Back in 1991, a few friends and I went to see the WWF (now WWE) UK Rampage Wrestling Tour at the Docklands Arena. After an enriching evening with Hulk Hogan, Sergeant Slaughter and Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka, we stayed overnight at the student digs of a friend in Leytonstone. Upon arrival at the flea bitten hovel, we were given a briefing; we’d sleep on the floor, our bodies tessellating to fill the limited space available, and if we wanted a drink, the kitchen was down the corridor.
‘Just be careful’ warned our host ‘If you meet Imran, try and get out as quickly as possible.’
Imran, it turned out, was a housemate and ‘lovely bloke’, but one with a prodigious drug habit. He’d been known to pull a knife on someone who he thought was stealing his milk from the communal fridge. Apparently you could tell when he was ‘on one’ because you could see it in his eyes.
That night I slept with both eyes open, monitoring the movement of the carpet lice in the half-light, listening to distant shrieks of students either having the best night of their lives or being raped and murdered. It was hard to tell.
You could see the wild eyes of Tuesday’s game from the get-go. From the opening moments, both sides careened into each other, abandoning all tactical intent to control the game. Rochdale are on an extended winless run and we were away from home, normal instinct should have been to start conservatively. Not a bit of it.
Dan Agyei, who normally cuts a fairly relaxed figure, was marauding around competing for every ball, chasing down each loose pass that held up on the damp pitch. Within seconds he’d spurned a chance, a few minutes later he made it 1-0.
What should have been a routine midweek set-to in a dank backwater rapidly spiralled out of control. A bit like going for a midweek drink only to find that one friend has helped his housemate finish a wrap of cocaine he found in his pocket before heading out and the other only has a training course at work in the morning and is in the mood to make a night of it. The shackles loosened, the rules evaporated and before we knew we were staring at the crotch of a stripper at a local club who had just extracted £200 from our wallet for a vodka and coke and the privilege of sniffing her diamanté thong.
Football never ceases to amaze; I thought that the days of having heroes were long behind us until James Constable came along. I thought my senses had been sufficiently deadened not to be drawn into a giddy stupor until the 2015/16 season happened and made me feel nine-years-old again. There were times during Tuesday’s game where I was reminded of that line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same”. Initially, the emotions didn’t change when we led or when we fell behind, which was so often, the club’s Twitter account may have been better only tweeting when there wasn’t a goal. It was supposed to be a couple of drinks with mates to break up the working week, I didn’t think even think I still had a big night in me.
The game sat in the intersection of a Venn diagram between an awful game of lower league football and a grotesquely entertaining spectacle. A riot of haphazard defending and panicked attacking – a beautifully terrible reminder of why we love this stuff. It was all wrong and all right at the same time. The ball fizzled around, barely under any control; Elliott Moore headed home by simple virtue of being two-feet taller than everyone else, he’d later use his enormous gate to rescue us from conceding a certain goal. I’m beginning to love Elliott Moore, he just strides around the pitch getting things done.
The mist from the fine rain and the low definition of my laptop screen made the game hard to follow, such was the pace of the game. Fittingly, the opening minutes had sound and vision out of sync by about 45 seconds, it probably should have stayed like that.
Defences held a high line, straining to join their attacks, strikers probed the spaces behind. Neither team could have been less comfortable with the ball if it was on fire. For a team like Rochdale, whose hard won status in League 1 you’d think they’d want to protect, it seemed recklessly kamikaze. They’ve now generated forty-seven goals in nine games including two 3-3 draws, a 4-4 and last night’s 4-3. It’s wildly entertaining stuff, but massively destructive – the Bez of League 1.
We’re a reformed character by comparison, emotional and naive earlier in the season, we seem to have matured. We’re like a former hellraiser shackled by our corporate job in IT and a mortgage. But it was like we’d had our drink spiked, a rocket delivered by James Henry like a shot of absinthe and, well, everything went fuzzy after that.
As closing time approached we stumbled out of the bar and into the street, both teams still slugging away, it was going to end in tears one way or another. Did the absence of a crowd contribute? The game was been stripped of all context and consequence. There was nobody screaming from the sidelines telling them to stop the madness; the equivalent of a bedraggled girlfriend, teetering on her six inch heels, hitching up her dress screeching ‘Leave it Karl, ‘eee ain’t wurf it’.
Finally, like two overweight journeymen prize fighters, shorts pulled up to their nipples, embarrassing themselves for a purse of buttons, Rochdale swung wildly at Jack Stevens’ goal from 45 yards with a make-or-break haymaker. It missed, but the momentum caught them off balance and we swung back, Mide Shodipo connected with their glass jaw, turning their knees to jelly and they collapsed, like a felled elk, slumped on the canvas. We gulped the air, collected the three points – the spare change that had dropped from our pockets – and made for home.
Stood on the doorstep with a ripped shirt and bruises we couldn’t explain, we struggled to align the key with the lock. The cold air sobers, but the adrenalin and remaining alcohol courses through our veins. The world swirls around. Eventually the key engages and we turn it as quietly as we can, stepping inside, we kick a plant pot over that startles the dog and alerts everyone that you’re home. You’ll never be able to explain how you got in this state, and you’ll feel it in the morning, but it was quite a night.