For anyone who’s ever read a novel and thought “there’s really not enough Arsenal,” or read an article on why Cheick Tiote should not be a Gunner and thought “the plotline here is really lacking,” then “I Am Sam” is the perfect read for you (and for anyone else that doesn’t fall into the previous two categories).
James Durose-Rayner, being an Arsenal fan himself, paints a beautiful story centering on the escapades of “Mr. Arsenal,” a character who’s love for Arsenal and often-questionable life choices blend together to form a protagonist that any reader will learn to love.
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Mr. Arsenal and his business partner Sooty make football programs and sell them to major television stations and at the time of the story, they are working on two programs; the first being a program on the 1970 World Cup. But their side project on Jon Sammels soon takes center stage. In between Mr. Arsenal’s wit and blatant passion for Arsenal, we get briefed in the history of this storied football club, particularly around the time of Jon Sammels, and how the club’s personality has persisted over the years.
As the title suggests, Jon Sammels plays a major role in the story. ‘Sammy’ as he is affectionately known, is referred to as one of the most underrated and tragic players in the history of Arsenal, and quite frankly, of football in general. Sammy was an integral part of some key moments in the 60s for the Gunners, yet his humble demeanor and lack of post-goal flash left some sections of the Highbury crowd wanting someone else, and Sammy soon fell under the constant ridicule of his own fans. Couple that with a lack of playing time, and he made his way for the exit, leaving behind so many “what ifs” and “if only’s.”
But it’s not just the history of the Gunners that’s tied into the novel. The story takes place during Arsenal’s 2013/14 up-and-down season that saw them scramble into fourth place and end their trophy drought with an FA Cup title. Mr. Arsenal makes it obvious that his love for Arsenal cannot be tampered with. Throughout the first half of the novel, our protagonist is flipping through girlfriends and the accompanying drama on a daily basis and it’s obvious that it’s all getting in the way of his love for Arsenal. However, when his life begins to stabilize, his love for Arsenal doesn’t diminish, it merely makes room for other joys.
The wit in the story, particularly the Arsenal-centered wit and football wit in general, will have any Arsenal/football aficionado chuckling throughout the story. Between Mr. Arsenal having ‘Abou Diaby’ in his phone, to the ferrets known as Giroud and Arteta, to Adebayor’s home improvement business, to Gervinho being an usher at a wedding, the modern-day football references are hilariously well-placed and welcomed.
Another of the main side-points to take from the novel, from a football standpoint, is the love for football in general, not just for Arsenal. By that I mean that you won’t find Mr. Arsenal talking down to a Tottenham fan or berating a Chelsea fan. In fact, he makes it a point to show how such behavior really isn’t necessary in modern-day football. His business partner is a Leeds United fan and he is very cordial to a Brentford fan. It shows that passion doesn’t mean a necessity to belittle and demean the opposition. All football fans who are lucky enough to read this book, whether they love or hate Arsenal, will appreciate the way Durose-Rayner tells the story and revel in the fact that you could make Mr. Arsenal into Mr. Liverpool or Mr. Newcastle and the story would still be just as entertaining.
What makes this story truly remarkable is that, even if you take away the Arsenal tie-ins, it’s a perfectly compelling story with twists and turns that’ll keep you glued to each word and losing track of time. Likewise, if you take out the story, the Arsenal history and modern-day parallels are enough to keep any fan thoroughly entertained. But by combining the two, Durose-Rayner shows that football can be a major cog in life’s machine, but it’s when it can be separated from the rest of life’s joys that the true beauty of football is most clearly seen.
I Am Sam is available February 10th.