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How I Became A Gooner: My story from India to London and a surprise meeting with Arsene Wenger

My name is Jay Puducheri. I am a 26 year old Arsenal fan living in Chennai, India. My first experience watching a football match came in 2002. I watched the World Cup final between Brazil and Germany. I remember watching Oliver Kahn make a mistake in the final and Ronaldo punishing that error to give Brazil the lead. I enjoyed watching that game but for some reason, it didn’t lead to my having a sustained interest in football. 

Early in my life, the sport that I was most interested in was cricket. India has a good cricket team and I have fond memories of our run to the final of the ICC World Cup in 2003.

Introduction to Football via the World Cup

In 2006, a couple of my friends began talking about the impending FIFA World Cup. They had both decided to support France and it was because of one player in particular – Thierry Henry. They forced me to engage in conversation about a sport I knew nothing about and talked to me about the phenomenal season the iconic Frenchman had enjoyed at Arsenal which had ended in heartbreak in Paris. This was the first time I would hear about Arsenal Football Club. My friends had me sold on France and Thierry Henry and without knowing too much about either apart from what I had been told, I decided that they would be my team.

I was eleven years old during the World Cup and I remember enjoying the experience. It ended in heartbreak in the final because of a red card that changed the complexion of the game and saw the team I was rooting against, lift the trophy. Sound Familiar?

First season as an Arsenal fan

I was entranced by the sport and started talking to my friends to learn more about the game. They were Arsenal fans and told me all about the Invincibles season and the impact Arsene Wenger had had on the club. In hindsight, I realise how little they told me about the North London club but I had heard enough to decide that Arsenal would be my team. It is amazing how such insignificant events can lead to such permanent bonds.

The first Arsenal game I ever watched was the first Premier League game at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal vs Aston Villa in August 2006. The Villains took the lead through Olof Mellberg and our skipper on the day Gilberto Silva converted a penalty to tie the game for the Gunners.

My first season as an Arsenal fan was probably my least favourite. One memorable moment from the campaign was Arsenal’s comeback win against Manchester United at the Emirates courtesy of Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. A painful moment was Arsenal’s loss to Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final where all hell broke loose towards the end. I idolised Thierry Henry and enjoyed watching him play even though his season was limited by injuries and probably his least successful one as an Arsenal player. A moment of magic from him against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park remains etched in my memory. 

The 2006/07 season was more of an introduction to the club for me. My second season is when my love affair with the Gunners truly began. 

The season that made me dream

I was on holiday with my family in Paris when I read in a newspaper that Henry had departed for Barcelona. My heart sank and I never thought life would be the same. As the season began, I remember pundits questioning how far this young Arsenal team with almost no survivors from the Invincibles side could go.

The Arsenal team of 2007/08 is the team that came closest to becoming Premier League champions since I’ve been a fan of the club. The team played exceptional football with Cesc Fabregas at the centre of everything. Emmanuel Adebayor had an astonishing season scoring 30 goals in all competitions. Mathieu Flamini complimented Fabregas perfectly in central midfield and everything seemed to click for Arsenal that year.

The Gunners were five points clear in February but then Birmingham happened. Eduardo’s injury remains one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve had as an Arsenal fan and the aftermath of his injury only compounded the impact I feel that moment had on our football club.

We drew the Birmingham game because of a last minute penalty awarded to the Midlands club which to this day, I believe was not a penalty. Arsenal went on a winless streak for four games after this and surrendered not just the title to Manchester United but a place in the top two as well to Chelsea. 

I experienced some of my highest highs as an Arsenal fan that season but the lows were excruciating. 

The highlights of that campaign were the 3-1 victory in the North London Derby where Fabregas, Adebayor and Bendtner scored the goals and our famous win in Milan that saw us knock the holders out of the European Cup and progress to the quarter finals. We became the first English side to beat AC Milan at the San Siro and it was a special night to have been an Arsenal fan. 

One of the lows was Eduardo’s heartbreaking injury. The feeling that all was lost at Birmingham is still fresh. I will never forget Gallas sitting on the pitch after the game, refusing to leave the field due to his disappointment.

Another low was our elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool in the quarter finals. It looked like we had sealed qualification late on through an Adebayor goal after a young Theo Walcott dribbled the length of the pitch and put it on a plate for him. 

This season had an unbelievable impact on me as a young Arsenal fan and saw me develop from a novice fan to a diehard Gooner. 

Top 3 moments as an Arsenal fan

Our win against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Emirates in 2011. Jack Wilshere, one of our own, played the game of his life and we beat the best team of all time without sacrificing our principles. We went toe to toe with Messi and co and came out on top. The commentator screaming Arshavin’s name remains fresh in my mind. 

The end of our trophy drought when we beat Hull City 3-2 to win the FA Cup in 2014. It had been 9 long years without a trophy as an Arsenal fan and the Gunners made us sweat in classic Arsenal fashion before completing an outstanding comeback to lift the cup. Aaron Ramsey had the season of his life and deserved to score the winner. Cazorla’s freekick was one for the ages. 

Thierry Henry’s goal on his return to the club on loan from New York Red Bulls in 2012 against Leeds United in the FA Cup. The game was evenly balanced and goalless when the Gunners legend came on from the bench. He scored a classic Thierry Henry goal on his second debut for the club and I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Worst 3 Moments as an Arsenal fan

Eduardo’s injury. I’ve talked about it enough in this article but I think it was the difference between us winning and losing the title in the 2007/08 season. Eduardo was an exciting striker before the injury and was never the same after he recovered. A real shame. 

Our League cup loss to Birmingham City in 2011. I was so confident we would end our trophy drought against a team that I have a lot of resentment towards and this game really broke my heart. The mix up between Koscielny and Szczesny leading to Obafemi Martins’ goal took me a while to get over. Thankfully, our drought ended soon after that.

Seeing Robin van Persie move to Manchester United. It was painful to see him single handedly drag United over the line and seal their 20th Premier League title in his first season there.

I have a bunch of friends in Chennai who are massive football fans. Our group has a nice mix of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United fans. We don’t have any Liverpool fans in our group which is something we are appreciative of given the season they have just had. We watch a lot of the games together and are constantly bantering each other. 

The impact of Arsene Wenger

Many people ask me who my all time favourite player at Arsenal is. Over the years, I have had many favourites but the person that comes to mind first when I think of Arsenal is Arsene Wenger. 

I wasn’t lucky enough to watch his famous teams of the past in action. I started supporting the Gunners just as the club’s trophy drought began. I have never seen Arsenal win the league. My appreciation, however, for our legendary former manager knows no bounds. 

I like to think of Wenger’s time at Arsenal in three pieces. His vastly successful early period that cemented his place as a great of the game from 1996 to 2006 during which Arsenal won three Premier Leagues and four FA Cups. His financially limited middle period from 2006 to 2013 when he had to compete for a position at Europe’s top table on a fraction of the budget of his competitors. Finally, his decline from 2013 to 2018 when he resigned. 

I think Wenger’s financially limited middle period is vastly underrated. He kept Arsenal among Europe’s elite despite having to sell his stars every year and replace them with players who had talent and potential but were largely unproven. His challenge was compounded by the emergence of Chelsea bankrolled by their billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abrahamovic and just a few years later Manchester City who were backed by the Abu Dhabi royal family. 

Lesser managers would’ve failed to keep us where we were and more individualistic managers would have left us to take over at clubs like Real Madrid or Chelsea. Arsene Wenger was fiercely loyal to our club and led us through an unbelievably difficult time with minimal fuss. In spite of the emergence of Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham, Le Professeur always sealed European qualification for the Gunners during this period.

I am critical of Wenger’s final years at the club. In the summer of 2015, with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in our squad, we were two or three players away from legitimately being a title winning side. Instead, Petr Cech was our solitary signing that summer and we didn’t take advantage of our situation. Our rivals made up ground and before we knew it, we lost the few good players we had either due to departures, injuries or a decline in form and were miles off of the title. We even missed out on Champions league qualification in his last two years at the club.

What frustrates me isn’t just that we missed the opportunity to win the title. It’s that it would have meant the world to me to have seen Arsenal win another league under Wenger. He deserved it after all of his sacrifices and us fans deserved to celebrate it with him after all of our struggles.

I find it difficult to justify why he didn’t spend a little bit more to give himself the best chance to end what is sure to have been a challenging time as Arsenal boss with a Premier League title.

I did think it was right for him to leave the club but appreciate that very often, he shouldered all the blame that was actually meant for him, the Arsenal hierarchy and the owners. Without him, I can see how much less of a hiding place the rest of the decision makers at the club have.

He has been one of the constants of my Arsenal experience until recently and I am thankful that I got to witness a lot of his Arsenal tenure even if it wasn’t trophy laden. His press conferences and interviews were always so engaging. He is a great storyteller and I can’t wait for his book to come out later this year. His response to a question about football is a thought provoking answer about life and philosophy.

His principles and unwavering belief in what he stood for were admirable. His philosophy of spending what you make is not a popular one given the competition around us but I admire his integrity. 

Wenger has had an incredible impact on my life from afar. His anecdotes about life, courage in the face of adversity and criticism, absolute commitment to the cause and determination to play football like it is art have inspired me.

I have learnt a lot from his negatives too. I feel like he did not always surround himself with people that could hold him accountable and offer a different point of view. Ivan Gazidis is a good example of that. He did not have somebody like David Dein to poke holes in his ideas and as much as that decision may not have been in his hands, I believe that he could have and should have made that happen.

Not replacing Patrick Vieira for over 10 years and having a goalkeeper blindspot for close to a decade shows you that even if you are the best in the business, you have flaws and it’s important to identify that and work with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.

I visited London in June 2013 and did a tour of the Emirates. It was one of the best days of my life. As I was leaving the stadium, I saw a man in a suit not too far from where I was. As I got closer to the person, I realised who it was. I ran towards him and told him I was his biggest fan. I asked him whether I could get a picture with him. He obliged and I will forever treasure having met my idol, Arsene Wenger. 

Conclusion

Supporting Arsenal and fawning over every word coming out of Arsene Wenger’s mouth has been one of the joys of my life. It has been a rollercoaster ride full of unbelievable highs and lows. 

With Mikel Arteta at the helm of the club, I feel like we have a storyteller in charge of our first team again. I have been overawed by his charisma and level of articulation. The results and performances on the pitch are a work in progress but I have been hugely impressed by what I have seen and heard so far.

I began supporting this club when I was twelve years old. Arsenal has been a part of my life for more than 50% of my existence and I couldn’t imagine living without the club’s narrative at the forefront of my thoughts. 

Winning football matches and championships on its own isn’t enough. Winning the right way with a strong foundation and inspiring football is what Arsenal Football Club is about. 

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