To many, football is a pastime. On the outside, a passive experience, but for those inside the bubble, it’s visceral with the ability to leave a thumbprint on your soul.
Take the postponement of a game; to the outside world that means nothing happened. But, something did happen, a postponement happened; the weather watching, the existential battle of the groundsmen to get the game on; the heroism and grovelling gratitude if they do, the referee inspecting the pitch to see if the ball runs true; like a roman emperor passing definitive judgement on a defeated gladiator. If the game is called off, attention turns to watching other results and the impact they have. Calculations are done about the advantage of your game in hand; football’s cryptocurrency; invaluable and worthless at the same time.
The point still stands when there is a game. The journey up the motorway, the officious stewards, the last minute goal, a stonewall penalty that wasn’t given, the manager’s persistence with a player who is clearly not performing, and the lack of chance for one who deserves a start, the three points or the one point or the no points at all. Spat back out into the working week, you might get a ‘I see your boys won again.’ from a half-interested colleague. You nod; how do you explain the meaning of a Sam Long goal to someone who doesn’t know the Sam Long backstory?
For obvious reasons, these experiences have been mostly taken from us. Watching football does not leave you battleworn and beaten, adrenaline coursing through you as you spit your teeth onto the floor. The experience ends when your laptop is turned off, and that happens moments after the final whistle. There is no post-match decompression, no walk back to the car, no feeling of emotional exhaustion, no picking through the rubble of people’s opinions. Suddenly, I’m missing the ill-informed, poorly developed reactions from the phone-in. Even the run we’ve been on doesn’t give you that same feeling.
This is the age of slow-living; patience is everything, we no longer rush, we have time. In the past, the working week catapulted you into the weekend, which projected you back out, which sucked you into the Tuesday game, which hurled you back into another weekend. It was a physical assault, now we’ve got a gentle babbling brook of slowed experience.
Not this weekend though; the postponement of Saturday’s game, followed by the hour’s delay dragged the game into the unknown, predictability seeped away. From the usual routine of plugging my laptop into my TV 20 minutes before kick-off, I was forced to change my schedule in real-time. It felt a bit like going to a game – all those micro-adjustments to your plan. Someone’s parked in your space, nobody warned us about the roadworks on the M6, that pub’s packed, we’ll never find them in there. Each infinitesimally small change, another little gut punch.
The team selection showed that while we have strength in depth, it’s not a ready-made spare first team. That’s probably too much too ask. Sam Winnall isn’t as sharp as Matty Taylor, Brandon Barker isn’t as polished as James Henry, Anthony Forde isn’t as dynamic as Sam Long. While we didn’t look significantly weakened, the changes levelled the field a little.
The conditions didn’t help, or did, depending on what you’re after. The ball pinged around on all axes; forward, back, up, down. Wigan remain a curiosity; they should collapse in a heap under pressure, but they were sturdier than we thought. Someone said it reminded them of the Southend game last year, a team you expect to crumble, standing resolute.
And all this before the fire that threatened to bring the whole thing to a halt, there was talk of an abandonment, fire engines arrived. People were speculating about Tuesday’s game let alone the second half. At home dinner arrangements were adjusted, no doubt a few terse re-negotiations of Valentine’s Day plans had to be made, all with one eye on iFollow. I sat in my living room, ironically overheating from the furnace of my wood burner, my day, planned around an hour and forty-five minute window, stretched out towards three hours from start to finish.
There was a photo taken of the scene outside the ground; a number of nurses who’d been giving vaccine injections were lined up shivering in the cold. It was a reminder that as we were drawn more deeply into drama inside the stadium, the abnormal normal world we live in now continued methodically, calmly and resolutely unabated outside.
Once the restart happened, the game seemed to compress into 45 minutes, then, even less; the opening 10 minutes flew by. Their effort was rewarded, and our sluggishness, punished.
This was the final sobering reckoning; the bubble of our winning streak about to be popped by one of the worst teams in the division. Typical us. Then, Brandon Barker, at fault for their goal, pitched up a perfect cross for Sam Winnall to nod home the equaliser. If this campaign is to become A Thing, then Winnall may be this season’s Jordan Bowery, who made a critical, but often forgotten contribution to our promotion five years ago.
As night fell, a point seemed secure. We’d take that. Then, up steps Elliott Moore.
Nobody talks about Moore; we talk about the young upstart Jack Stevens, the club stalwarts; Long and Ruffels, even the grace and potential of Rob Atkinson, but focus is rarely on Moore.
He lopes around at a seemingly glacial pace. A gentle giant, rarely angered, endlessly willing, too polite to use his physicality to gain an advantage. Then, there’s a point where he seems to have had enough, he snaps and takes charge.
Then, suddenly, he’s swatting away players, the colour of their shirt barely a relevance, bodies fly as he forages for the ball. Watch the goal back as Cameron Brannagan works the ball out to Mark Sykes. With the attack still building, Elliot Lee looks over his shoulder towards the bench, then, both he and Rob Atkinson sprint in the opposite direction towards the half-way line. They hand all responsibility of the attack over to Moore who’s in the box battling for position with two Wigan defenders.
He makes contact with the cross, but it’s unconvincing, it looks like it should be cleared. But, the urge to get things done drives Moore to barge his way through and slot the ball home. Matty Taylor twitches like an excited bystander, Moore in action is a strangely mesmerising sight.
The game is won, when the ball hits the net for the first time in weeks I spontaneously cheer a goal. As the whistle goes, I feel that sense of mental exhaustion from being tumbled around in the washing machine of emotion that football is all about. The feeling is real and physical, I miss that so much.