A Hymn to the Beautiful Game

My Love Of Football.

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The Journeyman Returns.

My Dad and I went down Bramall Lane this weekend to see Warnock’s return to the promised land. It was the first time in years I’d been to a live football match and it highlighted in acute technicolour everything I love about football.

Love, I think, is the right word. Few other things can inspire such combustible scales of emotion.

Really feeling the force of nature. That does it. Choice moments with choice pieces of music and film when your mind seems to be infiltrated and melded into another form. And sex, when it feels as if a join no longer exists between the two of you.

Its something to do, I think, with vulnerability and awe combining with a sense of belonging and a yearning, however irrational, to possess and control.

This love-affair begins with the walk to the ground. At first, you feel alone until you see another group heading in the same direction. Soon you’ll see someone else with the badge tied round their neck or the stripes across their chest and you join together in unsaid fraternity.

And as the trickle turns to a stream to a flood, you emerge by the ground and dissolve into this seething, crawling mass.

The nerves and the anticipation of it all. The practiced call of wheel-chaired women hawking scarves and the bray of program-sellers, the clanging of the turnstiles, the staccato bellow of the crowd as the announcer calls the names of the players as you emerge to the sight of lurid green, this baize in which a game of chess and a battle of brawl will unfold over 90 short, taut minutes.

Walking down the grimy stairs trying to locate your seat, the stench of burped beer and half-warm munch and sodden grass about to be cut-up by studs.  Pushing past men swaying in the gantries, their eyes glazed and Mutley-like after hours in the pub.

The ebb and the flow of the crowd as the game begins, the cries and shouts and moans and flying spittle as we follow the ball, tell a player to shoot or pass, tell the ref how we politely disagree, tell the opposing striker how his missus takes it. A guy stood, his hair ludicrously gelled and a silver curb-chain hanging outside his coat, his back to the pitch and his arms held out either side of him, swallowing in the Kop as we chant our love and commitment to the Blades.

The sense of succumbing to a separate and greater self, a less predictable, living, breathing thing. Shouting out observations to no-one but everyone. Of being nothing and everything.

And the violence. The crouched, clenched violence of married and working men hovers over the game. Some powerful, hungry animal ready to defend its territory.

“Fancy a nip?” my Dad saying as he reaches into his inside-pocket and hands me a hip-flask. A kid of no more than ten sits next to us, seemingly alone, dutifully accepts a swig. A young girl amidst a group of long-servers, their shaven heads like an auxiliary fist. The first goal hits the back of the net and she is lifted and flung from one body to another before settling on her father’s shoulders. The ten-year-old leaps up and down and waves his arms in the air and smiles the width of Sheffield.

The cigarette smoke of half-time hangs in the drizzle. The raking laughs and the jostle of the queues and the steam rising from the food vendors and the Gents.

Second half sees chants and expletives and banter as the visitors start to take a grip on proceedings. We ask Warnock what the score is and we ask Blackwell to give us a wave.

And then they equalise from a corner. A knock down and stab at the far post. The journey-men erupt and we are left without answer.

We begin to recover. The rumble of the plastic chairs as the Kop stands for chances that come and go. Cries of anguish as shots fly over or go wide, kids scrambling to get a hold of the ball.

Our striker is pulled into the mud and the Kop springs into action, leaning and straining over the gantry as we suggest to the ref that justice is done. He points to the spot and we celebrate.

The striker tees up the penalty, shoots.

The ‘keeper reaches it and pushes it towards the post. A hum of expectation dissipates in a millisecond to intense disappointment. But Beattie follows it in and smashes it home and 20,000 sighs erupt into a roar that shakes the Lane.

The journeymen rally as 90 minutes pass. Three minutes of injury time. Whistles and calls to end the match as we start to creak from the pressure. Our winger carries the ball, heads to their corner and goes over as a journey-man slides in hard. We scream for recompense as they gather the ball and begin to break.

They play it down the centre in desperation and the boys give chase. But our lumbering centre-half, a rock until now, slips in the mud and they, those mercenary journey-men, play it forward, prey on the space, knock it down to an emerging midfielder who half-volleys past the sprawling arm of Kenny. Last kick of the ball, 95th minute.

The crowd are like thunder. The ref is escorted off. Blackwell creases and Warnock celebrates in the dug-out and, as we head out into the rain and dark, it feels as if something in Sheffield has just been broken.

Broken beyond repair. Until, of course, when Saturday comes again.

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