The only difference was that, being a Plastic Foreign Gooner (or a PFG for short), it was mid-afternoon, I was at home with no pub to go to, and I had a ready supply of Haagen-Dazs in the freezer to supply any Arsenal-induced compulsive-eating binge that might occur. I was ready for nearly anything, and I think I half-expected the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to turn up next to Sir ‘Phallics' on the Manure bench.
I'd learned my lesson early in the season about taking matches for granted. My last-year's-clearance yellow Dennis Bergkamp shirt hung untouched in the closet, where it had been relegated since I deemed it unlucky, along with my red ‘Kali 11' Dreamcast version which had made its last appearance in ‘that' match against Charlton last autumn.
I had even talked myself into believing that I was some sort of bad-luck omen for Arsenal, because of some strange coincidences. It seemed that every match I watched live, we ended up losing or shockingly drawing, right up until Juventus away in the Champions League. So I'd forced myself (with the help of a revoltingly low bank balance) to forgo all the pay-per-view matches and follow the Gooners like a proper PFG, through SMS messaging, tape-delayed showings, and obsessive Internet usage.
When I learned that the Arsenal-West Ham match would be shown live in the U.S. on cable (not PPV for the first time in months, it seemed), I honestly had a moral dilemma on my hands. Should I watch the game live, risking a repeat of the Kali Curse, or watch the replay later that night, but without the thrill that live football provides? I even posted a poll online, in which I was strongly encouraged to stay the hell away from the TV during the match. Needless to say though, in the end, my live-Arsenal celibacy ended that day, curse or no curse. The boys hadn't disappointed me that day, or since, and I was just waiting for my bad luck to strike again.
So there I sat on the sofa, having vented all my pre-match nervous tension by digging up a few flower beds, and feeling incredibly apprehensive. Manure were the defending champions, after all, and they wouldn't surrender the trophy at Old Trafford, would they? For all the talk about them missing David Beckham, a championship side is just that, and champions should be able to rise above adversity, shouldn't they? Without Tony Adams, Thierry Henry, or God (Bergkamp, for those of you unschooled in the deity-hierarchy), how would we hold up defensively and manage to create scoring chances?
With all these thoughts whirling around in my addled brain, I felt like Ozzy Osbourne on Percoset as the match started. I sat cross-legged, mumbling to myself like an unmedicated schizophrenic as Wiltord's shot was blocked by ‘that lucky geriatric' Laurent Blanc and Manure tried on their best hard-man acts at the expense of Vieira's legs and Freddie's head. The defending champions looked more desperate than Anthony Michael Hall in a John Hughes movie at that point, but I don't think it had quite sunk in yet.
As the match progressed, my mumbling got louder and more nervous. I found myself fixating on that habit of Wiltord's in which he traps the ball between his feet and promptly loses the ball, exacerbating the crazy-person reactions. During halftime, I changed the channel to CNN's Middle East coverage and found it strangely relaxing… was I becoming as loony as Sir Phallics himself? After checking the mirror to make sure my face hadn't suddenly become a strange purplish-red colour, I reassured myself that I wasn't quite THAT crazy (yet) and resumed my vigil on the sofa.
Then, somewhere in the middle of the barrage of Manure's heaving centering crosses and shots smacked right into our defenders' legs, Fabien Barthez kicked another howler straight at Wiltord. I'd barely stopped laughing when I realised what was happening next: Freddie had the ball near the Manure goal! My hands froze in some half-fetal, half-crab's claw gesture as the ball ricocheted off of the Magic 8-Ball and bounced in front of the goal. I stood up, my jaw locked, as Wiltord rolled the ball into the back of the net, and promptly began hopping up and down all over the house, yelling all the while.
Yep, I'd had my ‘Fever Pitch' moment but still hadn't realised it. I returned to the sofa, this time curling up in the fetal position with a pillow clutched in front of me. Every time Manure had the ball within 35 yards of our goal, I practically went into hysterics with fright. “Dude! Collapse!” I kept saying to the Arsenal midfielders when Scholes or Veron would get the ball with room to run, as if they could hear me and actually understand what ‘dude' meant. Finally, we were within minutes of victory, and I found myself having to resist the urge to chew the pillow I was clutching… I really was going insane, I thought.
As stoppage time drew near, however, some freaky serene feeling crept up on me. “Like, oh my God 10,” I thought to myself (pardon the Americanisms, I can't help it, okay?), “We're, like, on the verge of the double!” Seeing Lee Dixon enter the match only confirmed my thoughts, and as the boys fought through the final minutes, it was like I'd found Zen, in gold Nike shirts.
The images from there were an absolute blur: Arsene raising his hands in joy, Paddy kissing the Arsenal badge, Sol in a proper football shirt with a proper trophy, Ray getting doused with champagne during his interview, and so on. The only real comparison I can make is that of being present at the 1999 Women's World Cup final when Brandi Chastain scored her penalty kick to give the U.S. the victory, but I didn't have the emotional investment in the players as I do the Arsenal players.
I know I'm not ‘supposed to' care this much about Arsenal, as a PFG, but that day only confirmed that regardless of what some pseudo-intellectuals might claim on an online message board, I'm a Gooner. A proud Gooner, one who wishes she could celebrate the victory properly with other Gooners, one who fully recognises that she probably seems mental-hospital material to her parents and friends, one who's still paying off the credit card debt from her pilgrimage to Highbury over a year ago.
Most importantly, though, I'm a grateful Gooner… this team defied all expectations despite a rash of injuries, silly arrogant French national-team coaches, evil Barcode-loving referees, and a veritable cornucopia of transfer rumours. Thanks, Arsenal, for a team worth going absolutely crazy over, and for a season to remember!