Getting older is a peculiar experience, particularly hitting 40. There are highs—a new decade, the chance for over the top and extended celebrations—and then there are lows— your mortality suddenly hits you over the head and won’t leave you alone, you feel ‘past it’, angry that you’ve not done nearly enough in your life nor are the person you thought you would become.
Suddenly the cliche of a midlife crisis becomes clearer, more understandable, perhaps more desirable. After going through various phases in my 20s and 30s, I felt like I wanted to reclaim myself, to become more me, whatever that would end up meaning. It was football that helped me come back to myself.
I’ve always been into football. In 1986, aged 7, I wrote a match report of the FA Cup Final between Liverpool and Everton just for fun (you know the one, with the famous footage of fans climbing into Wembley). I clearly remember the 1989 title race which Arsenal won at Anfield. I’m from Swindon, an average town with an average football team, where I marched against their demotion for financial irregularities in 1990, went to Wembley in 1993 when they were in the play offs to get into the Premier League, and went to matches at the County Ground during that infamous top-flight season. I religiously read football magazines and had a teenage flirtation with Manchester United. I saw the famously fiery Cantona get sent off at one of those County Ground games, presumably for distracting me so much in the warm up that I got a ball kicked by Brian McClair square in the face. I even qualified as a referee when I was 12.
As soon as I got to university, however, my interest in the game took a dip, bar international tournaments. Every year I’d watch the opening day Match of the Day and every year that’d be enough to sate my interest. In 2012 there was the Euros, the Olympics (I went to Wembley and saw England women beat Brazil 1-0) and, of course, before both of those, the iconic battle for the title between Manchester United and Manchester City. That year I started seeing someone who was also into football. In 2013 we moved in together, started watching all the televised games, and haven’t stopped.
The true turning point though was in 2018, the year before I turned 40. There was a World Cup. England performed way above their weight, going out to Croatia in the semi final. It’s been written about a thousand times but finally we had a team we could be genuinely proud of, with a likeable manager and even more likeable players. Tournaments always bring new and fairweather fans to the fore but this was a fresh start for English football with what truly felt like the whole country behind the boys.
On the back of this new interest in the sport, I put out a call for people on Twitter to join me in a low-stakes, just for fun, Fantasy Football league. Not wanting it to be a free-for-all, I created a group chat for those who wanted to join, some of whom were already mutuals, others new faces entirely.
The conversations initially focused on football, on whom to pick, what to call our teams, what the rules were, and how playing the game worked, but they soon developed into something deeper, something stronger. It felt a bit like starting university; awkward, cautious, wary of revealing your true self, until one day the walls crumble and you realise you’ve made friends for life. Throughout everything that followed they became a support group, a place to vent, to laugh, to cry. Every day I thank Twitter and, I suppose, Football Twitter in particular, for bringing us together.
There’s a perception that “Football Twitter” is the worst of Twitter. It usually means the children with football userpics who post “ratio” under every club tweet. It’s the racists and the homophobes who post offensive emojis under the posts about inclusion or by Black players who’ve had a bad game. It’s the men who tell women to be quiet, whether their tweet is related to Football or not, but definitely even more so if it is. It’s the defenders of abusers. It’s those who tell you to “cry more”.
However, as with everything with such a large audience, there are multiple facets to it and I was able to find the warm, the welcoming, the LGBTQIA, the women, the tolerant, and the politically engaged. It provided me with a place to talk about the game I love in the way I wanted and to discover so many like-minded people along the way.
It remained solely on Twitter for a while. I enjoyed the banter, loved getting RTs and Likes on my football tweets, and got a kick out of being followed by people in the game and my corner of Football Twitter that I liked and respected. It continued throughout the pandemic, with many people finding solace in Project Restart and the crowdless games. With so few things giving joy, this was one to which we could all cling.
And so it was that as friendships became tighter, they bled from Twitter into WhatsApp and then, when we were allowed, into in-person meetings. As someone who’s always struggled to make and maintain friendships, it was a revelation; here was my crowd, the people I’d always been searching for.
Things are never that linear though, are they? The pandemic was unkind to me, or perhaps that should read during the pandemic I was unkind to myself, which brought with it a whole raft of difficulties leaving me caught up in many insecurities both longstanding and new.
What kept me going though was football. Be it keeping up with the various teams I adopted over the period to complement my love of Arsenal (Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, and Barcelona, if you’re asking), forcing myself out to watch games with friends, tweeting about all the nonsense of the game or, eventually, writing about it myself in a weekly newsletter.
All of these things took different levels of bravery. The tweeting less so; I’m permanently attached to my phone and have been for many years, so let’s discount that, but leaving the house when I felt physically and mentally ravaged, spending time with people I’d only spoken to online, and putting myself out there as someone with something to say about football all took guts. Luckily the support I received from my new community was incredible. My friends were understanding about my limitations, the fact that we only knew each other online didn’t feel like an issue, and the feedback and encouragement about my writing was unexpectedly wonderful.
At the heart of this was another entity in transition: Arsenal Football Club. A team who’d been so comfortable with their identity for nearly a quarter of a century, who lost their key tenet in 2018 and entered a period of similar upheaval and uncertainty to that which I was experiencing. We both had hard times characterised by perceived failures, moments of despair, times where we wondered who we even were anymore.
Even when things went well—getting to a Europa League Final, Mikel Arteta’s appointment, winning the FA Cup that same season—it felt fleeting and temporary. There was a sense, for Arsenal and for me, that we’d have to settle. That maybe this was what we were now, someone with good patches but no real lasting joy or success.
That was until the Summer of 2022. The Arsenal squad was refreshed with new signings, returning loanees, and they had an unbeaten pre-season. On my side I had some of the best times of my life going to football-related events and games including the Lionesses triumph in the Euros at Wembley. Life started to feel fresh and new and full of possibilities.
The Premier League season started well. Arsenal beat Crystal Palace 0-2 on the opening day, resplendent in their gorgeous pink third kit. Then they beat Leicester and then Bournemouth thanks to two early goals from Martin Ødegaard and a second-half effort from William Saliba. On that sunny Saturday morning in late August, when I heard the Saliba chant for the first time, it felt like there was a change in the air, that maybe this group of players was building something special.
It continued right up to the break for the World Cup, with Arsenal sitting atop the league without having moved since the opening day. Then it continued. When Arsenal didn’t get their preferred targets in the transfer window, they implemented Plan B, signing Jorginho and Leandro Trossard, which has turned out to be the best plan they could have ever had. They showed us that, to quote Poorly Drawn Arsenal quoting the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you’ll find you get what you need. Even after a couple of brief wobbles in early 2023 (something I also went through), they were back on track ahead of the current international break. The possibility of it being a season the like of which, given the records broken and the performances put in, we’ve not ever seen still burns brightly.
As for me, I’d already started going to a few of the Arsenal Women’s team games, both at Meadow Park and the Emirates, but had always felt like men’s games weren’t for me. However, following a conversation with a friend I made through Arsenal Twitter, I found myself in possession of a ticket to the Everton game at the Emirates on a cold March evening, vibrating with the excitement of it all.
My perception of men’s matches had always been that they were aggressive, intimidating places, so I arrived at the ground excited, yes, but also nervous. I couldn’t have been more wrong; the crowd was chilled out and friendly, the few Everton fans I saw were left alone to go about their business. All around me people were happy and full of anticipation, chatting happily and taking selfies or pictures of the stadium in all its glory, lit up, and resplendent with its new artwork. Is that because Arsenal are having such a great season and there’s no reason to be angry or have I been being unfair to the crowds all this time? Inside the stadium it got even better; the atmosphere was like nothing I’ve ever felt and against everything I expected or believed about myself I shouted and chanted, gasped at the VAR call and even made friends with the people sitting either side of me. My heart swelled a thousand sizes in those two hours.
Two weeks later I was back for the home leg of the Europa League Round of 16 against Sporting Lisbon. Again, where I was sitting at least, the atmosphere was crackling, tense, passionate. Again, I yelled and chanted and even hugged the stranger next to me when Granit Xhaka scored. We lost on penalties eventually but it didn’t dampen my feelings for the team or ruin the experience. I left feeling lighter, happier, renewed. I felt like I was home.
It’s often said that you learn most about yourself in times of adversity, but for both me and Arsenal I feel like it’s the good times that have really taught us who we are. After many years of ups and downs and not knowing which way to turn, we’ve both found a place of stability and joy. When Mikel Arteta said “you can always get better in life, innit”, I felt that deeply, no matter how cringeworthy or trite that may sound. Take one game at a time, take one day at a time, and who knows what you might be able to achieve.