Going to your first football match isn't always memorable for the normal reasons, as Josh Widdicombe explains

With the exceptions of the third round of the FA Cup and the career of Stan Bowles, few things are over-romanticised by the average football fan more than their first visit to a live match. So, as a man easily won over by a nostalgic ideal, I have long bought into the received wisdom that to be a proper fan your first taste of professional football in the flesh must have been like some sort of religious conversion; rather than just sitting in a cold church hoping the monotonous service would soon be over. 

I recently had a conversation with friends about our first games. Cliches were being thrown around in a fashion that can only be described as willy-nilly – the smell of Bovril making one friend feel he was finally home, my friend Elis telling me the chants of the crowd enveloped him like his mother’s loving arms – yet none seemed to bear any relation to my own experiences. I didn’t fall in love with my club, I didn’t find myself floored by impish terrace wit, in fact – in a relatively untroubled childhood – I found my first match to be one of my most disappointing early experiences, alongside the time I thought I was getting a guitar for my birthday and ended up with a recorder.

As a seven-year-old in 1990 with a few back issues of Roy of the Rovers and a baseless support of Liverpool, going to watch my local league side Exeter City, who at the time were top of Division Four, seemed like the next logical step. Football fan culture has a habit of taking all that is negative about the live football experience and turning it into something positive, making the suffering of the fan inherently noble, rather than just suffering. However, as a child who was more versed in books of Roald Dahl than Nick Hornby, I didn’t really understand the social history of terrace culture.

So as the family Widdicombe took our place on the cold and unpopulated concrete terrace of the Big Bank I was less than impressed. Football on television was loud, colourful and exotic; life on the Big Bank was mumbling, grey and about to get rained on. It felt like a farmers’ market, large, gruff men were shouting randomly, unintelligibly and with increasing anger throughout the day, and at four feet tall I couldn’t see a thing.

The beginning of the game didn’t ease my frustration, for it was at that point that I realised that there would be no commentary provided for fans, my Dad helpfully pointing out that this was due to the fact “it wasn’t bloody TV”. It didn’t really matter as I didn’t recognise any of the players anyway, and quite frankly I was less than impressed with what I’m sure most of the other Exeter fans in the ground considered to be a professional 1-0 win. I missed the goal as by this point I had sat down on the concrete and was getting most of my entertainment from a carton of low-grade orange-flavour drink. Say what you will about televised football but at least they have replays. I still have no idea how the day’s only goal went in.

If, like all good football managers, I was to take any positives from the game it was the relief of sitting in the car on the way home listening to the day’s results on the radio and trying to guess the scores of the away teams judging by the tone of James Alexander Gordon’s voice. I think the moral of that is that seven years old was too young to follow football without the radio or television acting as an intermediary.

A year or two later I had another bash at watching live football, this time down the road as Plymouth Argyle faced the then glamour-tie of Nottingham Forest in the Littlewoods Cup. Brian Clough signed autographs for fans, the stands were packed and, crucially, Plymouth were much better and had a bigger ground. I was won over. Little did I know that I was adding another layer of shame to the story of my first game, that I now supported the team’s local rivals.

As an adult who has seen young children tire quickly of almost any adult situation, it is difficult to imagine that many children under secondary school age would enjoy watching live football. But I am yet to meet anyone with a similar story to me. My friends are more than willing to share the embarrassment of their first record being Jive Bunny or their first sexual experience being similarly misjudged and disappointing. But they all claim to have got their choices as a football supporter right first time.

From WSC 270 August 2009

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