I hope you’ll forgive me, comrades, for not dwelling on Arsenal’s impressive 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb.
I’d like to dedicate Wednesday’s column to my former boss, and friend Geoff Banks.
On my way to bed last night, I discovered that Geoff had sadly passed away. You may well be thinking, well that’s very sad but what does that have to do with Arsenal?
Well, I’ll tell you; Geoff was a Gooner. A proper, Liam Brady is the best player ever, one. Grew up on the North Bank as a kid and used to regale me with tales of afternoons spent on that gigantic terrace. I remember, though, that in the time we worked together he worried about a football club that was slipping away from him and people like him – honest, working men. I used to wonder what the hell he was on about, but now it’s all too easy to see how right he was. Ahead of his time, I guess.
I am, however, getting ahead of myself ever so slightly.
I first met Geoff in late October 2002. I met him at a time when my confidence had been shot to pieces, my life had been turned upside down and, after 7 years in Leeds, I found myself returned in London, without a job and back at my parents’ house. But at least Arsenal were the reigning Premier League champions.
I got a job temping for a small marketing company in Twickenham called the Ops Room. I’ll be honest, the prospect of dialling 200 people a day wasn’t one to fill my heart with joy, but there were some good people there. Geoff, the telemarketing team leader was one of those people. He was a big bloke with a heart to match. I remember asking if I could leave early one night to go to Highbury and watch the return of Robert Pires against Sunderland in that season’s league cup. Geoff’s response was typical of the man:
“Paul, any Gooner can leave any time they like!”
That response birthed a beautiful friendship. Okay, Arsenal lost the game, but bearing in mind that Geoff soon moved me away from the phones and into a position as his admin support, I think that was a price worth paying. Plus Robert Pires was back. Whereas I used to have to sit with a team of around ten, dialling people to offer them Land Rover test drives all day, now I sat with Geoff and his colleague Roxy, providing support to that team.
We would spend much of the day talking about Arsenal and, so as not to bore Roxy too much, music. I was obsessed with Massive Attack and The Clash at the time. Geoff, though appreciative of both bands, was more of a prog rocker. He loved Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and always maintained that AC/DC were the best band he ever saw live. Either that or Back In Black was the best album of all time, I can’t remember which now.
Luckily, for me, he allowed me a certain freedom to do what I wanted, as long I wasn’t busy. So that meant posting on the Massive Attack forum as well as an Arsenal related one. Basically, Geoff is the reason, in more ways than one, that you are reading these words now. He is also a part of the reason I found the biggest love of my life. For that, I will always be grateful.
Geoff, or “Banksy” as everyone called him was an astute observer of life and, often, funny as hell. I think it helped me that the pair of us shared a delight in saying the unsayable. I remember him on the phone to his missus one day, discussing a trip to the vet for their cat:
A pause. Then:
“Can’t we just put it down?”*
Looking at the football pitch, he was fond of saying that Dennis Bergkamp was the most one footed player he’d ever seen in his life (pre-Jack Wilshere, remember) but that if your right foot was as magical as Dennis was, why would you bother with the left? I guess he had a point.
As he did when he talked me out of paying £100 for a ticket to watch Arsenal’s costly draw with Manchester United in April 2003. Costly for the Gunners that is. I watched this title tilting game from the comfort of my uncle Stevie’s living room, beers provided gratis.
The summer of 2003, you may recall was a pretty hot one. Leaving me to house sit, Geoff took his family off to stay in Stevie’s Cyprus holiday home for a couple of weeks. He invited me to his house for dinner first, just so his wife knew who’d be guarding the yard whilst they were away. I remember walking into his living room and a wall of sound as The Dark Side Of The Moon SACD powered from the speakers.
It was whilst he was away that I familiarised myself with a band my mum used to go on about, Led Zeppelin. Well, why not? Geoff had the sound system and their live DVD, I might as well give them a go.
Revelation: This band were magnificent. Or “God like genius” as Geoff liked to call it.
I left Geoff’s house a few days later more than a little obsessed. Friday nights at this time would usually end with me hammered after a night in Twickenham’s Red Lion, blaring out Since I’ve Been Loving You as loud as I could get away with.
It was during this period I lent him Tom Watt’s excellent oral history of the North Bank, The End. Maybe he was hoping to see the “smelly finger” story he used to tell me in there. In return, he lent me This Is Spinal Tap, calling it the funniest movie ever made. He wasn’t far off and I ended up buying another copy, so I could give him his one back. Over ten years later, we never returned either, always talking (when we talked) about meeting up, but never getting around to doing it.
As Arsenal began their surge towards invincibility, things went wrong at the Ops Room. The company was bought out and Geoff was no longer needed. With Geoff no longer needed, there was no longer a job for me. At least, not the job I had been doing. And so it was that Geoff cleared his desk in January 2004, I followed soon after.
I didn’t know it then, could never have imagined it then, but I would never see the man again. It hurts to write that. It may sound silly: a 15 month period of my life ending over 10 years ago, but I will never forget the man’s generosity of spirit, warmth, or humour. He was, in many ways, larger than life and now he is gone.
I spoke to him for the last time a few weeks back. it was the first time we had spoken since I had drunkenly called him from a comedy club in Battersea. That was the night a Nicklas Bendtner header in Wolverhampton had apparently edged us ever closer to the Premier League title. It was the same night I became the first person to launch an “Unlucky Theo!” heckle at Ian Stone.
It didn’t matter that we hadn’t spoken to each other for five years; just as it hadn’t mattered that I had called him off my face, five years previously. That, to me, is the mark of true friendship. A connection made to last a lifetime. During the course of our last chat, the telephone putting us in the same room together one more time, he waxed lyrical about Alexis and told me that Arsenal should have tried to sign Messi in the summer. “I reckon he’d come Paul, don’t you?” Er, what about the wages, Geoff? Not a problem for Arsenal; at least, according to Geoff.
Well, he always was an optimist. That what was good about him, he always believed in our basic humanity. He would have loved the display that Alexis, Ozil and co. put on last night too, if only he had lived to see it.
Farewell, my friend.
*No animals were put down during the period Oct 02- Jan 04