Thursday 12th November, 20094 years ago, mid-November
In the cold light of day, this sport of football can often seem dispiriting.
Arriving back from Bradford City’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Quarter Final victory over Port Vale on Tuesday, I logged onto the club’s official message board hoping to read comments reflecting the excitement and glee of the evening’s events. The first thread I saw was from a supporter not at the game questioning why Stuart had taken off Michael Boulding, then I read another thread about how rubbish Luke Sharry had been, followed by another having a go at Stuart for playing Zesh Rehman as a central midfielder. Signs of positivity and enjoyment could be found by looking a bit deeper on the board, but why should it take such an effort to locate?
All these points raised were valid, worthy and relevant. Anyone who watched Boulding’s first half performance wouldn’t have disagreed with the decision to take him off. Sharry’s performance was disappointing, though the difficult circumstances will hopefully be remembered when it comes to considering him for selection again. Playing Rehman in the centre of midfield did seem bizarre, but then the lack of alternative options at Stuart McCall’s disposal and reasonable manner Rehman carried out the less familiar task made it understandable. So all fine to debate, though not a particularly satisfying experience when trying to maintain the feeling of elation which had been taken home from the game.
The following morning I’m walking to work with my voice slightly hoarse due to the amount of chanting I’d participated in from the Kop, thinking back over the game and the high points it produced. But something about the night remained stuck in the back of my mind, that of the reaction of the supporters sat just behind me. I was aware they were less than impressed with the first half performance, though they were in good company following a 45 minute effort which could be comfortably ranked worst at Valley Parade so far this season. As City got better in the second the level of chanting increased, and it was only as things went a bit quieter during the last 15 minutes that their negative mood began to encroach into my earshot.
After a five minute spell of decent City pressure I heard the words “I don’t understand what tactics these players are expected to follow.” Well mate, we’re shading this game and we’ve been on top for the last few minutes, so the players must understand them at least. A frantically-paced game took a quick breather when Simon Eastwood prepared to take a goal kick. “The tactics tonight are to play for penalties!” the other guy suddenly exclaimed, “You can see that’s what we’re trying to do, Stuart is gambling on us winning a penalty shootout!” The theory holds up in their eyes despite all evidence to the contrary, and I lament to myself that I must be the unluckiest City fan around because, wherever I stand or sit at games, I always seem to end up near a moaner determined to maintain a blinkered view.
But then again I can’t be that unlucky. My choice of aftershave isn’t one that attracts those with a half empty pint exterior, there are simply that many people who watch football with the main intention of moaning that it’s largely inevitable the air around me will be polluted by moaning and complaining. And as long as its content isn’t too strong and far-fetched, fair enough. I personally want to get behind the team and keep all doubts about formations and player abilities locked away until later, especially during a tight game in which the players are clearly benefiting from the strong encouragement other supporters are providing them. But it could be worse, at least they’re not repeatedly starting up moronic chants coupling Leeds United together with the IRA.
Now at my desk at work, I fire off an email to a Leeds-supporting friend about last night’s games and the increasing possibility of a City-Leeds meeting in the next round, or perhaps the round after. The reply is no fun whatsoever, my friend doesn’t care about the JPT and he worries it distracts the Leeds players from the main priority of promotion. He also doesn’t want to play the Bantams in the next round or one after because of all the moaning he endured from City fans following last season’s meeting - that’s moaning about the perceived injustice of Leeds taking the lead through a hotly disputed penalty and benefiting further from a City equaliser been incorrectly disallowed.
This disappointment at my friend’s reaction is not due to his indifference towards the prospect of a derby meeting, but the fact his team’s progress to the quarter finals of a cup competition is a cause to moan about rather than be excited by. Okay it’s not the Champions League and it’s considered slightly embarrassing a big club like Leeds is competing in a lower league knockout competition, but does football have to be taken this seriously?
And what does it say about City fans glee to have reached the same heights? Am I stupid for feeling enthused by the prospect of City two rounds away from Wembley? In all my City-supporting career, cup competitions have simply been a case of how long it will take for City to be knocked out, now suddenly the dream of lifting a cup and dancing around Wembley is a dream within our grasp. So what if it’s only the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, so what if it’s only Port Vale we’ve beaten, so what if it was only on penalties. Bring on the next round.
But as much as these little things are annoying and detracting to me, nothing can take away that feeling of The Moment. Luckily Tuesday night’s encounter contained a few little Moments, all leading up to The One at the end. When Michael Flynn equalised it was a brilliant Moment, when James Hanson put City in front it was a Moment that lead to excited talk between me and my friend about the prospect of the Bantams going all the way, a conversation only terminated when Vale equalised five minutes later. In the penalty shoot out there were many Moments and then, as the tension built with each run up from 12 yards, unbridled joy was belatedly released when The Moment finally arrived – Steve Williams slotting home the winning penalty.
The rollercoaster of emotions was over, the despair at half time and after Chris Brandon’s woeful penalty was a distant memory, the fear at seeing no one’s idea of penalty takers – Luke O’Brien and Rehman - tasked with keeping City in the tie was forgotten. The problems and troubles in our own lives and in the wider world were deferred for later on. I am jumping up and down and cheering loudly, I’m hugging my mate and glancing proudly down at the players who are celebrating in a similarly undignified manner. The Moment invokes incredibly personal feelings of joy, but it’s also a feeling communally shared by hundreds of people around me at the same time.
I’m just happy.
The elation remains as we file out of the Kop and prepare to go off in our separate ways into the Bradford night. We’re walking down the stairs singing about going to Wembley, arms are up in the air as a proud rendition of “City till I die” rings out. It’s only then The Moment begins to fade, and the little irritations of life begin to creep back in again. Why does the Radio Leeds presenter pronounce Stuart’s first name weirdly? I can’t believe that idiot driver has just cut me off by the traffic light. What time do I need to get up for work in the morning?
The Moment has gone and attempts to revive a little part of it, such as logging onto the message boards in the vain hope everyone is still jumping up and down and screaming in delight, are futile. Back to arguments about Stuart’s tactical ability, back to complaints about Simon Eastwood’s handling from corners, back to waiting for the next Moment.
The dispiriting thing about the sport of football is we often forget we’re supposed to enjoy it.
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