It's a long story, bear with us...
AND so it begins…
On Wednesday evening, this year’s model of West Bromwich Albion rolls out for the first time, taking on Paris St Germain in a friendly, the precursor to ten months of ups and downs where results and performances of those 11 blokes on the green stuff will colour the moods of us all.
As supporters, we cherish the idea that we bleed our colours, that our relationship with our club is unparalleled, unmatched. When the players scale the heights and give us a 4-0 win, or snatch an unlikely victory with the last kick of the game, they are Gods, they’ve tapped into our passion and used it to do the incredible. On those days when they slip to a 2-0 beating without ever looking in the game, they’re a bunch of worthless mercenaries, not fit to wear the shirt, only here for the pay cheque.
All of which goes some way to explaining the bizarre nature of football supporting. No, of course no young man passing through on his career path that started in Latvia, Brazil or Finland can begin to understand the traditions, the nuances, the subtleties of your club that has existed for a century and plenty. Of course he cannot feel it the way you do. Yet at the same time, he can feel it more, just for different reasons. Your football club might be your passion, but those results are his livelihood.
Yes, at the top end of the game, a player might only need one contract to secure him for life, but the number to whom that applies are comparatively small. Most footballers, even plenty of those in the Premier League, are operating on that knife edge where a run of good form will enable them to stay at the level they’re at, or even push higher, where an injury or a sudden loss of confidence will see them ending up in League Two or worse.
So while a bad result will send us scurrying to the pub to seek solace – it’s not the worst idea, let’s face it – that same bad result might see a player having to change the size of roof over his and his family’s head, just as you do if the threat of redundancy suddenly rears its head at your place of work, whether you have any loyalty or finer feelings towards your employer or not. In such circumstances, I think it’s safe to say they care.
Which makes you wonder why it is that we are so obsessed with it all, those of us whose pay packets remain untroubled by it all. It can only be because while our livelihoods survive, our lives are inextricably entwined with the fates and fortunes of our football team. And that is a whole different kettle of emotional and psychological fish.
Football is about as irrational as life gets and that’s why those people who haven’t grown up steeped in its mysteries can never truly understand it, cannot ever properly get inside it, enveloped by it, possessed by it. If we were talking logically, if any of it made sense, then we would all be supporters of the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, maybe Chelsea or Tottenham. By and large, those clubs play the most attractive football in the land, have the best players, score the most goals, win the most games. Why go anywhere else?
Much as it troubles those who believe that football didn’t exist before Paul Gascoigne burst into tears in Italy in 1990, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the history, stupid”. And it’s a very complex history at that, because it isn’t merely the history of your club, the cups won, the victories gathered, the miseries suffered – especially the miseries suffered.
It’s your history, you reading this. By what logical measure can you account for people living in Rochdale, Southend, Exeter, but coming to The Hawthorns every other Saturday, driving past motorway exits that might take them to Old Trafford, Goodison, White Hart Lane or the Emirates if not for history, if not for the fact that previous generations came from West Bromwich and had the tribal mark of the throstle etched onto their soul before they left, calling them back week after week, dragging future generations, their sons and daughters to a town they know nothing about to watch footballers that represent it?
When we are in The Hawthorns, it is an act of pilgrimage for the comparisons between football and religion are a lot closer than some think when they try to make a joke of it. When things are right, those momentary comings together when from out of nowhere, often for no particular reason, the whole crowd erupts at the same split second, starts singing the same song at the same time without anyone giving the lead, you can feel souls igniting all around the stadium, you can feel people getting in touch with some strange primeval force, making contact with some deep human need.
On the occasions when The Hawthorns spontaneously takes on “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, you genuinely are on a different plane because you can see and hear people not just opening their mouths and sending out a tune, but singing for their lives, as if everything depended upon it. You don’t often get that outside a gospel choir.
Much as I love the old place, it is hard to see just why we would reach such a plane of ecstasy singing about West Bromwich if all we had to believe in was the Kings Centre, Dartmouth Park, a few pokey industrial estates and The Wheatsheaf in the High Street, though I bow to none in my appreciation of a pint in there after the match. But somehow, football captures all those elements, wraps them up in its arms and delivers it into the stadium each week where we can simultaneously forget and embrace all that life in this area has to offer.
Football was the game of the working classes and at its heart, so it remains, whatever the efforts to gentrify it. Like working class areas up and down the land, life here isn’t easy. If you grow up round here, you need to develop a thick skin and a hard edge because the number of blows that the world will bestow upon you are many and vicious. You might get passed over for work because you don’t have the right accent, the chances are that you’ll come out last in the postcode lotteries of health and education.
Given the industries on which we depend, the likelihood is that somewhere along the line, The Man will come along and hang a closed sign on the door and take your job away from you. The industrial towns of this country are hard living, hard working, often hard drinking places. Life can be a grind, a worry. But there is always football, and that is where the game’s core constituency lies.
Because football transgresses all the normal rules. It is just about the only industry in the land that seems largely unaffected by the recession, crowds continuing to come in, TV deals getting bigger and bigger, the game forever hogging our back and front pages. And yet in that, there is a real disconnection because too often, the game itself, and certainly the media that underpins it, wants to push football as entertainment, a wilful and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of its existence and its success.
Of course each of us has our different reasons for going to the game, but if you look across the broad sweep of football supporters, we do not come here to be entertained the way that we do if we go to the cinema or a concert or the theatre. We come here because we have to. We come here out of the fear that if we don’t, this will be the week when Chris Brunt scores a hat-trick, the week we score six, the week where after being under the cosh for 90 minutes, we break up the other end and, with one chance, win 1-0.
Or it’ll be the week where the referee runs into the back post at a corner and knocks himself over, or when a dog runs on the pitch, or when the floodlights pack up for ten minutes, or it’s rained so much that a goalbound shot stops in a puddle on the line and gives Ben Foster the chance to get up and save it. Or the week when, finally, a new Cyrille Regis or Tony Brown or Ray Barlow arrives on the scene from out of nowhere.
More likely, it’ll be another week where the game was a bit ordinary, nothing remarkable happened and you go home at the end of it thinking about your tea and hoping you don’t have to watch “Strictly Come Dancing” again. But the idea that it might happen, that this might be the game when you see something that you’ll be talking about for the next 10, 20, 50 years, means that you have to come, on sufferance a lot of the time. You’d probably rather be off fishing, playing golf, sitting in front of the telly, but as the hour approaches, you know you’ve got to be here.
Because no football club worth its salt can ever exist in a vacuum. It is a part of its surroundings, it springs from its community, it is its community. Why else does AFC Wimbledon exist after the scandal of that club being uprooted was allowed to go through if not to give its community a focal point. Why does Portsmouth Football Club continue to exist in spite of repeated attempts to put it out of its misery by all kinds of unconcerned parties? It exists not simply because people in Portsmouth want to see a game of football every fortnight, but because those people need a place to go, they need a place of sanctuary, they need a space where they can commune with each other, they need somewhere to give them hope for the future and, most important perhaps, somewhere they can touch the spirits of the past, their past.
That is why football matters, why all over the country at unearthly hours of a Saturday morning there are people packing up their cars to make journeys the length and breadth of this land to go to games – home games mind you – simply because in doing so, they are paying their respects to those that have gone before as much as those with us now.
They go and they look at that patch of the ground – doubtless long since redeveloped – where they stood as a nine year old, standing next to their dad, their uncles, mom, sisters, brothers, mates.
They think of the walk back to the car, or getting the bus, they think of that New Year’s Day when all was ice and yet we still played Bristol City off the park, they think of the way the ground used to smell when it was the preserve of big men in big coats smoking cigarettes down to the wrist, not wasting a single drag, they think of that thrill you had when you didn’t know when the teams were coming out, when they ran out when they were ready, when you suddenly heard that little rumble of anticipation from those in the Rainbow Stand who were first to see players emerging from down the tunnel before the full throated roar of “Bring On The Champions” rolled around the ground, they think of how they had to wear the same clothes to every game when we were winning, of how they turned to their mate only 15 seconds into the first game of 1978/79 to joke, “Not much of a game, we haven’t scored yet!” only to find Ally Brown putting the ball in the net at that precise moment and then repeating that phrase game after game thereafter, they think of how it was to stand in packed grounds, wedged against a barrier as the rain poured down and the steam rose into the hair off a thousand soaking supporters all chanting, “Willie, Willie Johnston, Willie Johnston on the wing”.
And then the spell is broken and they’re off again, “Gareth, Gareth McAuley, he’s better than JT!” And in the seat in front, there’s a nine year old from this generation who is soaking it all up and who, come 2050, will be lost momentarily in his own reverie as he watches us play in whatever league it is then, thinking back to how lucky he was to have seen James Morrison and Jonas Olsson all those years ago, and how luckier still he was to have seen them with his family.
There is nothing, nothing on earth that does that to you the way that football does, for there is no shared experience like it, nowhere that combines the deeply personal and intimate with such a hugely public spectacle. Football can carry you through the darkest times you can imagine, times when the loss of those you once shared it with rips off the layers of your skin and leaves your very soul open, scarred, shattered.
At those times, there is maybe nothing quite as painful as football, nothing that brings home the loss quite so savagely as the now empty seat or the post-match phone call that you can’t make any longer, or the Sunday afternoon re-enactment of events, the marvelling and the moaning. And then, time takes over and rounds off some of those jagged edges and coming back to this ground, to watch those blue and white stripes, becomes a pleasure once again, it offers comfort, it prods the memory down brighter avenues, it brings a smile and yes, sometimes a tear, but a better one. Show me a film, a television show, anything else that can do that for so many, many people.
This club, every club, allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, on and off the field. We are here because our forefathers willed the game into existence, formulated it, supported it in good times and bad and created its ethos, its atmosphere. They delivered a sport that is not only breathtaking to watch, but they created what we now call “social media”, long, long before twitter and facebook ever reared their heads.
If you think you’ve got a lot of friends on facebook, mostly people you know nothing about, have a look at the 20,000 friends you’ve got at The Hawthorns on a Saturday afternoon, friends who will help you sing your songs, help you enjoy your day, friends who will actively take part in your life, not just your status, for the next two hours, friends who will enrich it, friends who will make their mark on your memory and on your soul forever more, even if you have no idea who they are, what they do, what they look like.
Those that have gone before us created this game and you can find their thoughts, their hopes, their memories all around you if you just take a second to look.
It’s embedded in every block of concrete, in every blade of grass, in every seat, in every note of every song, in every bead of sweat, in every bet, in every laugh, in every insult you hurl at a referee that you first heard shouted when you were a kid and couldn’t understand it, in every cup of tea that reminds you of far off days when all there was was a wooden tea hut with a teaspoon on a chain on the counter in case anybody nicked it.
Other than your home, if you are one of the hopeless true believers like the rest of us, there is probably no place on earth as richly, tightly packed with memories as The Hawthorns, no activity that has so affected, afflicted your life as football, nothing that you are so desperate to pass down the chain and on to the next generations to see what they are going to do with it.
That is why, above any other considerations, we have to cherish football, protect it from those who would commodify it, who would make it a leisure choice like going to Alton Towers or Legoland. We must never let those that treat it as a plaything extinguish that flame.
Football, the game, the experience, the stuff of life, it exists for us to connect with a world that’s gone and the one that’s coming. It enlighten, enlivens, it bores, it frustrates, it gives us tiny moments of triumph along with long tracts of failure.
Truly all human life is here, for football is the power, the glory, the misery, the humanity, the laughs and the loss, forever and ever. In the lives of so many of us, football is a light that never goes out.