For me, football has become so many different things, to the extent that the match itself is by no means immaterial but is now only part of the football experience.
At the beginning it was definitely the football that lured me in. The excitement, the talent, the goals, the skills, the magic, the characters…the beautiful game. And oh boy when your team is on form, there really is nothing like it. The buzz that follows you everywhere, the way you chuckle to yourself when you get in a lift and it says ‘going up’, how you wake up every day with a smile on your face and, at the absolute best of times – like this summer – when everyone but everyone is talking about the team and buzzing for the next game.
But we all know that it can’t be like that all the time. And maybe that is the reason why we have to find other things to build into our Saturdays. I certainly remember a spell of several dark years watching Blackpool when the football was so bad that we spent the duration of matches making up football quiz questions for each other. Do you know why Reading and Preston never have to change their colours? And why Hull City are unique? If not then well done you! The football has never been that bad that you discussed this at 3.30pm on a Saturday afternoon.
I am not sure exactly sure when this happened, but the social aspect of the matchday came to supersede the match itself for me a good few years ago. The day would be meticulously planned, with trains booked three months in advance for the best fares, a Pub of Choice selected (food and real ale compulsory), opening time occasionally nudged forward, route to ground plotted (and taxis ordered where required) – and sometimes hotel booked for a Wacky Weekender. Oh the fun we had in Doncaster (faceless doll in hotel room), Torquay (stag sellotaped to his chair in a restaurant – unsure how toilet visits were accommodated), Carlisle (Eddie Stobart photos in hospitality suite and darts in the pub) and, of course, Blackpool (man dressed as chicken walking past restaurant window).
But football has also been so much more than that – and a vital part of my life for many, many years. When I first moved away from Blackpool I found it very difficult to adjust to life away from home and became very depressed and borderline agoraphopic. But my football addiction at that time overrode any illness that I was suffering – and I forced myself out of the house and on the train to the match. This was a very difficult thing for me to do at that time – and I spent hours crying on Preston station just wanting to be home (or just because I was upset at being in Preston, I’m not really sure which now). But I did it. And if it wasn’t for football, I am not sure I would have been able to leave the house at all back then. Indeed I dragged myself halfway across the country with all sorts of illnesses over the years. When I had my first migraine and had no idea why I was unable to see, I still caught the train on my own to Scunthorpe for a midweek cup match. And I once sat with crippling stomach cramps through the longest match at Tranmere (not sure what I’d eaten, but it did take me a while to adapt to the curries round here).
Football has taken me to places I would never otherwise have visited (and I’m not just talking about Market Drayton here). Pre-season tours have taken me to the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, the Depths of Devon (including a pub with an aviary in the beer garden) – and, best of all, Latvia. I could not give you the results of any pre-season friendly ever, but our summer in Ventspils – and the train trip across Europe through Belgium, Germany, Poland and Lithuania to Latvia – were the best summers of my life. I can barely remember who we played, but I remember playing football on the beach in Jurmala, drinking in beer gardens with friends, shopping for an umbrella and a jumper in Majori because it was raining that hard we would have drowned on the walk to the ground otherwise. Who cared what the result was anyway? It was never about that.
Football takes me to the seaside for some brilliant adventures and the opportunity to compare other resorts with Blackpool. Wimpy and boy racers in Southend; a dog with a season ticket in Scarborough; the best chippy in Cleethorpes. I can’t tell you how excited I am about Colwyn Bay this coming weekend (read all about that next week).
Football gives me a day’s respite from whoever it is I happen to be living with at the time who is invariably driving me nuts. It is an escape, too, from work and the humdrum of the everyday – and time in front of screens. I can have a day being exactly who I am and who I want to be, with people who understand me – my spiritual family, my football family. We are a close-knit bunch. When one of us brings a new partner into the group, we treat them with suspicion. Are they good enough for our football brother or sister? It is a rare one that is! We are a protective bunch and there is much love between us.
Ultimately it is the people – the football family – that is the most important thing now. We meet people from all walks of life – high ranking civil servants, undertakers, police officers, teachers, train drivers, geophysicists, plumbers, journalists, bricklayers, dinner ladies… How many of these people would we have met and socialised with outside of the world of football? And now we go on days out and weekends away with them – and have Christmas dinner and dance on tables with them!
So, without doubt, when the football is good it is very, very good – and nothing will ever top that feeling from when Blackpool won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley. But that wasn’t real life, was it? Did that even really happen? That was the magic – the unbelievable – the enchantment of the beautiful game. And oh boy that is the best feeling. But you know I went to Wembley to watch The Seasiders in the play-off final last year and I wish I hadn’t bothered. I had been carried away with the football in the semi-finals as we overcame Luton Town in exciting fashion. But even then it took the lure of a weekend in London, accommodation in a brewery and a day out at London Zoo (great bats – highly recommended) to tempt me to go to London for the play-off final weekend. I went, we won…and I didn’t feel a thing. And why? Because my friends weren’t there any more and it didn’t seem to matter without them. But that’s another story…
So football is about way more than a game these days. Sure, it is the football that gets you hooked. But it is the football family that really matters.