The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

The Origin of Obsession

(Note: This is cross-posted to my personal blog –

Back in 1992, English writer Nick Hornby penned a novel that served as a watershed for many soccer fans (although had he known that the colonies would eventually turn it into a bastardized movie about a baseball team, he may not have bothered). It was called Fever Pitch, and it used his obsession with the London-based soccer team Arsenal FC as a backdrop to his autobiography. It centered on his personal relationships (familial and romantic) and his fumbling attempts at transitioning from childhood to adulthood. It is a brilliant work, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t tell the whole story. While Arsenal meant something very particular to him, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why it means so much to me (as anyone who has seen angry Facebook status updates along the lines of “SORT IT OUT (player’s name here)” can attest).

You know, I don’t even entirely know why I chose this as my Super Soaraway Decade-Ending Extravaganza piece. It’s not exactly in my nature to share with the class, you know? Perhaps it’s because the decade’s ending, I’ve recently entered my thirties, and about the only two constants I’ve had in the last very long time have been Arsenal and my employment at my current company. While I’m sure a retrospective about what proofreading reports was like would make for fascinating reading, you’ll have to make do with the footy instead.

Anyway, I wish I had a good reason to support this particular club like Hornby does. I can’t say that my father took me to Highbury in an attempt to rescue a fractured relationship…as a matter of fact, I didn’t make it to The Home of Football until 1998 (and they lost 5-1 to sodding Chelsea on top of it). Right around the time that Fever Pitch was coming out, the old SportsChannel New York was showing the English Premier League highlights show. Arsenal weren’t especially great in those days – I believe they ended up finishing 6th or 7th that season. Anyway, there were two clubs whose names I really liked – Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers. I think the cannon on the crest and the fact that they wore red instead of blue is what tilted the scales in favor of the Gunners. Either way, that is seriously how I ended up throwing my lot in with this particular side. Hardly an epic tale, I know.

Now, I’ve always had a fascination with soccer in terms of the actual gameplay. Even in my youth, I aspired to be a goalkeeper and quit my youth team in a fit of pique (throwing fits and quitting were two things I excelled at back in those days) when my coach wanted to stick the fat kid in goal instead. But, I was slavishly devoted to hockey and football and baseball as well. Soccer didn’t have any particular hold on me as a sport over and above my general infatuation with grown men playing children’s games.

But, soccer was the only one that was well and truly mine – no one else I knew followed it at all. The first time I ran into someone who knew that 4-4-2 wasn’t an area code was in college, when my sophomore-year roommate held floor-wide FIFA ’98 tournaments on his PlayStation (we almost won the World Cup with the Cook Islands, which just about explains the level of our collective obsession…if you can find the Cook Islands on a map, that is).

I can understand if you dismiss the above as being no different than a music snob who only likes a band until the millisecond they stop being obscure. However, you have to understand the family I grew up in. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that there are almost no shrinking violets in the Swift/McNay family, but it would probably surprise you to learn that I was one of them until very recently. Both of my parents are gregarious, stubborn people who won’t take crap from anyone (that explains the early divorce, then). My younger brother Daniel was a showman and a scene-stealer from the time he could talk, and even to this day he is the kind of guy who gets away with saying and doing things that no one else would get away with.

More importantly though, you have to remember that I’m an identical twin. For those that aren’t one, I can hardly describe what the experience is like. On one hand, it’s comforting to have someone who is closer to you than anyone, who knows you better than you do and will say things you need to hear even if you don’t necessarily want to hear them at the time. On the other, people tend to view you as almost two halves of a singular unit, and are often surprised to discover that there are two distinct and unique human beings in there somewhere. Hold on to your hats, but they may even have differing opinions and personalities! In other words, it’s easy to be pigeonholed as That Guy’s Brother rather than being a distinct and sovereign entity.

Not only that, but no one who ever met him along the way is surprised that Patrick is the one whose vocation can be summed up as “rock star”. I’ve been on tour with him twice, and I can’t believe how adroitly he handles a crush of strangers all wanting to be in his presence (for the record, I think every synapse in my brain would short-circuit in that situation if we ever traded places). Whenever he enters a room, he is immediately the absolute center of attention – either it starts that way or it gets there upon his request. That, friends and neighbors, is what I’ve been competing with since the days of untying every variation of knot to escape our carseats as kids.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t say “compete” to imply that I am resentful of him or that I am envious. He has a life that he is happy with, and that I would not be (I swear on my uncle’s grave that I would rather have swine flu than children). I have a life that I am happy with, and he would not be. It all worked out, in short. However, it would be dishonest to say that we had an equal station in life for most of the duration, especially when we were younger. That’s the way it is, and I’m OK with it. It also doesn’t mean that I had no friends or that I was completely a miserable curmudgeon (I’ll give you “partially”), but I’d also be lying if I said that I knew that many people who didn’t know Patrick first.

The sum total of the above blathering is that around the time that I discovered that the English Premier League existed, I was desperate for something that I could associate with that was a part of a greater whole, but simultaneously would belong only to me. For me, Arsenal Football Club could not have come at a better time.

It was hard to follow them at first, as Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports were far into the future, as was the idea of a soccer pub in the United States. Once the Highlights Show went off the air in the mid-90s, my soccer consumption was limited to the late, great Online Arsenal Fanzine and (strangely) the occasional Ajax Amsterdam match that would intermittently appear on ESPN2 (by the way, those Ajax teams were ridiculous – van der Sar was in goal, and the attack featured luminaries like Jari Litmanen, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars).

Then, there was the aforementioned 1998 trip to England. I studied there for a semester, and I distinctly remember walking in the neighborhood around Highbury to watch an away Champions’ League fixture (Panathinaikos of the Greek league were the opponents…how I remember this, I have no idea). At the time, the Gunners boasted a defensive midfielder from France-by-way-of-Senegal named Patrick Vieira. As it turns out, I was stopped in the street by a gentleman from Senegal, and ended up shooting the breeze with him for a good 15-20 minutes. It was only much later that it struck me – what the bloody hell else would I have in common with a guy from Senegal? Only Arsenal…that’s it.

I’ll fast-forward past the game catching on (relatively) on these shores after we hosted the 1994 World Cup, my moving to the New York City area in 2003, and Nevada Smith’s transitioning from a Manchester United supporters’ bar into The Great American Soccer Melting Pot. Today, every Saturday or Sunday (depending on the fixture list), I find myself in Nevada’s with a regular cast of characters – and my god, are they ever characters – as part of a collective all supporting the same cause. In a lot of ways, I feel home when I am there, and it’s all of the rest of the times where I feel like I’m away from it all. It’s only a couple of hours a weekend, but I can’t do without it.

It all comes back to the notion of individuality while part of a group. As I’ve written in other places, football is an amazingly tribal culture…think about it, you’re all wearing the same colors and chanting the same words. You’re in opposition against another group with their own colors and chants, and even the verbiage of the songs tends towards the militaristic (the typical injury-time ditty when we’re winning is one guy says “Arsene Wenger’s” – that’s the name of our coach – and everyone else yells “Red and White Army!”). But, all of the regulars there mainly know me in my capacity as an Arsenal supporter. I’m not That Guy’s Brother, I’m just the guy who always stands in the back corner near the big screen, wearing the 1998-99 goalkeeper kit. It’s quite nice to have that one refuge, to be frank.

That said, it’s far less of an issue these days. I started here almost six years ago, and most of you have never met my brother. I joined a soccer league two years ago, and instead of “Oh, you’re Pat’s brother?”, it’s more along the lines of “Why does he play so many games each night?” or “Why’s he pissed at the referee now?”. This is all progress, and it’s good. Still, Arsenal was my first opportunity to branch out in that manner, and it will always maintain a frighteningly-high level of importance, just like it does for Hornby and the millions of other Gooners out there who all follow the cause as well.

And, with that…



December 17, 2009 - Posted by | The Arsenal

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