22 March ~ Ronnie Blake, the narrator of Brian Glanville's Goalkeepers Are Different, frets before making his reserve team debut at QPR for fictional First Division side Borough United about the "extra worry" of having his family and friends there to watch. "I could imagine the old man saying to people around him, if there were any, 'That's my son, that is,' at the very moment I'd maybe misjudge the ball and let it drop in over my head, and they'd say, 'Oh yes,' sort of sarcastic, 'done well with that one, then, didn't he?'"
I was reminded of the canny Blake on Saturday evening at DC United's opening match of the new MLS season. Having sat down in the wrong section of the poorly signposted Robert F Kennedy Stadium, I found myself surrounded by friends and relatives of the visiting team, the Columbus Crew. After decades of moaning about the poor returns on all my futile investments as a football fan, by the end of the evening I was just grateful that no one close to me has ever made it into the game's professional ranks.
Over two decades ago, a friend of mine was named as a substitute for Hounslow Town against West Ham in a pre-season friendly, and a small crowd of us ventured down the Piccadilly Line to witness the big occasion. During his ten minutes on the field, it's safe to say that his greatest contribution was to upend Alan Devonshire. Ever since, we've been reminding him that this was pretty much the highlight of his "professional" career. Clearly, we weren't as emotionally involved as the inner circles of the Crew players that I encountered on Saturday.
The entire row in front of me were devotees of the Columbus No 12, Eddie Gaven, a 24-year-old player who's been capped eight times by the US, but who for a while now has stopped living up to his teen billing as a future American star. They held up handwritten signs declaring their love for the No 12, and most of them cheered robustly when his name was announced in the Crew starting line-up. When he came to our part of the pitch to take a corner, the event was avidly recorded. But by the end they were very, very quiet – Gaven didn't exactly have a stinker, but he was almost completely anonymous for the full 90 minutes.
Next to me sat three young women who could have been sisters, with all-black hair and all-black eye make-up. And doused in perfume which, if odours had colours, would have been black too. When DC forward Josh Wolff was put through on goal early in the second half, the woman directly next to me stood up and clapped her hands. I assumed she was a DC fan, but when Wolff stuck the ball in the net to make it 1-0, she looked suddenly perturbed. Had I seen which defender the scorer had run past, she asked me after I'd stopped applauding? Hmm, no, sorry, I didn't. At DC's next two goals, by Charlie Davies, she again stood up, and now she was bordering on despair. After both strikes, one of her companions hugged her at length, as though consoling her on the death of a relative. Then she sat down, leant forward, and hid her head in her hands.
All of this made me feel distinctly uneasy at standing up to cheer United's goals. These people had much more at stake in this game than I did. Someone very close to the profoundly fragrant, black-haired lass beside me was either playing in the Columbus goal or in their defence. Every goal was hurting her, badly. And every time Eddie Gaven missed a header or lost possession, I was thinking: "Come on, do at least one good thing to cheer up the dozen people who've come all this way to see you." If they'd vituperatively sworn at the ref or the DC players, I might have felt less inclined to sympathise, but they seemed like cheery folk who deserved more for a very long journey.
"That is going to be our worst game of the season, because I don't think we can play any worse," Crew's coach Robert Warzycha accurately told the Columbus Dispatch after the 3-1 defeat. His side had scored a late consolation penalty that brought a token cheer from the spectators around me. I thought of how I tense up every time I watch my daughters play and they receive the ball. Will they control it? Will they make an accurate pass? Then I thought about what it would be like to watch them with 18,000 other people, and then have their efforts described as "pathetic" (Warzycha again). And I decided that no matter how good they become, I really hope they take up a profession where I'd not feel like holding my head in my hands every time they made a mistake. Ian Plenderleith