A cruel and ceaseless wind swirls menacingly around the good parish of Nottingham, mercilessly sweeping up discarded crisp packets, heaving them upon intangible thermals and carelessly depositing them into the gutter. As they have done so for the past 116 years, lost souls in dire need of escape from the humdrum and ordinariness of their lives trudge over the Trent and pause for a moment in an effort to distinguish between horizon and water, made indiscernible due to the domination of battleship grey in the sky. A chance to dream, a chance to escape, a chance to forget.
Times change. Pop Corn is now available to purchase from the concourse while insipid, imitation heavy metal pop is pumped unceremoniously though the modern tannoy in an effort to create an intimidating atmosphere. On the pitch, a sponsor proudly takes centre-stage, reminding all and sundry who really is the puppet master in the modern era of the crazy circus that binds us all.
We, unswerving in our loyalty and blind optimism, stand, applaud and take our place on the plastic pew and clutch our hymn books, crumpling them, rolling them, even gnawing them in nervous anticipation, sometimes unutterable excitement. We stand, we sing, we respond to the call of the crowd around us.
The other team…it’s their day out, perhaps more so than our day here. They so desperately want to spoil our day; they’ll stretch every sinew, each fibre of their body since any pleasure gained is infinitely more satisfying away from the familiar and happy comfort of their town or city. Their supporting hordes come for so much more than the game itself, for the excitement of the unfamiliar. All is possible.
The game. A whirlwind of activity is triggered by the referee’s initial shrill blow. Not an ounce of freedom is given; to do so would be to allow the initiative to slip hopelessly through the fingers, never to be regained. Scraps are won, battles are lost, our lot are punished unjustly by the official’s over officious decisions. It was ever thus. We always get ‘em down here. Not had a good ‘un for a while now.
A ball is bundled boorishly into the net – not theirs…ours. It’s happened before but the shock, the outrage, the sheer cheek of it is always a surprise, so much so that for a moment the crowd are hushed; those two seconds of muted silence, expressing the collective embarrassment of the home crowd of having conceded. Then...then the roar of the outsiders hits us like a wave, washing cold, cold water over us. Their lot grow taller, run harder, become giants. Ours shrivel. The simple things they have done naturally all week become laboured. They try harder, sometimes too hard. The game’s not up but it just became that much higher, not unattainable but just out of reach.
Interval. Pause. Half-time. Darkness envelops the sanctuary. There’s always hope. Other teams’ progress momentarily interrupts the collective concerns. As long as the other lot down the road are losing, it’s not so bad. Pitifully small crumbs of comfort are to be found in such things. It matters more than it should but it still matters. Besides, our lot will be getting it in the dressing room right now – they’ll come back out transformed, together, as one.
And they do. But the hope, like so often, is transitory. Illusory. This is not how it should be but there’s nothing to be done. We traipse away, muttering and chuntering like the angry mob that we supposedly are, back to our daily lives, which are inordinately and disproportionately affected by the events of today. Away into the night to lick our wounds.
It’s not always like this. Dreams have been lived. Nightmares have been endured. It oscillates between the two extremes. Next week though…next week. It’ll be better next week. That’s why those hordes keep on streaming over the Trent. There’s always next week. No matter who plays, who’s picking the team, who’s signing the cheques, there’s always next time to try to fly too close to the sun.