I fondly remember some seemingly unimportant details from my first football match which took place on the opening day of the 1991/1992 season, the final term before the Premier League-era kicked in. I can recall the train journey, the bag of Maltesers, the blaring August sun and the “Wonderfuel Gas” advertising sign above the stand. I remember walking up the steps from the concourse, seeing first the clear blue sky followed by red seats and the green grass that looked like a carpet. All of those colours seemed so vivid to my young mind and it felt so special to be “at the match”. We won 2-0, although I can’t remember the goals or who scored them. I don’t actually think I could see anything as the person in front of me blocked my view. I was only eight-years-old at the time and I wasn’t the tallest kid in the world.
It didn’t matter that my first match day experience included ninety minutes of staring at the back of some stranger’s head, because the details that I can recall started off a love affair that would consume my childhood, youth and my young adult life. I would read and watch anything I could about my team and football in general. I’d watch and re-watch videos and later DVDs of memorable seasons. People used to quiz me at school (and make fun of me) because I could describe every goal at World Cup ’94, who scored it and in what minute. I remember staying up until the small hours of the morning to watch exciting games such as USA vs Bolivia, writing down my favourite players and selecting my team of the tournament. I’d put up posters and tear them down as players came and went. I’d kick balls, or anything that resembled one, around the house and garden. Later, when I had money of my own I spent it all on football, the little that was left went on beer.
Just after my 22nd birthday, the love affair with my team ended. An aggressive takeover of my club took place. Tensions ran high and the trauma divided fans and loyalties. Myself, and thousands of others, vowed never to step foot in the stadium again. I’ve been to just three games in the 13 years since – two freebies – but the feeling has gone and will never come back. It’s just not the same. I won’t lie though. Rather than being the one and only cause, it was more the straw that broke the camel’s back. The truth is, I wasn’t enjoying games as much anymore. I was sick of spending all my money on overpriced football tickets. Paying £30 to watch your teams’ reserves draw 0-0 at home to fourth-tier team in the FA Cup isn’t my idea of value-for-money entertainment. Especially if it is freezing cold and you have a raging hangover. It’s not about the winning, as some of my favourite match day experiences occurred when we lost or where I can’t even remember the result. The journey to and from the stadium, the beer and the laugh with your mates were all more important.
However, when you feel like you’re just a number, another body through the turnstile and just another £30+ in the pot, it grates on you. I was at the age where other things were becoming more important to me. Clothes, going out with friends, holidays. I wanted to spend my money on other things, and not be tied down to the same ritual every Saturday for the rest of my life. Some people feel the same as me, that following football and being a “match goer” is a young man’s game. Some people never go to the match, and others never stop going. In my case, it was in my early twenties when the buzz subsided. It’s not that I’ve completely fallen out of love with going to football. I’ve since been to plenty of foreign matches, as well as local non-league stuff. It’s great to experience different stadiums, atmospheres, and to create new memories, but it’s not the same.
The reason why I’m reminiscing is because soon I plan to start a family of my own. Like most blokes you wish for a son so you can take him to the football. You’ll love your child unconditionally whether it is a boy or a girl, but most parents-to-be will have a preference as to the gender of their child. I’d love my first born to be a boy so I can give him those “first match” memories that were so special to me. Football creates a bond between father and son that few things can. But, I have one major problem: where do I take him? Do I take him to the Premier League team, knowing full well I despise the soulless, expensive entity that it, and the wider game at the top level, has become? Do I take him to the “rebel” club founded in the wake of the takeover? I’ve been there dozens of times, I’m a club member and want them to do well because I think it’s great for football, and more importantly great for the community, but I can’t pretend that it’s the same as my “first love”.
Do I take him to another non-league team, or do I let him make up his own mind, and follow and support him wherever he wants to make his memories? How can I do any of the above, knowing that I don’t feel that passion myself? Following a football team is supposed to be something that is passed down through the family, an heirloom. The child sees the passion in the eyes of his dad and granddad, and wants to feel that himself, wanting to be a part of it as a sense of belonging. I can’t lie though, I’d be unhappy if he chose to follow a rival team, just because that team happened to be better at the time, or one that his mates in the playground supported. Hopefully, when the moment arrives I’ll know what to do, will know what feels right. Only time will tell and I’ll just have to follow my heart. And more importantly so will he.
First published in STAND #15. The landmark 25th issue is out now!