Monday, 8 February 2016

We march on

Today Saints beat Manchester United one nil, and for the first time in months I followed the result avidly, checking my phone for updates and texting my parents to find out what was going on. It's been a while. I spent all of my teenage years as a football obsessive but for my friends in Yorkshire who know me now, 'football fan' isn't a part of my identity that they will probably be aware of. It's one of the things that was lost along the way, as I moved 200 miles north and carved out a new Kay - teacher, student, Southerner, friend, writer (possibly).

Nevertheless it was a massive part of my life; from the icy days stood on the Dell's packed terraces, to the tortuous six hour trips on the coach from Southampton to Sunderland. I can still recite the name of the Saints line-ups of the late 80's, I still have the shirts (apart from that dodgy white away one 'trimmed with Solent green'). When I think about the themes of belonging and community, or discuss them with my students, my football days are always at the forefront of my mind.

I had the same seat for 6 years, two rows back on the half-way line. It was so intimate that you could chat to the players; get the gossip during the warm-up, share some banter during a boring nil-nil draw, flirt with the better looking ones (that may just have been me). I shared the good and the bad with my parents - we had our rituals, as all dedicated fans do. Turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day; often at the Dell but frequently at one of the London clubs; the fixtures usually allowed for a local derby at Christmas (local for Southampton, anyway). We were superstitious too - putting an unusual run of January success down to a chocolate squirrel forgotten about in our rucksack, left over from Christmas. It stayed untouched in the bag until the end of the season.

Away trips were a particular highlight and got me more intimate with the back-streets of Liverpool, Manchester, Tottenham and Hull then perhaps I'd really have liked. I always enjoyed visiting the Yorkshire clubs, although never dreamt I would later spend most of my waking life in Barnsley. How times change.

Football is a visceral thing. It's an onslaught on all your senses. When I remember back, it isn't just the goals, it's also the smell; of lint, stale beer, pies and, (not so good) toilets and sweat. The emotions were intense, joy alongside despair, fear (particularly in the 80's at certain clubs), nervousness, pride, anger, frustration and hope. And often it was just being bloody cold (sitting with two inches of snow in my lap at Elland Road springs to mind).

I'm not sure what, for me has replaced those intense swings of emotion these days. A particular high was our trip to Cardiff (not Wembley, sadly) for the FA Cup in 2003. I couldn't see most of the pre-match warm-up for the tears running down my face at Abide With Me. I made a mix-tape of football-related tracks that we played for weeks, and went around with a Gordon Strachan face-mask on for most of the journey. The other half of my family are Arsenal fans, which gave the game an additional tension, but this was one of those times when the result really was immaterial.*

We had some dark times of course. The desperate and depressing days of the Ian  Branfoot era and his long-ball strategy that by-passed our best players and left us gazing sky-ward for large parts of the game. The on-going relegation battles that wore you down season after season, but conversely made for the most exciting games I've ever witnessed.

I loved those days and I love the Saints, so maybe when you see me next you'll ask how we did at the weekend, and I will bore you with tales of Le Tissier's best goals and how I went as a guest to his nightclub once. Or maybe I'll dig out the chocolate squirrel, make a turkey sandwich, put on my colours and go on the march again.

*ok, we lost one-nil. 

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