet skills, managed to score from a spectacular overhead kick. Dad and I leapt to our feet – astonished and thrilled in equal measure – only for the referee to disallow the goal for what he deemed to be dangerous play.
I also remember the violence. This was the age of the football hooligan and midway through the first half, the huge Holmesdale Road terrace at Selhurst Park became a mass of flailing fists and feet. The fighting escalated at half-time and I started getting scared – my dad had to reassure me that they couldn’t get to us where we were sitting.
We used to go down to Bournemouth for our summer holidays in the early- to mid-1980s, and one year my dad took me to a pre-season friendly between Bournemouth and Southampton at the old Dean Court ground (it wasn’t showing much Vitality back in 1983!). This was still the peak period for hooliganism in English football – and even a sleepy, summer pre-season game down on the coast wasn’t immune. Despite the pre-game festival atmosphere, which featured a meet and greet with professional patriot Ken Bailey – the game erupted into mayhem and madness once the game got underway. Southampton ‘fans’ ran onto the pitch in what seemed like huge numbers – aiming to storm the Bournemouth end. Order was restored eventually but after the game there was more aggro – my dad and I had to sprint to our car to avoid the missiles being hurled across the car park.
I wasn’t deterred though – thanks to my dad I now had the bug. The journey of a lifelong football supporter had well and truly begun. Fans of all clubs will attest to the same feelings of hope and despair. Every season starts with the same optimism, the same dreams. I’ve celebrated a lot of Arsenal victories and trophy-winning seasons but sadly the current crop of players can’t live up to some of the heroes of the past. Most of them can’t even kick with both feet!