I had a good night last night; half-price drinks, food, good company and I didn’t think about football once. Then this morning, the moment I stepped outside into the South London sunshine and closed my girlfriend’s front door behind me, it began again. All those feelings I’d tried to suppress by telling myself that it’s not normal to feel this way about what is just a game, a pastime, a hobby… those feelings surfaced again in my throat and in my stomach. Bloody football eh?
I’m not a fanatic, nor a resolute foaming at the mouth, tattoo on the neck Rovers til I die obsessive, I’m a reasoned, fairly educated man, but try telling my intestines that on a day like today. Winner goes up. It’s a big game, so it’s natural for any supporter to feel excitement and a little nervousness. I’m terrified, slightly nauseous, and for the most part genuinely scared and this afternoon has lumbered forwards at me all week like a pre-arranged at-the-gates meeting with the school bully. That can’t be right. I’m 30 years old. All week I’ve tried to put it to the back of my mind and do normal day to day tasks like a normal person should. But sooner or later my eyes have rolled away from the spreadsheet, from the frying pan, from the departures board and I’ve found myself wondering can we? Will we? What if?
The thing is; this isn’t as big a deal as the play-off finals with Leeds at Wembley, or Dagenham at Stoke. Nor is it the emotion deadening terror of that second-leg at Chester. Because today the loser has a second chance, an alternate route. Instead this is Cheltenham all over again, and even despite that safety net, and the knowledge that there’s another way and one we’ve trodden before I’m still feeling everything I did on that long train south west.
We all deal with the tension of these kind of games in a different way. At Chester my uncle found himself sat behind a man who spent the entire half an hour of extra-time hunched over vomiting. At Cheltenham the fella in front of me, with fate in the balance, spent the early part of the second half making a cup of tea in an actual china mug he’d fished from his backpack.
Mu general approach to these matches is withdrawn silence and sought solitude. I don’t rant and rave, I’m resigned to the fact I can have no affect on matters and so I shrink into myself, retreat into the blanket of noise and emotion around me and shield my way through events until there’s an opportunity for release. It’s not nerves, it’s terror. At Cheltenham I chewed up and spat out an eighth of my programme, at Chester I spent the shoot-out staring through a gap in the stands to the North Wales hills beyond. So whilst those around me willed on Andy Warrington and lamented Dave Morley’s nonchalance I was watching the shadows of the clouds moving across the slopes until I got swept up in a bouncing terrace of arms, elbows and joy.
Today I can’t do that. I can’t watch this game beneath my security blanket. I can’t sit in silence. I can’t watch this game in any self-asserted comfort at all, because I foolishly offered to commentate on it. In my defence I thought it would’ve all been done by now. Wrapped up and sorted so I could speak freely on a game that didn’t matter; a 90 minute pre-show to a half-lap of honour. I don’t know why I thought that way. We never do things easily.
When Rovers were relegated last year, distanced by ‘the experiment’ and all connected with it, I felt nothing. For this season I wasn’t bothered about achieving success on the field I just wanted my club back. I’ve got that, and because of this I care again and feel something about this club again, and so despite this season already being a success, I’m still crippled by fear as I move from train to train and just had to swallow hard to avoid retching on the Jubilee Line.
Having felt bugger all a year ago today I will feel everything and I won’t be able to hide the way I usually do. Instead I have to somehow relay all I’m seeing and feeling back to those of you who couldn’t make it, without also relaying my breakfast too. It won’t be easy. This is why commentators are usually neutral. This is why I’m terrified and have felt fearful all week. This terror, this fear, this sense of foreboding stress is absolutely horrible… And I’m so glad I’m able to feel it about my club once again.