Thursday, 27 January 2011

Football Has A Role To Play

Over the last two months one of the most important relationships in my life went a long way towards being fully mended after a fairly rocky period. This improved state of affairs has come as quite a relief to me, i've relied on this particular bond to keep me sane more times than i could hope to count over the last decade and a half. So many memories spring to mind every time i think of it; Saturday afternoons in the park, evenings spent feeling so tense i barely dare move, bitterly cold Sunday mornings sprinting across muddy fields and several moments where i felt as true a sense of euphoria as i ever have.

The relationship i am talking about is, of course, my loving yet destructively abusive relationship with football.

Football has always been a hugely important factor in my life ever since the moment i attended a frankly dire match between Sheffield United and Charlton in the late 90's. It's odd how memory works, i am only moderately sure that this was my first game, yet am certain it was a pretty shockingly poor match. I only went because i'd won two free tickets. I also think a man with the surname of Tracy was in goal, though I don't doubt I could be wrong.

However, it was enough for me to fall utterly in love with football. I didn't fall in love with either of the two teams though; no my path as a football fan was laid out by my mother, a Forest fan for over 20 years, who witnessed the glory years which i know i'll never see emulated. I won't deny there have been times i have wished i hadn't been "encouraged" to support Forest, especially as i've lived most of my life in Sheffield, but looking at it now as a 20 year old I don't regret it at all.

Perhaps that's a sign of the undeniable fickleness of football fans, seeing as right now isn't the worst time to be a Forest fan, but i reckon the fact i was a season ticket holder throughout the years we were in League One, travelling from Sheffield to most home games and a good number of away games, should excuse me from any accusations of being a fair weather supporter. Anyone who went to Rotherham's old ground will testify that you don't go there if you were faint of heart, regardless of the weather.

It is a cliché about men that they take football too seriously, that they value it above the more 'real' relationships in their life. Anyone who knows me will know that i take most of the relationships that would be considered 'real' far too seriously, so i hope my ramble about football actually gets taken seriously.

As i mentioned earlier, football has given me some of the most pure, unqualified, unquestioning moments of happiness. As mentioned in earlier posts i have a bad tendency to over analyse everything, to be reserved and controlled in the majority of what i do, but if i'm at a football match and Forest score, all of that goes out of the window. The sensation when within the crowd of my team scoring is too a large extent incomparable for me, the intensity of that reaction, so instinctive and powerful is utterly intoxicating. I walk out of the ground after a win and already crave that feeling again.

However over the summer i concede i became fairly disillusioned with football. The frustration and depression of losing to Blackpool in the play offs (potentially my least favourite sporting creation) and the utter shambles of England's world cup campaign leaving my usually high tolerance for footballing dissapointments worryingly stretched.

I was there at the City Ground as Blackpool demolished Forest in the semi final and i was in a pub as i experienced what has to be counted amongst the most intense bursts of hatred i've ever felt, consciously directed towards the officials of the Germany v England game when Frank Lampard's goal wasn't given. I didn't use inverted commas here because it was a goal, the fact it wasn't given was a mistake and to pretend otherwise would be false.

After those two experiences it is understandable that i went into the new season with a cynicism and a pessimism i hadn't previously experienced. A distinctly average start by Forest combined with a less than inspiring start to my second year of university meant that as Forest continued to struggle in the early stages of the season i saw there trials merely as a continuation of my typical luck. I am not an angry guy by any stretch of the imagination, but as i realised the goal hadn't been given i was furious, disbelief and anger combining in a powerful cocktail.

It was the most unlikely of scenarios which sparked my love of football yet again, a dismal 1-0 defeat against Leicester at the Walkers Stadium. It was a shocking game at the ground which encapsulates the issues surrounding both crisp manufacturers sponsoring teams and the limitations of ikea-esque flat pack stadiums. It was the first game i'd been to since the fiasco of the play off's and despite how utterly uninspiring the game was, i became hooked yet again.

There is something about being in the midst of a football crowd that triggers an intensely natural reaction in me. I have never felt anything equivalent to the joy of being part of a collective passion for a certain cause. Football is one of the most powerful and yet at the same time wonderfully inconsequential examples of this. Though i would rile with anger at anyone who uttered the phrase "it's only a game", on some level i know it to be true and love it for that. It's an event which doesn't dictate anything real about the future path of my life, yet inspires in me some wonderfully powerful emotional reactions.

I have had many good days in my life. There are so many memories that stand out throughout my life which i both cherish and protect. Most involve my friends, a large proportion involve music, but a good sized chunk revolve around football.

Undoubtedly one that springs to the forefront is the memory of how i felt when the news that Cheltenham had gone 2-1 up against Doncaster reached me.

Now that may seem like a pretty unusual source of true happiness, but you must know the context to appreciate why it meant so much. It was May 3rd 2008 and i had experienced 3 years following Forest around god awful League One grounds as under the wonderfully inept leadership of Megson (who in a frankly odd moment i saw in a coffee shop in Sheffield today) and Calderwood we struggled to get out of that league. I was at the City Ground that day, as we played a team responsible for one of the darkest days in our club's history, and i remember how conflicted i was when we reached half time 3-1 up while Doncaster were only 1-0 down. I desperately wanted to believe we could get promotion, but my experiences with Forest and success were incredibly limited. Even as i clapped the team off at half time two painful memories sprang to the fore. First was the day when i had to walk into my school in Sheffield following the defeat to Sheffield United in the play offs. The second was spending my Y11 prom checking on the score from the match against Yoevil which we eventually utterly screwed up, thus spoiling what should have been a high point of my teens.

Safe to say i wasn't overly optimistic and this without a doubt played a major part in the utterly pure release of emotion that followed the news that Cheltenham were beating Doncaster, which meant that, as results stood at the time we'd be going up to the Championship. For once luck, the fates or even perhaps the 44 players on the two pitches combined to create potentially the most uniquely happy moment in my life. When the final whistle blew in Nottingham and i knew we were promoted i really can't think of an equivalent moment.

I am someone who is more than prone to over thinking, someone who tends to question every good thing in my life until i can no longer enjoy it, but that day defeated that side of me. The moment when the final whistle blew was one of pure happiness and i loved every minute that followed it while i stayed in the stadium. I even enjoyed the train journey home, on an over-crowded and roasting hot train, such was the blissful state i was in following the game.

There are other moments which come close; Bradford away (a huge away following staying for half an hour after the game to praise the efforts of "Charlie and Frank" in trying to undo the damage of the Megson years), Chelsea away (6000 Reds singing constantly singing despite a dismal performance, plus the greatest banner i have ever seen, the words of which i will put at the bottom of this post), coming from 2-0 down to draw against Leicester at home (with the only decent Lester coming off the bench to score both goals) and the moment two seasons ago when Lee Camp (a former Derby player) saved a penalty in the dying moments against his former club, firmly establishing him as a hero at the City Ground.

All those moments are in the past now though, and as i previously mentioned i was struggling to muster the usual enthusiasm for the current season. However that Leicester game, regardless of how poorly we played, brought me back into the passionate world of football fandom and since then i have felt that same burning desire to be at as many games as i could once again.

The moment i knew that i had truly fell utterly in love with football yet again came on the 15th of January 2011. I went to my first home game since the play off defeat to Blackpool when we played Portsmouth and on an at times farcically windswept pitch, we outplayed them for pretty much the entire 90 minutes yet found ourselves 1-0 down.

However as the clock ticked towards 88 minutes a frustratingly rare example of good football saw us break up field and McGugan put in a cross so dangerous Sonko had no option but to try and cut it out, to disastrous effects as his attempted interception sliced it into his own net. The eruption when that ball hit the net was pretty loud but was nothing when compared to what followed. When on 93 minutes Tudgay flicked on a McGugan free kick and made it 2-1 almost the entire 21,000 at the game went thoroughly, utterly and unreservedly mental, including me.

It was one of those moment which reminded me of why i love football. Coming from behind to win, against a good team, at a time when we needed to win to maintain our pursuit of the promotion challengers; it may seem simple but it is almost indescribably brilliant (though i hope i've come close to capturing some of the wonder involved). As mentioned earlier i tend to by hyper aware of my own actions, constantly conscious of the potential implications of what i do, yet when Tudgay's header hit the back of the net i didn't give the slightest damn what i looked like or how i seemed, i celebrated in a pure and natural way and i loved the moment for allowing me to do so.

All the pessimism and cynicism that had surrounded football for the past 12 months evaporated as the net rippled and i remembered just how happy this "game" could make me. I'd be more than willing to argue this particular point, but even if it is 'just' a game, i will argue until my dying breath that it is the greatest game on earth.

I think too much, worry far too much, struggle with issues of my own creation far too often, yet come 3 o'clock on a Saturday, i couldn't care less about all those issues and for that, even if merely that, i must thank Football.

Since then we've beaten Derby and Bristol and seem poised to really challenge for promotion this season. I don't know what the next few months hold, though my hopes are probably easy to guess.

Even if we fail to go up this year there will be one undeniable plus to the 2010/2011 season; it restored my love for football.

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