I was just about to enter my teen years when I decided to swap Uniteds, going from Manchester to Southend. Supporting a big, successful team like Man Utd is fine if your only concern is in winning (which, as an 8 year old, it had been), but as I got older other factors came in to play. The £5 tickets at Southend, for a start. 200 miles of geography for another.
You see, supporting a smaller club becomes a part of your identity. When someone finds out you support Southend, you often end up with a barrage of questions. “Who?” usually being the first, normally followed by “what league are they in?” If you’re lucky, you might get a “do you also support a proper club?”.
It’s not only with new people that this happens. There are so few of us around that you become “The Southend Guy”. Any breaks in conversation and you’ll immediately be asked “how are Southend getting on?” It’s like if someone finds out you’re a professional skydiver or something (and I imagine, equally exciting). It’s the easy thing to turn to when conversation is tough.
The ratio of good to bad moments of supporting a Southend is pretty different from that of a Man Utd, obviously. That’s not to say we haven’t had our good times (winning League 1, actually beating Man Utd, both of which I missed), but you also get lower lows (getting knocked out of the automatic promotion places in an away loss to Grimsby, the awful quality of football as we got relegated from League One, and with more winding up orders than points, all of which I did get to experience).
It’s things like this that cross your mind as the players step out on to the hallowed Wembley turf ahead of the League Two Play Off Final. Unfortunately for me, I was in Devon for my girlfriend’s cousin’s wedding.
(By the way, when do you think the last time was that someone said the word “hallowed” and weren’t referring to a football pitch? It’s like “melee”. Or “warchest”.)
Now, I don’t want this to seem like a woe-is-me story. Firstly, there are worse things in the world than missing a football match (watching X Factor, for example). But also, it was a choice I made because I value my relationship more than the support of my club. But still, that doesn’t make it any easier when you experience it.
My girlfriend’s dad lent me a radio to listen to the game between dinner courses and the speeches. Despite what movies might tell you, this is no way to listen to sport. In Hollywood, they turn on the radio just in time to hear a goal, or to get the perfect summary of what is going on. In real life, you tune in just in time to hear your right-back take a throw, or Steve Claridge complaining about what a terrible game it has been.
Possibly the greatest photo ever taken.
I ended up following most of the game on the BBC Sport app, occasionally dashing up to the hotel room to listen for 10 minute spells. The 90 minutes came and went and we entered extra time, only to concede in the first half. I decided to settle down and listen to the second half of extra time in its entirety.
From what I could tell (which wasn’t a lot), it sounded like we were pressing hard for an equaliser. We missed a glorious chance in the last minute and all hope was lost. Game over.
But hang on; Myles Weston is galloping down the left flank? Of course, on the radio this means nothing, as you don’t know what part of the left flank it is. But still, sounded promising! Suddenly, the ball was in the box, apparently moving about a lot, and the crowd let out an immense roar. Had we… we had! 1-1, in the 122nd minute.
I let out a passionate scream and slapped the bed in excitement. We had done it. The impossible. The last kick of the game, and we took it to penalties. The most incredible ending to a season-defining match that there is. The most incredible experience of being a football fan that there is.
And then it hit me. I didn’t really experience it at all.
Through the excitement of the goal, an irritating voice popped up in the back of my head. It was telling me that it would have been better if they hadn’t scored, as I wouldn’t have had to miss a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It doesn’t get much more bittersweet than that.
So, penalties. Let me tell you, as tough as they are in person, it’s a million times worse over the radio. The commentator says the player’s name, then silence. The silence is suddenly broken by the cheer of the crowd, but you have no way of knowing which set of fans are making the noise. You are then informed that your team has scored. You can’t even celebrate. There’s no joy. It’s horrible.
Despite going behind in the penalties, we came out on top of that too, and were promoted. One of the greatest accomplishments in the clubs history. 20 years after my first game, 15 years after truly becoming a fan, this was undoubtedly a success. It just didn’t feel like it from a wedding reception in Devon.
Still, at least the wedding was good, I guess.
Missing your team get promoted rating: 0 Steve Claridge complaints out of 10.