You’d think that punching a supporter on the pitch during a match wouldn’t bode well for your football career.
Especially if you are a young player sent to prove himself somewhere on loan.
However, Graham Stack can tell you his unusual story – of a public brawl with angry fans that actually helped him get a chance at a legendary Arsenal team.
The goalkeeper was just 20 and still without a game for the Gunners’ men’s team when he was loaned to Belgian side Beveren in the summer of 2002. When he returned to London he was definitely more mature and more prepared for professional football, not only because of the 30 games played for Beveren.
A very specific incident drew Arsene Wenger’s attention to Graham Stack and contributed to the keeper’s inclusion in the Invincibles squad during the 2003/04 campaign.
“I came back and I felt like a completely different player, I was full of confidence. I improved not only physically, but also mentally, which Arsene Wenger always talked about,” says the goalkeeper.
“You learn a new football philosophy, a new culture. So many aspects of life abroad made me a better person, more responsible, more independent and so on. So coming back after a successful season there, Wenger already trusted me . He knew I was ready to make sacrifices.”
“At one point my reputation suddenly went up, I wouldn’t say exactly for the wrong reasons, but for a rather comical reason – knocking out a fan. So I was in the headlines for that as well, not just for my game.”
Stack recalls a curious incident from a visit of Royal Antwerp in the Belgian championship.
“We were leading 3-1 but in the second half I was constantly being pelted with objects – bottles, rocks, pennies, lighters, you name it. It got to the point where there were only five minutes left and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to throw something back to them, it drives me crazy.”
“And I actually threw something at the canvasser, and they totally exploded from there.”
“There was a steel fence in front and I thought there’s no way they’re going through that, but then I looked to the right and saw that there was actually a door and the steward in front of it must have been 70”.
“Before I knew it, the ball was at the other end of the pitch, I turned around and people were already coming towards me. I thought, ‘What have I done here, how far will it go?’
“One was a large man and must have been 1.90 tall, with a large leather jacket. He walked towards me menacingly and cursed at me. I wondered if I should run for my life or face this freak and protect myself? Then my instincts kicked in and I decided to met him”.
The situation is further complicated when a second fan starts attacking Graham Stack, and much more aggressively.
The daredevil runs up and starts swinging his arms to hit the goalie, while the giant in the leather jacket kicks him. However, with two measured blows, the Briton knocks one aggressor to the ground and the other quickly retreats.
“Some guy who had had too much beer came running up and started hitting me. Naturally, I instinctively hit him back and knocked him to the ground. Then suddenly the other guy didn’t want to come anymore,” Stack recalled.
“It all happened in a few moments, but before I knew it, the police came in and the match was stopped.”
News of Graham Stack’s adventure changes his status in Beveren, and inevitably reaches Britain. Suddenly, the interest in the football player rises tremendously.
“It was crazy, I was invited to talk shows, documentaries, I was on Canal+ and all kinds of different shows. I was grabbing attention because I wasn’t Beveren’s goalkeeper, I was Arsenal’s goalkeeper and everyone wanted to know how good I really was,” reports Stack .
“After that, a lot of football people, scouts and agents, started coming to our matches and that was a huge benefit to me, because before there weren’t many people who knew I was playing there, in Belgium.”
“Suddenly I was on the big stage and I had unintentionally caused it with that incident. I think to this day if I go there they won’t let me buy a drink and they’ll still get me. It was amazing the way they looked at me after the case”.
The attitude towards Graham Stack also changed in his homeland and he managed to wait for his debut for Arsenal – on 28 October 2003 against Rotherham in the League Cup.
The match is memorable because the “gunners” won dramatically with 9:8 after penalties, and the goalkeeper himself signed off on one of the kicks from the penalty spot.
In the Championship, Stack is the back-up to the famous Jens Lehmann and that is about as stressful as we can imagine for a young goalkeeper who has yet to log minutes in the Premier League.
“Can you imagine being Jens Lehmann’s No. 2? I couldn’t sit back and relax because he was targeting people with the ball, dragging others by the throat around the pitch,” Graham laughs.
“I was thinking, ‘They’re definitely going to kick him out this season’. And as the season went on, I was like, ‘You’re going to put me under such huge pressure because we’re undefeated and there’s only a few rounds left. You’ll lose control and I’ll have to play. Then we’ll lose and I’ll be to blame. Can you stop being silly?”
“It’s scary the tension before and during matches when you know Lehmann can go crazy at any moment,” explained Stack.
For the German goalkeeper, temper tantrums during a game are a must, but in the Invincibles period, everything is going beautifully for Arsenal.
And despite some mistakes by Lehmann, he stayed in goal until the end and played every one of the 38 games in that legendary Premier League season.
And his young deputy on the bench is impressed by Jens’ character and the fact that he is never satisfied with his achievements so far and does not rest on his old laurels.
Even as Arsenal legitimized their title at White Hart Lane, the German was sullen.
“I remember after the game that Jens was crushed because he thought he was to blame for the Tottenham goal. He was in a bad mood so I said to him, ‘Look, keep your head up, we’ve just become champions. Come out and celebrate.”
“But he wanted a clean sheet. We had won the Premier League but he was under pressure because he hadn’t kept a clean sheet. That’s the standard Jens set for himself,” impressed Graham.
The German had a few more years ahead of him at Arsenal, while after that season Stack was traded to Millwall and began his tour of lower-profile teams.
After passing through Reading, Leeds, Wolverhampton and other teams, today he is the goalkeeping coach at Cardiff City.
And after more than two decades in professional football and going through more than 10 clubs, he definitely has a lot to teach young players – even if it’s not just about football skills, but also some self-defense techniques.