Wednesday ’til I die
Sitting on the Kop at Sheffield Wednesday last week, one of the guys who I sit near to tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘read your blog the other day-too much religion, not enough football’. I couldn’t agree more my friend, so here it is…
I’ve been an on/off follower of the Owls all my life: when my mother went into a care home, I found a letter I wrote to her when she was in hospital having given birth to my younger brother (who also comes to the match with me) 45 years ago. I was ten, and it reads ‘I hope he’s a Wednesdayite!’ In the early 90s, my son wanted to go to the football regularly, and my brother used to take him. One fateful night, he couldn’t make it so I was drafted in to accompany the boy to the Wednesday playing Bolton Wanderers. We won 4-1, I was hooked again, and I’ve missed very few home games since.
It was Bill Shankly who was reported to have said (mistakenly actually) that ‘football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that’. What is it that makes, ordinarily sane and quite sensible, people follow this fickle game? True, there is a sense of comradeship, of sharing high emotion with like-minded people. There is the ‘Coronation Street’ factor: you keep going Saturday by Saturday because, if you miss and episode, you don’t know what’s happening. There’s the tradition: my grandfather and father were both Wednesdayites, and so, like the passing on of a baptismal shawl, we keep the tradition going today. And there’s the ecstasy: yes it’s true that 99% of football is disappointment (yes, even for Manchester United fans), but the 1% is pure living and joy: an excitement with which you can live for days, or even weeks. In the end, we also know that we rarely experience the height of human physical achievement at its most balletic as when David Hirst escaped the off-side trap, slipped past two defenders and slotted a pin-perfect shot into the bottom right hand corner. Sublime!
Make no mistake, we football fans are aware of the downside: we know how sad we look to others who simply can’t understand why our emotional life is ruled by whether our team wins or loses. We know that we have been corralled into that section of the public psyche marked ‘hooligan’, ‘cultureless moron’ and ‘foul mouthed idiot’, but we simply don’t care, for this collective foolishness is reserved for the stadium and we return to being the sensible, upright members of society we really are once we leave the ground. And when we count up what the tickets for the game, plus two for the kids, the hamburger, tea and programme have actually cost us, we wince a little and then shrug, knowing that in those two 45 minute halves of football we have experienced more human emotion in one week than most people manage in a year.
And then there’s ‘the crack’: there isn’t a man or woman in the ground who doesn’t believe they would be a better tactician than the present manager: substitutions; formations; set-pieces and player assessments all reverberate around the ground before, during and after the match: the intellectual input of the crowd. And, you will rarely hear anything as side-splittingly funny as the casual comments of the people sitting by you. Classic cases in my memory are when the trumpeter in our Kop band imitated an ambulance siren as the St John Ambulance men waggled on to the pitch with a stretcher: the time when Ravenelli (the ‘white feather) missed a sitter and the guy behind shouted ‘Nar then Ravenelli, tha’t a disgrace to all white-haired people’ or, funniest of all, at half time, when reading our programmes, David Hirst was knocking up and struck the ball onto the Kop, knocking a mobile ‘phone four rows out of someone’s hands. The same guy said ‘I knew they were mobile ‘phones, but I didn’t know they were that ****** mobile!’
And then there’s the derbies! My home town of Sheffield is divided into two halves: one blue and white (us!) and the other red and white (them). When we play each other, the ground seethes with partisan dislike and venom, and the winner gets ‘bragging rights’ until the next time. Then, after the passion, the blood and the spit, we all return quietly to work in our offices and factories, next door to the guy in red and white. It’s tribal but its fun, and it means a lot.
Last year, when he was a year old, I took my grandson to his first match. He was wearing the mini kit bought for him by his uncles, and he sat mesmerised throughout a chilly and boring encounter. It all starts again…