Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Why I Watch

There are a lot of times I regret being a football fan. Note that I say football rather than Forest, the distinction is crucial. I’m not denying that supporting a big team would be easier, almost certainly more enjoyable, but I can’t imagine ever supporting anyone but Forest and would never want to, a feeling all football fans understand.

Growing up a Forest fan in Sheffield wasn’t the most comfortable experience always, I got used to being called a ‘scab’ by friends and strangers on a semi-regular basis despite the fact that my politics tended to be a long way to the left of theirs and wasn’t alive during the miner’s strike. The day after the play off semi-final against Sheffield United was probably the worst day of school ever, tormented not just by Blades, but by anyone who knew anything about football pretty much.

A defeat against either Sheffield team meant dreading going into school, now it means dreading work in the morning. More so than usual. I’m usually a fairly calm individual, not overly prone to outward displays of strong emotion, particularly not anger. Plenty of my friends have commented over the years that they’ve rarely seen me angry or that I don’t seem excited about events. They are able to maintain that opinion because they’ve probably never seen me during a Forest game.

This evening was perhaps the perfect example of the torture and ecstasy that football offers to me. Forest played Wednesday at the City Ground, a game between two teams I suspect are destined for mid-table finishes this year and not one any neutrals were going to get excited about. Those hoping to see good quality football were watching the much more significant Champions League semi-finals.

I’d got home after watching the new Muppets movie (review to come in the next couple of days), checking the score throughout the journey home. I’d nearly sworn at my friend in town when I saw Wednesday had gone 1-0 up from the penalty spot. Once home I interrupted a conversation with my dad to briefly celebrate us equalising just before half time. I didn’t even have time to get upstairs and switch on my laptop before that relief was replaced by anger, as I saw Wednesday had gone up the other end and scored almost immediately.

I spent the next 15 minutes sulking. I’d like to paint it as something grander, but that is the most accurate description. I was already picturing the faces of various work colleagues, grinning ear to ear about their victory.

If I was gloomy during half time, the opening 30 minutes of the second half saw me almost inconsolable. We were terrible, Wednesday sounded like they should have been 5 or 6-1 up and I had turned off the radio twice. I turned it back on within minutes each time, such is the masochistic element of being a football fan I guess. I’d spent a lot of time with my head in my hands, cursing the fates, forest and especially Darius Henderson for being so useless I am starting to think I would genuinely do a better job leading the Forest attack. I think I’d fall over less often when passed the ball at least.

I was glad I continued to listen, because the torment doesn’t end until 90 minutes whether I’m listening or not, and on 77 minutes we got a goal back. I shouted a little and punched the air more times than was perhaps necessary, but it’s difficult to celebrate effectively in an empty room.

Again such joy was short lived, within moments Forest’s captain had got himself sent off and the fledgling comeback seemed impossible again. I’m cursing Forest again, wondering why them seem to save their biggest cock-ups for the Sheffield teams (I suspect they don’t and it’s simply perspective making it seem so, but it hurts either way).

But oddly we finally start playing, it sounds like the players care. Then the Wednesday winger Jeremy Helan is lucky not to get sent off and I hear the Forest crowd respond to the perceived injustice and get behind the team. I’m still not optimistic, I’ve been a football fan too long for any of that naive nonsense.

Then on 87 minutes we win a free kick. Edge of the area. Jamie Paterson, one of the highlights in an otherwise depressing second half to the season, steps up and curls it in. This is why I’m a Forest fan, this is why I watch football. Because on a Tuesday night, after a long day at work and alone in my room, I shout so loud my throat still feels a little sore an hour later. I jump out my chair as the ball hits the net and I won’t sit down again until the final whistle.

It’s an insignificant goal. It doesn’t change our season, it doesn’t win us promotion, it doesn’t even win the game. But in the context, with the emotion that the game draws out of me, that equaliser is, for a few moments everything.

That is why I love the sport. Art can attempt to trigger emotions but they are always, to a degree contrived. Football can be cruel, often brutally so and almost always unforgiving of optimism. But it is also random and that unpredictability, the fact that even if you support a great team playing a lowly one, you are rarely 100% comfortable, is what makes it so addictive.

For the majority of fans, football is not a sport watched because they think they will win, it’s watched thinking they will lose but entertaining the hope that they might win, and therein lies the beauty. Nothing plays with my emotions like football. It might lack depth, but the immediacy and intensity of the feelings it triggers are second to none.

I spent the remaining 8 minutes of the game pacing my tiny room back and forth (it was more like spinning on the spot and by the end I was a little dizzy) because I couldn’t sit down. I actually, somewhat ridiculously but entirely unwittingly, fell to my knees when Paterson nearly won it for Forest with a run and shot.

There are great moments in the memories of all football fans, games that really mattered, goals that meant everything. But I think it is the mid-season games where very little is really at stake that define why we follow the sport. When a point gained from a poor match against a team that will probably finish only a place or two below you triggers such elation, you understand why you persevered through the 77 minutes of misery that preceded it.

Extended over several seasons that captures why we do what we do, why we care like we do. We put up with the anger, the depression, the ball of hot molten tension that sits in our gut on game day, for those moments of pure, unrestrained and unqualified moments of elation, regardless of whether they prove insignificant in the long term.

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