Over the better part of my life as a Gooner (some 12-odd years by now) I celebrated victories and mourned defeats in a very personal, private way. My best friend and I would share in the joy or commiserate in the collapse. My wife supported me through emotional fluctuations and tolerated me when I was inconsolable. The effects of my devotion rarely extended beyond that small and dedicated circle, though. Whereas in Europe being a supporter means a vastly shared common experience, being a soccer (née football) fan in America has been mostly solitary for me.
Looking back, this solitude was by equal parts convenient and necessary. I could not justify the expenditure to get cable and all the various sports tiers required for unlocking Fox Soccer Channel, so my connection with the club began very abstractly with minimal monetary investment. For a few years after reading "Fever Pitch" I was glued to the gamecasts on ESPN Soccernet, rejoiced when our little dots put one past their little dots, and followed up by reading match reports on Arsenal.com.
Not exactly a tantalizing proposition to entice any other friends to the red and white, eh? Further along, I would download match recordings from the seedy underbelly of the Internet. That was quickly replaced by my Red Membership and the related perk of Arsenal TV (now Arsenal Player) access. Investing in the club and adding video as a vector for following the team made the interaction more personal but no less individual.
My personality tends toward the addictive, which ends up meaning Arsenal results are tremendously serious business. This bit is certainly not unique among Gooners or indeed serious supporters of anything, but it curtailed my desire to seek out public match viewings. For the most part I just wanted to suffer alone for 90 minutes plus stoppage time, comfortable knowing that I could exhibit whatever positive and negative emotions necessary to survive the fixture. Acting a fool in public never seemed necessary, even if I could be someplace among the like-minded.
Thankfully this season brought with it a change for the better in my status quo.
For the last few years I have worn my company ID on an Arsenal lanyard around my neck. More often than not it was a bullseye for bandwagoning Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool fans to target their gibes at; grade school lunch boxes all over again. As a meeting was winding down last summer, a colleague pointed to my lanyard and I braced myself for the latest crack about our million-year trophy drought (does anybody ever talk about how long it's been since Everton has won something? No?). What he said instead was something along the lines of, "So, you like Arsenal? There's a guy I know in this building who is a fanatic. I'll get him to email you."
It turns out that guy was one of the organizers of Charsenal. We traded fairly extensive emails throughout the summer and I started feeling comfortable with the notion of sharing my fandom beyond my small circle come the start of the 12/13 campaign.
Knowing that I would be a tightly wound bundle of raw nerves made me not quite ready to venture out when the season opener against Sunderland rolled around. For our next match at Stoke, though, I felt that if the Gunners could brave the gates of Mordor then I could go out to the pub and get some beers in. Good thing I did.
What's blatantly obvious in retrospect is sharing support within a group has magnetic comfort. I am drawn to my fellow fans now when match days approach and cannot imagine experiencing a game any other way again. They are every bit as outwardly passionate as I am, in some cases more so, and this passion is encouraged. We can debate the starting XI, marvel at the latest transfer rumors, agonize over the latest spate of injuries (seriously, how comfortable is that training table? Do the physios serve bottomless ice cream?), and scream at the television to celebrate and castigate. Coming out to watch a match with Charsenal has expanded and enhanced what it means for me to be a Gooner.
Will you be joining us next season?