From wide-eyed innocence to twilight years at a laid-back non-League match – Ian Plenderleith has seen what lies ahead and he doesn’t mind at all
There are five ages to being a football fan. In Age One, you are the wide-eyed innocent in your father’s wake, awestruck at every kick, scream and swearword. In the Second Age, you are the young teenager at the game with his mates, gleefully and liberally squawking those same swearwords. In Age Three, in your late teens and early 20s, you are the detached, laconic observer, trying to pretend that you don’t care by laughing at your team’s failures, all the while hurting underneath.
In the Fourth Age, now perhaps a family man in your 30s and 40s, you prefer to sit and analyse, making frequent references to players and games from the past. You have reached peak wisdom, because in Age Five, as you hit middle age and beyond, you feel that your loyalty and longevity entitle you to do and say whatever the hell you want. Pay 30-plus quid for a ticket? Why the hell should I? Bollocks to that, I’m off to watch the North East Counties League.
Those grimacing pensioners you see at every non-League ground are not just decoration for authenticity’s sake. It’s you and me, in the future. Maybe even now. It’s the logical reward for years of emotional hardship, and all that time and money you invested in teams that would only ever pay you back in the currency of disappointment. I recently caught a glimpse of Age Five, and it’s a comforting place to be.
On a recent Saturday morning in north Lincolnshire, my dad and I contemplated the fixture list for our afternoon’s entertainment. Lincoln had already played the night before, and both Grimsby and Scunthorpe were away. So were Louth Town, Gainsborough Trinity, Brigg Town, Lincoln United and Lincoln Moorlands. The final choice was between Hull City v Crystal Palace and Barton Town Old Boys v Bridlington Town in the FA Cup extra preliminary qualifying round.
Two decades earlier, we wouldn’t have hesitated to head off to Hull. On this day, we opted for a country drive, a spot of lunch with a pint of ale and then a game featuring lots of blokes called Phil, Dave, Tom and Steve. Not for us the cosmopolitan cut-and-thrust of a high-level encounter in a rocking stadium. We wanted a place where we could sit back, belch, and then smile as the rest of the crowd turned around to see who’d made all that noise. The idea of Hull and 18,000 other fans seemed like too much bother.
The whole matchday experience has become too intense. You can no longer amble up to the gate just before kick-off, hand over your cash and find a spot to stand or a seat with a reasonable view. You have to plan, weeks or even months in advance. When buying tickets, you’ve got to be sure there’s enough money in your bank account to cover it. You have to work out how many hours before kick-off you’ll need to set out to avoid the traffic, get a parking space and beat the rush. After all, if you’ve paid all that cash for the privilege, you don’t want to miss a single minute. And once you’re in, you’re stuck with one seat.
And so you decide that it all seems like too much hassle. If you don’t bother, you’ll save all that money and petrol. You’ll save the six hours that going to a 90-minute game now demands. You’ll save yourself from drinking cold, crappy beer from a plastic beaker. You’ll save yourself from the bloke next to you who hasn’t washed his replica shirt since last summer. You’ll save yourself from the bloke behind you who is very, very angry about everything that’s happening on the field, and plenty more besides. You’ll save yourself the disappointment of an unhappy result.
On this particular Saturday, my dad and I left a village pub south of Barton a few minutes before kick-off, parked right outside the ground, and paid a total of eight quid to get in. The grumpy old gate man got aggrieved at my dad for having the audacity to ask what colour the home team played in. Programmes were a quid, as were raffle tickets (prizes – a bottle of wine and “a breakfast”). You got to see and hear every grimace, grunt and foul-mouthed scream of frustration. The 138 spectators saw a 2-2 draw, which was three goals more than they got in Hull, where Palace won by virtue of a chiselling own goal.
I can see myself in my twilight years, whiling away autumnal afternoons and sparsely floodlit Tuesday nights to a backdrop of thuds, yells and an occasional twist of real skill. Watching football wherever I feel like it, cheaply and without stress. Shouting out to the lumbering defender: “Oi, Dobson, you’re shite!” He turns around and sees an old man. What’s he going to do? By Age Five, you’ve paid your dues to football. It’s finally time to stand back with a pint and enjoy the game on your terms. Ian Plenderleith
If you enjoyed this article, Ian Plenderleith is currently crowdfunding for his new book, which is on a similar subject. You can find out more details and donate here.
Top photo by Tony Davis/WSC Photos: Young Reading fans at Elm Park
Illustration by Tim Bradford
Second photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photos: Home fans watch Lancaster City v FC Halifax Town