Who is she? The toughest part of introducing our Arsenal volunteer, Clemency Burton-Hill, is deciding where to start. Musician, actress, political writer, novelist, television (BBC2’s The Culture Show, for instance) and radio presenter. I think we will just let Clemency* speak for herself* on an impossibly packed professional life that requires – allows? – her to live in New York, work just about anywhere and spend free moments reflecting sadly on the end of two eras: Highbury and M Wenger. And this weekend, she must work out how, finding herself in Venezuela, she will keep tabs on the first of the coming Sunderland v Arsenal games …
Salut! Sunderland (grateful en passant to Jake for the great new “Who are You?” graphic): I am that rarity among non-Arsenal supporters: someone who greatly admires Arsène Wenger. But the murmurings from Gooners suggest an increasing number would like to see change. Where do you stand?
People talk about where they were when John Lennon got shot; or when Princess Diana died. I can still remember, like it was yesterday, that moment in 1996 when we heard that this completely unknown French guy Arsène Wenger was coming from Grampus Eight to take over. I was 14 and had been a Junior Gunner for about five years and a season ticket holder for three years. I’d only ever really known the sunset of the Georgie Graham era (though I still have extremely fond memories of singing “Georgie Graham’s magic, ‘e wears a magic hat, and when ‘e saw the [insert appropriate cup] ‘e said: I’m ‘aving that!!’) and then life in limbo under Bruce Rioch. I’ve been a Wenger devotee ever since that day: he literally changed the game. It’s been said many times, but he brought intelligence, elegance, humanity and flair not just to Arsenal but to the English Premier League in general, which at that time was not nearly so influenced by foreign footballing styles. But… with a heavy heart, I have to say that I now think it’s time for him to go. It’s scary, because I revere and love him and he feels irreplaceable, but his decision to take off Oxlade-Chamberlain against Man Utd a few weeks ago was the clincher – I was at the Emirates that miserable day and I can’t remember the last time a boo reverberated around the home ground so viciously; it was ominous. So I hate to say it, but yes, I think it’s time for change. Gulp….
What were your minimum and maximum expectations as the season began and what have you made of the results Arsenal have had so far?
Oh, man. After the crashing disappointments of last season, my expectations this year were not exactly sky high but I did think Champions League football was a certainty. Then again, I also – foolishly, as it turns out – thought that Wenger would SURELY be getting his chequebook out. One thing I certainly was not expecting was the return to the club of Henry, which has brought back some happy if nostalgic memories, but only goes to show how desperate we are. Forwards, Arsenal!
We’ve had a few great results – the 7-1 against Blackburn last week was pretty sweet – but some horror stories. The numbers 8-2 feel as seared into my conscience right now as ‘Nayim from the half-way line’ once did…
How regularly does your busy and varied professional life allow you to attend games?
At the moment I live in New York City and I’m travelling all the time, all over the world, for work, so not nearly as much as I’d like, although I do go to any match I possibly can when I’m back in London. There was a period of time, from the age of 14 to about 25, when I barely missed a single home game and got to a lot of away games too, including loads of European cup fixtures. Arsenal was the single great constant in my life, through all the ups and downs, and some of my most important memories have Arsenal in the background somewhere. Sadly my life doesn’t really allow for that level of dedication any more, although I try to watch games in this grotty downtown bar in NYC where there’s a pretty devoted fan club of both Yank and Brit Gooners. But, obviously, it’s not the same. I miss it as such a permanent fixture in my life, but I’m also grateful, in a way, that I managed to evolve to a slightly less consuming and obsessive level of fandom!
Unless the answer to the last question was “never”, what do you feel about the view that the atmosphere at the Emirates lacks passion in a way Highbury never did?
No doubt about it: it just isn’t the same. In these modern times at stadia like the Emirates I’m not sure you could ever re-create someone like the old woman who used to shout in a really high-pitched voice ‘Come! On! You! Gunners!’ from the East Stand, Highbury. She was a historical relic; I have no idea where she even is any more – if she even still goes, if she’s even still alive. But she was so much a part of it. Highbury had so many characters! I still feel a tug at my heart every time I come out of Arsenal tube station because I miss the old ground so much. I’m not idealising the atmosphere; it used to make me infuriated that we never sang much, except in the Clock End, but I spent so much of my childhood there, my teens, the formative years of my life, and it was a unique football ground with astonishing history. Apart from school and home there’s literally nowhere in London I have spent more time in. Sometimes I actually hear the odd chant haunting my dreams – ‘We’re the West Stand, We’re the West Stand, We’re the West Stand Highbury!” I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss!
Is it good or bad for football that Man City’s m(b)illions have shaken up the Premier League hierarchy?
It’s bad. It’s artificial. I don’t think they’ve really shaken things up for any lasting good in terms of the rest of the League. Hopefully UEFA will have the courage to make sure that the financial fair play rules aren’t circumvented, but I’m not holding my breath….
And how does a staunch Arsenal supporter regard neutral assessments that Spurs are the more likely North London club to challenge for the title?
What have been your own high and low points as an Arsenal supporter?
The aforementioned Nayim disaster in 1995 was a devastation from which it took me a long time to recover. I went to school the next day and my teacher thought something truly terrible must have happened (it had!). Winning the double in 1998 was simply one of the happiest periods in my life – I felt like I’d come of age with those boys, and Wenger. I was seventeen, I hadn’t missed a home game in years, we were playing champagne football; it was a beautiful spring; the whole thing was utterly magical.
And who is/are the best player/s you have seen, or wish you’d seen, in Arsenal colours – and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
For me, it’ll always be about Dennis Bergkamp, partly because of his singular genius and partly because of what he represented for me at that particular time – he arrived and played his most beautiful football during the zenith of my Arsenal obsession. But then again, I am the girl who had posters of Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Adams, not to mention Wrighty on my bedroom wall for many years…
As for who should never have worn the shirt – I’d venture that the current crop of Chamakh, Denilson, Almunia and Squillaci all fit the bill. (Disillusioned, moi?)
What will be the top four, in order, this season? And who do you tip for the major trophies?
1: Man City 2: Man Utd 3: The Scum (despite my earlier protestation) 4: heart says Arsenal; head says Chelsea…
Where will Arsenal and Sunderland finish, if either or both do not appear in your previous answer?
AFC probably 5th; Sunderland 7th or 8th – hopefully above Newcastle. You’d probably be winning the league if the season had started after O’Neill took over.
On the day we beat Man City, you were busily tweeting with gleeful messages (or so I am told). Just an anti-City thing, or showing a soft spot for Sunderland?
Well I was pleased to see the underdog, which in this case was Sunderland, get such a fantastic result, especially because of the manner in which it happened – who doesn’t love a last-gasp win if it brings down the current titan? It was thrilling. However, I won’t lie: if it had been a few seasons ago I might not have been so excited…. But yes, there are a few non-London clubs who for one reason or another I’m always happy to see win, unless it’s against us of course, and Sunderland is one of those.
What feelings do you have about our club, its fans, the city, the region?
I haven’t spent as much time in the North East as in other parts of the UK but I’ve always enjoyed it up there. My husband went to university in Durham so it’s an important part of the world for him. I’ve always liked Martin O’Neill, and Sunderland fans strike me as being a fantastic bunch. Proper, loyal footie fans! I certainly feel no raging animosity towards Sunderland which in football is pretty much the same thing as saying I like you! Although now, after your kind invitation to appear here, I feel a bit guilty having on occasion gleefully sung “Cheer up Peter Reid…” etc.
This used to be the Eduardo Question after his dive against Celtic and then became the Walcott Question in tribute to his honesty in admitting a dive and apologising for it. It has also been the Barton Question and is currently the Osman Question: that covers diving, feigning injury and (Osman) falling over your own feet and demanding a penalty. Long question but what form of cheating most annoys you and what would you do about it?
Ahem. How was it never the ROONEY question? Diving or any sort of cheating and moaning really drives me crazy – it’s an outrageous insult, to both teams; to the refs and officials; to the fans of both sides and the game in general. I don’t know what the answer is for kicking it out of football altogether but I think players should learn from Theo’s example and be shamed into admitting it! Diving, cheating of any kind, obviously has no place in football at this level. How old are these guys, five?
What single step could Arsenal or the football authorities take to improve the lot of ordinary supporters?
In Arsenal’s case, bringing the seat prices down and enabling more real fans to get to games, rather than corporate guests. That’s been another downside to moving to the Emirates – at Highbury it felt like the majority of fans were true Gooners; now you have thousands of people there eating three-course-meals and drinking champagne as the guest of some wealthy investment bank or law firm. I do understand the economics of it and it’s not that I don’t think those types of ‘client’ have a place if they want to see a game, but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and the atmosphere can sometimes feel a bit soulless and rubbish as a result.
Will you be at our game and if not, how will you keep tabs? What will be the score?
Sadly, I won’t be at the match because I’ll be working in Venezuela! I have no idea whether or not I’ll be able to watch or listen over there but I’ll do my best to at least hear it, or follow online somehow. I may be glued to Arseblog on Twitter, for example. But I’m not going to tempt fate by predicting a score, sorry!
* Clemency Burton-Hill on Clemency Burton-Hill (follow her on Twitter: @clemencybh or visit her website:
My two older brothers, Elliot and Perry (who’s a great source on things footie-related by the way; you can follow him on Twitter at @pezlow) initiated me into the football cult when I was about five years old – the first game I ever watched (at least consciously) was the 1986 Liverpool v Everton derby at home on the telly. My family were originally North Londoners – my mum and my brothers were all born in Hackney – although we later moved to West London. But the boys were already Arsenal crazy by that stage and they’re a bit older than me so I obviously had no choice! My mum’s a single mum, not into football herself although she has of course accompanied us to matches a few times, and I think she was a bit bemused when they first took me along to Highbury. It was love at first sight: I was immediately hooked and became a Junior Gunner shortly after, and then the obsession really began to take hold…
When I first started going regularly, very few girls or women were into it (this was before Euro 96 kicked off the widespread, mainstream football mania) and my friend Alexandra and I probably used to stand out a mile sitting together in the East Stand Family Enclosure, which at that point was all Dads and their sons. (My brothers always sat in the West Stand). By the time I ‘grew up’ and graduated from being a Junior Gunner to Cannon Club Member and eventually just regular adult season-ticket holder in the West Stand, you saw loads of women and girls in the stands. I’ve always been very vocal and passionate at games: I love the singing, so much, and I have, occasionally, been known to yell the odd expletive at the Ref! I can’t help it – passions run high. Football doesn’t feel the same to me anymore, ever since we left Highbury, and eventually, after much deliberation due to moving to the States and it being so unfeasibly expensive to keep it up, I reluctantly let my season ticket go. It was like losing a limb, I really struggled with it. For so many years footie was always a really important thing for me and my brothers to do together – it was a ritual for us to meet for a pint before the game at The Gunners or in the West Stand bar, and one of the reasons I was so pleased to go to Cambridge for university was because it was so easy to get to Arsenal – less than an hour direct to Finsbury Park! I barely missed a home game throughout my English literature degree.
Nowadays I’m still a big football fan but nothing like to the same extent. I have a crazily busy life, doing various things I passionately love – presenting TV and radio programmes about music and the arts, making documentaries, writing books and freelance journalism for a range of papers and magazines (although sadly, no football reporting!). You can catch me in the current series of BBC2’s The Culture Show and the upcoming BBC Young Musician 2012, on BBC4. One of the things I love most about music is it’s ability to bring people together from a range of different backgrounds and I think that, perhaps above all else, is what I have always loved most about football. I hope that spirit always remains. Come on you Gunners!
Interview: Colin Randall