Kiwi football writer Gary Birkett has been a diehard Gooner for 45 years.
Like many Arsenal fans in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific, the US and Asia, he is part of a rising tide, which swells by the hour.
It all started one sweltering day at Wembley in 1971.


Charlie George has just finished the first coffee he ordered with a bacon sandwich at the local Arsenal cafe, when his Gooner voice comically booms: "can I have another coffee please, thank you."

Everybody has a good laugh, they all know who the local legend in the corner is.

"Bloody good guy," a customer leans in after our interview.

"The heart and soul of the club," one passionate fan tells me at a local boozer before the Besitkas game late in August

That iconic 20-yard screamer past England goalkeeper Ray Clemence in the 111st minute of the FA Cup final, against Liverpool at Wembley on May 8, 1971, when Arsenal sealed their first league and cup double with a 2-1 triumph, propelled George into football folklore.

"I knew it was a great strike. It would have taken his hand off if Ray had touched it. We played with proper footballs back then," chuckled George.

"I have struck the ball a lot harder, but it was a good strike on the day.

"Big Larry Lloyd [Liverpool centre-back] said it caught his boot but the ball never deviated … the ball went straight. It’s all about timing, like in any sport ... it looks easy when you strike it properly.

"It’s not every day a North London lad, a bit of a scruff from the local estates, hits the goal that not only wins the FA Cup, but clinches the first double in the history of their own club.

"It’s the stuff of dreams."

Ironically, given that it was such a pure sporting moment, especially in Arsenal’s storied history, George had been rocked to the core when breaking his right ankle in the first game of the season scoring from a corner against Everton.

"It was a double fracture of me joint. I heard after that they didn’t think I’d play again."

But, once out of plaster five months later, he focused on regaining his starting place and played 26 games out of 64 that season, making every one count.
That included both goals in the 2-1 FA Cup quarterfinal away win over Manchester City, when well wound up by Arsenal’s revered, inspirational captain Frank McLintock, who told George that City boss Big Malcolm Allison thought he was "crap".

And that famous "on the back" celebration at Wembley was actually first unveiled in the Maine Rd mud.

"I tried it up there and thought I’d do it again. Everybody said I was tired at Wembley but I was no more tired than anybody else."

George says the league-cup double was the crowning glory for Arsenal, sparking the club towards becoming a global brand.

"I know they’ve done it since but it was a lot harder to win the double back then. There was about six teams who could win the league and a dozen who could win the cup."

George was lauded as the "King of Highbury" as the delirious Gooner fans chanted in the Wembley stands, the cup sealing their first two domestic trophies in 18 long years.
Those raucous chants reverberated 12,000 miles to the bottom of the world, where a skinny 12-year-old kid watched wide-eyed in front of the TV at 5am in small-town New Zealand.
I was transfixed by the blurry, joyous images of long-haired, gangly, goal-scoring hero George, alongside Captain Fantastic McLintock and rock-solid fullback Pat Rice, as they posed for that iconic photo with the cup, George with the lid on his shaggy head and the football world at his feet.

That kid watching from the colonies is now 55, with three grown-up daughters, three grand-daughters, and a grandson due in November.
Despite my age, I still sulk for two days if the Gunners lose a big match and my wife and kids can instantly tell the result by the shouting and banging coming from the downstairs TV room.
I blame Charlie G and his ’71 team-mates for all this as, 43 years later, I’m splashing down the road on a wet Bank Holiday Monday towards the Emirates Stadium at 9am, ready for a Legends Tour with George as tour leader.

Pausing for some soothing warmth from the flat white coffee I’m toting, I can almost hear those ‘71 Wembley chants on the chilly wind, sending shivers up my spine, and there’s some Holloway Rd grit in my eyes, causing me to shed a couple of sly tears.

"Dickhead," I tell myself, "it’s only a bloody game".

Soon after our group is cutting through the Emirates car park and up the stairs and there’s Charlie George, a diamond geezer outside the Diamond Room.
He’s not as tall as I’d imagined but, at 63, is still in great nick, with a twinkle in his eye as he greets everyone with a warm smile and firm handshake.
The hairline has receded slightly and he feels his banged-up knees, but the flame burns fiercely for the Arsenal.

A local Islington lad, born and bred, who signed at 16 after standing on a crate on the North Bank as a fan from a young age, George remains hugely popular with the staff, fans and current players.
His image and the words etched on the outside of the Emirates Stadium sum up his life-force and legacy.

"It was my aim to play with a smile, for fun, as an entertainment. If you can make the supporters happy you are doing your job correctly."

George scored 49 goals in 179 senior games from 1968-75, but was a "team player", a talisman, happiest in the mud and blood of the furious battles with Liverpool and Leeds, never shirking a challenge. 

"I wasn’t a great goal-scorer, I was a scorer of great goals. I could pass the ball 60-70 yards, I’d drop it on your chest, wherever you wanted it, and I had a great striking ability."

He remembers a £30 signing-on bonus at 18 and thought he was in wonderland.
George dryly notes that the entire wage bill, plus bonuses, for the 1970-71 squad was about £350,000.

"Thierry Henry made that in a month before he left," he quipped.

"They tell me an ordinary premier league player gets £30K a week. When I die I want to comeback as an ordinary footballer.

"But we didn’t play for the money, we played for the enjoyment back then."
George was dubbed "Champagne Charlie" for his love of a good night out with his team-mates and close friends, who included QPR and England winger Stan Bowles, and had a few drinks with one George Best in Manchester late one night.

"I probably might have been a bit wild in my day … but we just used to have a good time.
"Champagne is me favourite drink in’ it … I used to say ‘Champagne Charlie is me name, champagne drinking is me game’ …
"But you always respected that you had a game coming up and didn’t do anything foolish."

George is saddened by shocking pictures of ex-players like Spurs and England legend Paul Gascoigne, and Arsenal and England star Kenny Sansom, who have been so hard-hit in very public battles with booze, drugs and gambling.

Sansom - who the Daily Mail reported was downing up to nine bottles of wine a day last August - told the Mail he had lost the will to live and had no intention of stopping drinking.
"It’s all I’ve known for the best part of 30 years," he mumbled.

While distressed about those who crash and burn, George says they must harness their mental strength and fight their way out of the pit.

"I love Kenny, I think he was a great player, and you don’t like to see players like that, but everybody has to help themselves.

"You can get help and they have had [FA] help, but at the end of the day you’ve gotta to help yourself.

"Everybody has difficulties in their lives. Paul [Gascoigne] has been very wealthy at times and never really had anyone to look after him in a funny sort of a way.

"At the end of the day people can help you up to a degree, then they will stop helping you.

"Get some nice people around you and get help. You’ve got to start getting some food down you instead of alcohol.

"But at the end of the day if you don’t want to do it, you ain’t going to do it."

GOONER DOWN UNDER

While George was living the dream in the rock ‘n roll days of English football, back in the colonial outpost that is New Zealand, my life was on a different track.
I loved football, especially Arsenal football, but rugby union was king and still is, the mighty All Blacks ruling the sporting landscape, and the Black Cap cricketers dominating summer.
The All Blacks of the 1960s and 70s were mostly huge, grim men with the brute power to smash and destroy most teams, apart from the occasional setback against the fleet-footed British and Irish Lions and South Africa’s rugged Springboks.

A try [touchdown] was usually greeted by a sly smile from the scorer, a slow jog back to halfway isolated from the pack, and the occasional pat on the back from a team-mate.
Real men didn’t hug or show their emotions in Aotearoa - which the native Maori call the "land of the long white cloud" – until at least the mid-80s.
And "soccer" was for "pansies" or "Poms".

Contrast that with the unbridled passion, skills, colour, theatre, and fan support of English football, and a 12-year-old lad could easily have his head turned.
I often think that ’71 FA Cup final unlocked my sporting senses.

Arsenal are hugely addictive and, like most addicts, I have endured a rollercoaster of highs and lows, but never once contemplated giving up.
I still ask myself why I love a club 12,000 miles away, investing so heavily in a team I had only seen live once, at Highbury 30 years ago when they lost 0-1 to Liverpool, some bloke called Kenny Dalglish smashing in a late winner.

All the good vibes came flooding back on the Legends tour with George, plus the brilliant Arsenal Museum, and the experience of being behind the goal at the Clock End for the 1-0 Champions League win over Besitkas in September was awesome.

I stood up when we hated Tottenham and sang all the songs lustily, almost like I’d been there for 45 years.
Thank you "Bigfoot" and others for the chants, banter and implosion of sheer joy when Alexis Sanchez scored in front of us just before halftime.
I thought of the uneducated new wave of EPL fans back home, who slag Arsenal after embracing the mega-rich Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United over the last 10 years as Sky Sport broadcast all the big games live.

No more waiting a week for a delayed one-hour highlights package on Sundays at 12 noon, when the late Brian Moore’s cheery face would appear like a favourite uncle as he introduced Big League Soccer.
There’s also a lot of Liverpool, Spurs and Newcastle fans in both New Zealand and Australia, as a tidal wave of British immigrants brought their club colours, pride and traditions with them.
West Ham have garnered a sizeable fanbase through athletic Kiwi defender Winston Reid, who has been linked to Arsenal, while big striker Chris Wood comes off the bench to score some cracking goals for Leicester City, and All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen was a rock for Blackburn Rovers for many years. 
Nelsen also led New Zealand to the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010, where they were the only unbeaten team at the tournament, with three draws, including a 1-1 tie with Italy, in pool play.
But New Zealand’s best ever player was Werder Bremen striker Wynton Rufer, Oceania player of the century, who helped blast the All Whites to their first World Cup finals in Spain in 1982, after a marathon 15-game qualifying series.

Rufer, who had a spell at Norwich, but was denied a work permit, played in Switzerland before being snapped up by Werder Bremen in 1989, scoring as they lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992 in a 2-0 win over Monaco.

In the 1992-93 league season, the gifted striker finished second in the scoring charts with 17, as Werder won the Bundesliga.
Rufer, in his prime, could have played for Arsenal and would lifted the Gunners as they lost their way on the pitch over the past 10 years, my football life spiralling into a tragi-comedy in New Zealand.
Don’t mention the unlucky 2006 Champions League final loss to Barcelona, or the 2011 League Cup final clanger against Birmingham.

In public, I developed a thicker skin as the billionaires hijacked the EPL and Arsene Wenger battled to hold it all together. I hid under the blankets and turned off the TV as scores of 8-2, 5-1 and 6-0 were spat at me but, like the 2003-04 Invincibles, I had no doubt we would rise again.

A mesmerising FA Cup run last season would surely end the dull, aching pain against Hull City, although the almost-choke against Wigan in the perfect Lukasz Fabianski-shootout semi-final was a nagging worry.
I went to bed at 10pm, setting the alarm for 2am, bounding down the hallway like a young Charlie George for kickoff.
My wife was asleep on the couch, but had stoked up the wood-burner, and two tots of whisky later I was ready for a new red dawn.
You know what happened next.

Barely able to watch at 0-2 down and with Kieran Gibbs heading off the line, I shrank into the couch, telling myself and my now-awake wife that "there was still plenty of time". Yeah, right.
My better half left me numb and fearful with a kiss on the forehead as I resigned myself to yet another bloody freezing New Zealand winter of discontent.
My only companions were the by-now rapidly decreasing bottle of whisky and a huge ginger tomcat known at our place as "The Beast", but even he was staying at a safe distance in front of the now-dying fire.
Suddenly, it all changed, as Santi Cazorla’s cannon free-kick fired the Arsenal soul.  "Oh, Santi Cazorla," I sang to myself like a mantra.
Then came Laurent Koscielny’s sweet revenge lolly-scramble equaliser, followed by the crushing reality that Gibbs’ rising drive was in the stands, not bulging gallant Hull’s net.
Extra time ... "Arsenal always do things the hard way" … I told myself, as The Beast moved back on the couch for a scratch behind the ears.
He purred like a well-tuned Jaguar, then leapt for safety as great Welsh redeemer Aaron Ramsey lasered home from Olivier Giroud’s sublime back heel.
A primal scream at 5.30am, somehow contained inside so I didn’t wake the house and entire rural neighbourhood.
Then it got serious.

Assuming the kneeling position of Willem Dafoe in Platoon, taking bullets in the back, with arms flapping madly in front of the TV, praying to the football gods when Per Mertesacker’s slip and Fabianski’s mad dash freed the Tigers. Thank you, Kieran.

When it was finally over, I collapsed backwards like Charlie George on the Wembley turf in 1971, tears streaming.
I was dancing in the sun with Rambo, Arsene, Kieran and Lukas. With Charlie, Frank, Bob and Pat.
The native tuis and bellbirds in our little valley sang a victory song in the trees as a fiery red sun lit up the dawn.

I didn’t notice my wild-haired, tall-for-her-age, 3-year-old granddaughter  breezing down the hallway to hug me from behind, laughing in delight as the Gooner fans went berserk once more in the Wembley stands.
"They won eh, Papa," she asked as Arsene was thrown high in the air and showered in champagne.
"Yes, darling. They did it. Now ... who are your team?"
She looked straight into my eyes. The clock went back 43 years.
"We are Arsenal, Papa. You taught us that".

Gary Birkett, a former Kiwi football writer of the year, is a director of Media Zone NZ, which specialises in quality freelance sports journalism, public relations and general media work Down Under and in the UK.

Short-term contracts for events like the 2015 Rugby World Cup are welcome.

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