Sitting with the enemy… 3

Live football has always been one of my favourite things.  The walk to the ground, the sight of the pitch when you step-up from the concourse, the smell of the grass - all of it, I enjoy every cliched detail.

For a long time I was a season-ticket holder at a Premier League club, but as I’ve got older and life’s priorities have changed, it became harder to justify the enormous yearly outlay and spending that much money on football started to feel ever so slightly silly.  It’s one of the horrible ironies of growing-up: when you have the means to make your own choices about how much football you should be watching, that’s invariably the point at which you realise you should instead be saving for a deposit on a house, putting something away for your self-assessment or buying a new set of sofas.

I miss it, but then I tell myself that - given I now write about the game - distance from my team is a good thing and that it’s a necessary step towards preserving some kind of neutrality.  It’s rubbish, of course, but it helps me to pretend that letting the season-ticket lapse was in my best interest.

This weekend I will be going to watch my side though, courtesy of a friend having an unclaimed ticket.  It will involve a cumulative four hours on the train and me hemorrhaging cash on the way across London, but I’m looking forward to it all the same.

One problem, though: I’m in the home stand and my side is the visiting team.

Watching your side play whilst sitting in the same stand as thousands of rival fans has to be one of the strangest feelings in sport.  First and foremost, by doing that you are denying yourself one of the simplest privileges in football: you can’t celebrate.  In fact, you can’t express any natural emotion whatsoever.  I’ve been in that situation maybe around a dozen times during my football-watching years, and yet I’ll never get used to it.  You’re constantly on edge and not necessarily because of any threat of violence, but because you owe it to those around you to keep your allegiances to yourself - it’s their ground and your in their section.

All the natural responses that you have during the course of a game - raging against a refereeing decision, applauding a bit of play, or harassing an opposing player are forcefully inverted and you end up watching in a very strange way.  It’s not as easy as feigning outrage or celebration, because responses to football are very organic and they really can’t be simulated.  Your best bet is to cast yourself as a neutral or as some kind of football tourist who lamely claps along at the right moments.

It’s not all that easy, either.  Your team is your team, and so your default setting is to feel or react in a certain way depending on what they’re doing.  Most fans understand that, because most of us have humiliated ourselves in public places at one time or another - maybe you celebrated a goal loudly when nobody else in the pub was even watching the game?  Maybe you toppled off a bar stool and thundered into a cigarette machine after a particularly crisp volley in an FA Cup game?  Football takes you out of your context sometimes.

In any case, there’s no margin for that kind of error in a stadium and you’re in a very vulnerable situation.  It’s alien, never-wracking and exciting all the same time.  In many ways it’s actually a very extreme sort of supporting: there’s nothing more brutal than the combination gut-punch of conceding and having to endure your rivals literally celebrating in your face, yet there’s almost a unique smugness to internally celebrating a goal that has crushed everyone around you.

Just don’t ever forget where you are.

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