Christmas brought the Gunner sounds of victory into my home and heart
BY DECLAN VARLEY
The late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to be one interminable rain shower on the west coast of Ireland where we lived.
Memories of school days comprise a scent of rain and damp duffle coats left to drip dry on the hook on the inside of the back door. It was a time that was neither black or white or full colour, but a sort of dull greyness that was not eased by schooldays that never enthralled me.
Our long days in school consisted of lengthy Irish language lessons where we learned by rote an Irish novel on the dull life of an old Kerrywoman which was beaten into us with sticks and leather straps, the last weapons of the Christian Brothers and the lay teachers who sensed the impending end of corporal punishment and determined to get their value out of them before they were outlawed.
So there was plenty of room for colour in my brain. Colour of sunny days, and in particular of those sunny days upon which the Cup Final fell every year.
Back then, only the odd international match showing the Republic of Ireland being denied half a dozen good goals by dodgy refs in games away to Bulgaria, Belgium, and France were shown live on TV, so the Cup Final was something we looked forward to as soon as the final pairing was determined.
The cut-outs from Shoot from the ’71 Cup Final were particularly stunning; the rich yellows, the red of the vanquished; the rich green of Ray Clemence’s shirt as he tried in vain to keep out Arsenal’s double heroes.
The sun didn’t shine for every final — it was dull in ’72 when we wore the home kits and lost to Leeds. Then, as the Double team disintegrated, we were left to slide, until the last years of the decade when we came to life again.
Back then in the days before Radio Five Live, all of the commentaries were on Radio 2. On the west coast of Ireland, where we sat exposed to the wind and the rain of the thrashing Atlantic, the MW signal would dip and zoom, fade into indecipherable gibberish and them at some moment be of the most beautiful clarity imaginable.
It was into this world that I followed Arsenal. Times were hard and there was little chance then of ever getting away to London to see the heroes in the flesh. Indeed, it would be into my early twenties before I finally got to see the stadium. For then, the sounds of glory recalled would have to make do.
When you follow your team from afar, it is wondrous what you hold onto. My Dad had spent his younger years making those Pye radios and installing them across the rural west of Ireland. In many of those homes, electricity was a new fangled gadget that was about to change their lives.
Out went the Tilly paraffin lamps which often caught fire and burned down homes; and in came the electricity that brought light into their lives. The old traditions of storytelling that came with the darkness and the dancing shadows were eliminated overnight by the arrival of the wires and the switch. However, in my childhood, the house was full of these old radios with ten or eleven bandwidths that brought the magic of stories from far flung places into my house and into my mind.
It was in among those wavelengths that grew my love for Arsenal, on nights when I should have been studying for my exams, instead, I kept the volume on low and listened to that iconic Radio 2 football music and filled my head with images of FA Cup draws and dramatic League Cup encounters, and that mammoth run of games against Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool in ’79 and ’80.
I remember being down for a week when Swindon knocked us out of the League Cup in a replay in 1979 — a game in which we scored three own goals, yet still brought it to extra time. Through the crackles and the beeps of the old radio, I was carried through the long winters; the drama of the Third Round draw in December held just minutes after final whistles blew around the country.
That Christmas of 79, I was being treated to two new vinyls; not the K-Tel compilation records which had hitherto filled my record collection, but LPs containing the BBC Radio commentary of the entire games. I saw them advertised in Shoot.
Back then, in the era before there were widespread credit cards or Revolut, you had to go to the post office to buy a postal order that you would send with the little coupon cut out from the pages of Shoot. I ordered The 79 Cup Final and the 71 Cup Final. The sleeve of both records had marvellous action shots from each final.
The dramatic Caravaggio-like scenes when Georgie Armstrong’s header came off the junction of post and bar in ’71; and that celebratory 13th minute confusion in ’79 when we went ahead against United and nobody was sure whether Brian Talbot or Alan Sunderland had done the damage.
I had to wait until Christmas to receive the LPs…and I must have played them 1,000 times in the years since. When Brady’s cross to Stapleton’s head put us 2-0 up, Peter Jones uttered the immortal line “It’s 2-0 to Arsenal and the Irish are dancing a jig here.”
For a while, I knew it off by heart. Peter Jones and Alan Parry switching radio commentaries, 22 minutes each then a switch to the other. Seamless, so smooth, you would barely notice it. I thought back then as I do now that radio painted the best pictures.
That Christmas gift to myself brought with it the sounds of glorious days; sounds I never thought would be repeated, until a May night in 1989 when everything changed utterly and other classic commentaries were sculpted into the glorious history of the club we all love.
Happy Christmas, Arsenal, for all you have given me.