As the boy and I sat on the sofa watching his team crash to a merited 1-0 defeat, we could hear the sullen silence of the 2,000 unfortunate fans allowed back into the ground to witness the game. It’s the atmosphere we have all been missing — the resigned incomprehension of supposedly sentient adults who have spent good money to sit in the driving rain watching their team play badly.
As part-owners of a pair of season tickets, we might theoretically have been there. Admittedly, absence is easier to bear when the team with claims on your affection is lousy. The boy will accompany me to my lowly Championship side only as an act of filial charity. His Premier League team were at least once known for attractive if ineffectual football. Now they have toughened up and dropped the attractive. Paying to watch them perform is like going to a Pinter play for the silences.
Maybe I lack commitment. Plenty of others cannot wait to return to the ground, especially if things are going well. But the one thing neither of us felt as the final whistle blew was the desire to have been there.
This is not how we are supposed to feel. The desire to attend live sport is not meant to be one of those behaviours changed by the pandemic, but could it be that a year of watching on TV has raised the bar a little for indifferent teams?
What makes this odd is that, when I think it through, it was never about the football anyway. If the play is what matters, you are far better off watching on television. There are replays, multiple angles, expert commentaries and central heating.
I admit there have been great moments at matches. I’ve been present for three goals of the season and they were truly special. But we celebrated the tap-ins just as riotously.
I was at Wembley when, utterly against the run of play, my team won the Championship third-place play-off in the final minute. Yes, the sad fact is that my happiest moment in years of watching live games is seeing my team win a cup for coming third. The boy and I stood there exuberant and astonished; well, me exuberant, him astonished.
I did, I should stress, take the girl to matches too. But having satisfied herself that we were operating on a gender-neutral basis, she decided there were better father-daughter outings to be found. Ballet doesn’t allow for the same degree of crowd participation but it’s warmer and the seats are almost as comfortable.
But, as the girl grasped before me, the true joy was never the game. It was the time with the spawn, just as it was once the time with my father; the accumulation of memories. I still remember the tangy lemonade, the fish-and-chip shop and that first sight of the grass as you walked up the stairs far more vividly than any of the actual matches. (Although I can still name the QPR first team from those days.)
Like most fans, I love the sudden ecstasy of a goal and those moments when the entire crowd is roaring on its team. There is a buzz to live sport that is hard to replicate.
But the biggest buzz was the shared excitement on those too few days when everything clicked. I’ve been to many matches with friends but that third-place play-off moment would not have been the same with anyone else.
Even before the pandemic, with the boy at college for most of the season, live football was looking like more of a life stage than I had realised. But it isn’t over yet and that is perhaps the biggest reason for toughing it out; for getting out the thermal socks and winter coats and braving the lousy pizza and crowded loos.
Because I’m not ready to give up on the collection of those shared times. I want to keep topping up my memory bank, and his. It’s about being one of the unhappy few standing in the rain watching your team lose badly, knowing that for once your players could hear your abuse and knowing you’ll talk about it for the rest of your lives. It looked like an awful night. I wish we were there.
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