If You Know Your History…
A guest post today on the AISA New Year reception. Just a reminder that another dose of the daily history of Arsenal can be found at Arsenal On This Day.
A couple of weeks back I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to AISAs New Year reception to celebrate the clubs 125th anniversary and hear more about the research being carried out by the Arsenal History Society. Thursday evenings aren’t the most convenient time to travel into London but the chance to get a little drunk at the House of Commons whilst discussing the history of Arsenal, is one that I couldn’t pass up.
I’ve been a member of AISA for 4 or 5 years now but only recently I realised that very few others were aware of them, even fewer still know what they’re about. Despite the fantastic work of people such as Tony Attwood in unravelling the seemingly cast iron history of the club, it was the Q&A meeting with Ivan Gazidis that really raised their profile beyond that of a small supporters group.
What does one wear to the House of Commons? Suggestions included a Wire, a red & white mankini, all with a smug grin. Ever one to please I decided to go with all three. Hiding a wire in a mankini is uncomfortable to say the least.
As I approached the designated entrance, I was greeted by two policeman, one of which felt the urge to cry ‘The Arsenal’ (albeit fairly softly) upon eyeing my Arsenal emblazoned bag. His ‘friend’ uttered an unimpressed ‘sigh’; I can only imagine that bobby 2 wasn’t an Arsenal fan. He was slightly uglier, unwashed and probably not as smart or funny as his colleague. I can’t be sure of this, so let’s just call it an educated guess.
Ushered through a turnstile, I turned the corner, ending up face-to-face with a heavily armed copper. It’s not the first time I’ve been pointed in the right direction by the snout of a rifle and it doesn’t get any more comfortable.
Once through security I entered the Jubilee Room which was incredibly small, packed from front to back and certainly not what I was expecting. I scoured the room for people I recognised some; Paul Matz and Tony Attwood gave a courteous welcome. As expected Maria (come on Arsenal) was there but apart from that, there were perhaps one or two others that I recognised from away days and previous AISA meetings.
The first real interesting moment was when Philippa made a clear b-line for me from across the room. I didn’t quite know what to make of her at first mainly due to the questions she asked; ‘So, why did you start supporting the club?’; ‘What are your links to the club?’; ‘Do you go home and away?’
Despite my initial concern, she was genuinely keen to hear what I had to say, learning more about the club from what she kept referring to as ‘true fans. It was at this point that I asked her to tell me a little about herself. She was Arsenal royalty: Philippa Dawson, the great granddaughter of Jack Humble, one of the five founding fathers of our great club. If you’re not familiar, Jack was in attendance for that famous meeting at the Royal Oak in Woolwich on Christmas Day 1886, one of the gentlemen that put a sixpence in the kitty, the first Chairman of the club and the only constant through each of our incarnations, starting with Dial Square through Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal to simply ‘Arsenal’ as it is today.
I was genuinely gobsmacked and I guess slightly saddened to learn that Jack and Arsenal were never mentioned and that up until very recently, she was completely unaware of her illustrious heritage.
Philippa explained that Jack’s Daughter – her Dad’s Auntie – was the only one that had an interest in his past and when she disappeared to America, so did all trace of links with the club. Inspired by an episode of ‘Who do you think you are’ Philippa took it upon herself to look into her family’s past and found Jack. She made a remark suggesting that despite the fact that he’d obviously become a very wealthy man, Jack hadn’t left anything for her, to which I replied “don’t look at it like that, he left something for all of us”. This earned me a big kiss on the cheek. She looked close to a tear as she stepped back and said “thank you so much for saying that”.
I asked what more she’d learned about Jack and she explained that she’s been in contact with her family in the States and they apparently hold a rather large archive of info. She’s now working with the Arsenal History Society to bring anything of interest to light and help us understand more about the man and the club. I wished her the best of luck as she made her way to the back of the room for the start of the speeches.
Gavin Silvey (AISA Chairman) kicked off with a quick welcome, an overview of AISA and explained how proud he was of the endless campaigning work they’d done alongside Ken Friar in gaining permission for, the building of, eventual move to, and more recently the ‘Arsenalisation’ of Ashburton Grove. He explained that they’re working closely with the club to ensure that the supporters are heard and that our needs and wants were understood. He spoke of AISAs involvement with Arsenal in the community since their inception 12 years ago (during which time they’ve managed to raise in excess of £75,000 for charities supported by the club) and wished us all well before introducing the next speaker.
Jeremy Corbyn (MP for Islington North) was next up. It was immediately clear that he’s incredibly passionate about the club and his constituency which houses both Ashburton Grove and what’s now left of Highbury. He spoke of his frustration at people arriving late and leaving early on match days which seems to have become something of a running theme at AISA meets. It came up a few times during the Q&A with Gazidis last year and in the previous speech, Gavin had made a joke about it, comparing it with Man City’s so-called passionate fans all dressing up as sky blue seats against Liverpool.
As an MP it was no surprise that Jeremy’s entire ethos is built around bringing communities together, using football as something to lift the spirits and developing a sense of belonging for those living under the most difficult of circumstances. It was an impressive speech. As someone that grew up on a tough, poor estate in London, Arsenal was my escape and I found myself nodding along like a plastic dog throughout. He then introduced Philippa to the rest of the room and up she stood to loud applause.
She started her speech with a throwaway joke about becoming an Arsenal fan because the red shirts matched her shoes & lipstick but quickly grabbed her audience’s attention by speaking about how welcome she’d been made by the fans she’d met, her immeasurable pride at being related to Jack and the potential of more information in America. She looked towards a picture of the man himself, finishing with “God, all I can see is my Dad. He had the full beard and everything. Thank you all, so, so much” and went back to her seat to another large round of applause. A little later, she sought me out again to see how I thought it went, we chatted for another couple of minutes, exchanged emails and pleasantries before she set off early with her partner to start their long trip home to Somerset.
Then it was on to the last speaker and enter stage left, Tony Atwood (Arsenal History Society & Editor of Untold Arsenal) who was at his eccentric and theatrical best as he began to tell us a story. He set the scene racing through the traditional Arsenal story as we know it “Scene 1: a group of factory workers at Dial Square Armoury decide to start a football team. Scene 2: they donate sixpence each to get things started. Danskin adds another three to buy a ball. Scene 3: they move from a field on the Isle of Dogs to Plumstead Common etc, etc” before sharing some very interesting stories that I hadn’t previously heard. There were fights with landlords, competition for grounds with a local rival team, back handers, extortion, community splits and more but I’m not going to steal anybodies thunder as they’ll soon be publishing their findings. Visit http://www.blog.woolwicharsenal.co.uk/ to read many other stories that challenge the conventional beliefs about the foundations of our club.
With me finishing this piece in the 5th hour of my journey home from a defeat at Swansea, I am keen to talk about what Tony said of our away support. It’s widely accepted that the support we took to away grounds and consequent revenue generated by the hosts, played a huge part in Arsenals promotion into Division One after a vote in 1919 whilst I’m sure every set of fans believes their away support to be the best, it seems that we, once again have history (*cough Chelsea*) to back it up.
It’s common knowledge that due to our links with the Royal Arsenal, we were almost certainly the first to have people turning up at grounds nationwide to support us but what Tony explained was that him and his team now also believe that apart from the soldiers working in various areas of the country, Arsenal were in fact the first to have general members of the public follow the team in numbers to away grounds. New evidence shows that they brought instruments, singers and even fire crackers made within the walls of the Armoury itself.
He said that they’d also found that the sheer volume of away support we received resulted in the introduction of visitor sections and beyond that, away support ticket allocation. Apparently thousands would arrive hours early and fill stadia to the point that not only were home fans struggling to get through the door but the ones that did were actually outnumbered. Great eh?
It was a great night and I think the best way to finish is with something that Jeremy Corbyn said when talking about the gloomy faces of local residents even after a 3-0 win,
“When we win, try to be more cheerful and when we lose? Well, be optimistic”.