Dave Seager’s first book was the excellent Geordie Armstrong on the Wing, a perfect tribute to the man, the footballer and the legend that was George Armstrong. His second treads very different, but equally enjoyable ground based around the premise that as football fans, we need two things if we are to survive long-term with any semblance of sanity – the chance to share our football stories and thoughts, and discuss the same with fellow fans…and a sense of humour, however dark. Otherwise one’s “just an idiot who loves feeling like crap for a large part of the year”.
The tagline is “Seriously funny, yet funnily serious” because, well, surviving as an Arsenal supporter definitely falls into the category of serious business, requiring, demanding even, an enduring and long-suffering sense of humour, an ability to laugh at oneself and one’s team (in this case, ze Gunners).
For some reason or another, the North London club (well, the right one anyway) has a rather baffling association with a long line of fans of the comedic variety. And not just those who have a Twitter account, loads of time and aren’t as funny as they think (though there’s plenty of them too), but professional comedians. Not just that either. Arsenal Football Club can also boast of the most number of fan-sites, blogs and podcasts, as well as actual acronyms for their deeply-divided fanbase (I’m neither an AKB nor a WOB; where does that leave me?). Maybe it’s because the club’s recent years have been “darkly comical, full of farcical potential” as Boyd Hilton, the editor of Heat Magazine, points out in the preface.
Either way, in a sport that Dave argues perhaps spawns the biggest number of clichés, there is plenty of material available for those brave enough to venture in that direction. Turns out there’s quite a few. Though, as it turns out, it wasn’t so many years ago. Football in the pre-Sky Sports and Premier League era was more of a dirty secret and using it as stand-up material meant alienating all the non-fans in the crowd. Now, however, the subject as well as the sport has a wider range of societal approval and appeal, making it a more acceptable topic of discourse.
“It struck me that perhaps the perfect way to combine our enjoyment of hearing other fans’ stories, with an essential comedic element, would be to approach some chaps who could assist me with both.” (Dave, in his introduction to the book)
Dave’s Emirates neighbour, Alex Brooker, is cited by him as the main inspiration behind the book’s conception. With a title that plays on the famous Jimmy Greaves saying “Football is a Funny Old Game”, this slender collection features many famous, household names from Ian Stone to Romesh Ranganathan to Matt Lucas to Clive Andersen to Paul Kaye and many more. In a review of a book like this, there is a temptation to go chapter by chapter, detail by detail and make a comprehensive list of all the things one has enjoyed or not (in this case, it’s mostly the former). But though the biographical details of each featuring comedian are just a few clicks away, the book is so readable because of the anecdotes and the memories. And giving them away would be giving away the essence of it. So I’m just going to skim the surface, if you will, and leave the rest to all of you who I hope will order a copy as soon as you’re done reading this. I do have to add the disclaimer that this is a “Gooner” book at its core, and though it would be recommended to those other fans with an interest in all things football even if their club is not involved, it’s unlikely to appeal to non-fans.
With the comedy circuit being a fairly small one, there are also plenty of links between the stories, though the individuals themselves came from different backgrounds and have followed different paths to becoming Gooners. Many have worked with each other at some point, or continue to be regular features on each other’s shows, podcasts and events. Many name Liam Brady as their first favourite player, the only “flash” player the Gunners had in those days, and reminisce rather fondly about the North Bank. Many had to rely on friends, on extended family or other factors to start their journeys. And for a surprising number, it was a way to escape the messy reality of parental divorces, a chance to spend some quality time with their fathers and brothers, not unlike Nick Hornby.
As former barristers to journalists to graphic artists to philosophy graduates, these comedians have a rich pool of experiences and perspectives to mine from, and this makes for some fascinating reading. From discussions on the rise of podcasts and Mock the Week style panels and their possible appeal, to the atmosphere on the terraces before the compulsion of all-seater stadia, to personal favourite moments (many are expected like the Double win in 1998 or the Invincibles in 2004, but others may surprise you) to meeting former and current Arsenal heroes (again, some amazing, and many funny, recollections here) to their “Arsenal story” (don’t we all have one?).
There’s the story of the playground politics and pressure to support a team for the young Milton Jones and Chris Martin (no, not the singer) among their “glory-hunting 4 and 5 year old peers”, there’s Jones deciding on Arsenal because of a BBC news report on an Arsenal scarf being knitted and Martin misguidedly picking Man United before his Parkinson-affected Gooner granddad set him straight, and there’s Clive Andersen’s reply in a recent Guardian interview to a question about his greatest fear (Arsenal conceding from a corner!).
There are hilarious recollections of the time when David Dein thought that Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran wanted to buy Arsenal, of a hungover Romesh Ranganathan meeting Ian Wright in Manchester, of Hugh Dennis’ inexplicable Gooner denial until very late in his fan life, of Paul Kaye and Matt Lucas drunk dialling David Seaman to congratulate him on winning the Double in 1998, of a pub landlady in Norwich with a Jose Antonio Reyes shrine behind the bar (I’m dead serious), of the mystery connection between Dara O’Briain’s watch clasp and his celebration of Arsenal goals, and of Tom Rosenthal’s quality time in the bushes at a Nigerian wedding after an incident involving the North London Derby at White Hart Lane and a sly tug on a Spurs fan’s mullet.
“So the lesson to be learnt is there is no neutral stand at the North London Derby and don’t celebrate when you are in a Tottenham stand. Also, always keep an eye out for a Tottenham fan punching a wall, it really is great stuff to witness.” (Tom Rosenthal)
Two of these comedians have even been “behind enemy lines” in the truest sense of the word as pertaining to a football fan. Matt Lucas, who I only knew from Little Britain, worked at the Chelsea football club shop when he took a year out after A-levels to try and venture into the stand-up comedy world. His mum had agreed on the condition that he contributed a certain weekly amount to the household finances. As a staunch Gooner, he rebelled in his own way by often wearing an Arsenal shirt under the mandatory Chelsea uniform, and also found a way to cheer his team without appearing like a traitor to his employee (I’ll let you read that for yourself).
Paul Kaye, the other sufferer, had it even worse in the sense that his first post-graduation job was as a designer at White Hart Lane! He refutes rumours of his alleged subterfuge but does concede that he artfully hid an Arsenal cannon in one of their autumn catalogues. Which nicely brings up the next point – if the Arsenal love-in present in this book is a bit too much for some, then there’s also Carl Donnelly, a Spurs supporting comic, who has been roped in to provide a “balancing anti-Gunner rant”. You can all imagine how thoroughly rational that one is (Dave calls it Carl’s “personal therapy session”).
At this point I have to stop for another disclaimer – I’m not someone who is very well educated in the ways and characters of the United Kingdom’s comedy world. Also, not having grown up there, there are many childhood references for my generation and others below and above that I have no personal investment in. And yet there was plenty of common ground in these disparate fan stories – the deep, shared love of the club, the indescribable passion and inexplicable belonging that engulfs us, resigning us to a lifetime of tumultuous emotions on a very regular basis. Most importantly, there is humour, there are laughs, and the satisfaction of having read something with an underlying universal element that is enriching in a way that cannot be explained. There were many instances while reading the book when I burst out laughing to the confusion and alarm of those around me, and all I wanted to do was call up my sister, a fellow fan, and share them with her, with anyone else who’d understand. The English sense of humour is special, and sometimes an acquired taste. For the most part, Dave, like in his first book, has kept the original words of the people he’s interviewed, and the conversational tone and the humour does translate well onto the page.
The common thread that runs throughout Supporting Arsenal is a Funny Old Game is everyone’s belief that it isn’t about games or players as much as singular moments. Stories of individual brilliance, goals, moments that turned matches or broke the hearts of thousands and still possess an emotionally wrecking power, the seconds that validate and justify what we put ourselves through day after day, season after season.
“The purest most satisfying feeling that comes with your team winning something and the crazy thing is that it is ‘we’ because you feel like you have achieved it too or with them. You and your mates have been validated in this thing you love for a year or a day even. It is mad isn’t it how these moments make you feel.” (Jim Campbell of the Football Ramble podcast fame, the largest independent UK podcast, and one of the largest in the world)
(Supporting Arsenal is a Funny Old Game is published by Legends Publishing and you can buy a copy here. This book is in support of Comic Relief and a percentage of every sale is donated to the charity)