Fixture release day is the footballing highlight of the summer, writes Sam Stafford.
Even those fans for whom relegation was the paltry reward for another season of dedicated service will at least have something new to look forward to. It might not be a cash-laden consortium of far east owners, or a precocious young coach, or a new star striker, but there will at least be a couple of different teams on the fixture list. If your team finished mid-table in one of the middle divisions then you will have a few new faces. They might include a Goliath on their way down, a David on their way up, or perhaps just a once familiar foe that has spent a few seasons in either the sun or the shadows. From the moment the preceding season has finished and matters of promotion and relegation have been settled I will have had my eye on new grounds to visit.
I put every Lincoln game in my work calendar and then surreptitiously slip the games that I fancy during the first half of the season onto the kitchen calendar. I repeat this exercise again in December when games in the second half of the season can be added to the next year’s calendar. As my better half turns the pages on the current one or starts transposing birthdays and anniversaries to the new one we will revisit familiar, longstanding pantomime-like exchanges. “Hang on. ‘Blackpool away’. When did you tell me you were going to Blackpool?” “I don’t know precisely when! Ages ago! I definitely told you though!” I did not tell her and she knows that I did not tell her. It is a game within a game, but because I got them on there early enough, and provided that any clash is not a major one, I can usually count on my pass being stamped.
I have not bothered with the kitchen calendar this year though. What is the point? It was hard enough at the end of the last season to look at the calendar and see everything, not just football, that we were supposed to have been doing but were not doing. With still no end to this interminable, half-existence in sight why subject myself to that misery again? As I write this I do not know when I will next be on a football ground and that is achingly dispiriting.
As Stevie Wonder knows, everybody’s got a thing and my thing is football grounds. According to my footballgroundmap.com account I have visited 88 grounds to date, which does not include the Nou Camp stadium tour whilst on a family holiday to the Costa Brava when I was a kid. I have watched football in England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Portugal and Italy and I have taken my own kids to grounds in France and America as part of our family holidays. I have ticked off 51 of the current 91 league venues and whilst I am generally led by Groucho Marx’s view on joining clubs I do like to picture myself as an elderly gentleman proudly showing off a 92 Club tie one day.
I like football grounds because, and it might just be the lockdown talking, they foster, no matter how large or small the capacity, a sense of togetherness and belonging. Whether there are ten people in a ground, a thousand, ten thousand, or more, everybody is there for the same reason. Regardless of who you are, what you earn or your stance on the political chicanery of the day, whether you are there on their own and want to be left alone, or there for a fun day out with family and friends, there is an instant affinity with your fellow fan from the moment you first join the throng making it’s merry way to the ground to the moment you return to your own reality at fulltime.
Bobby Charlton, a canny brand ambassador as well as a canny player, coined the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to describe Old Trafford, but it applies equally to all grounds because all are layered with an annual dusting of early-season optimism. On the other side of the coin though of course are the occasional sprinklings of end-of-season agony, but it all adds to a well of collective memory, along with the individual matchday moments of triumph and tragedy, that can be drawn upon when needed. If that person who might have been happy to be on their own that day ever met one of that large group they would instantly have something in common. Those ‘I was there too’ conversations. Football grounds are unique in playing host to that kind of communal activity on that kind of scale.
I like visiting new towns, well, historic towns and new towns (towns I have not been to before, you get the point), and football is a reason not just to visit them but to get under the skin of them. Most clubs can attribute their formation to the ‘Committee for the Establishment of Saturday Half Holiday’, which was formed by a group of young men in Manchester in 1843 in recognition of the need for workers to have more time off. Some clubs can attribute their formation to the railway companies, armaments factories and shipbuilders that let those young men enjoy that newfound freedom. The history of a football club and the story of it’s ground is an intrinsic part of the social and physical history of a place.
You can tell a lot about a town from it’s football ground. From faded Victorian seaside glamour to delusions of new town grandeur. The follies, the white elephants, the clubs that leapt in to bed with partners that might have looked fit the night before but turned out not to be proper. Some traditionalists might be clinging to the same patches of ground that those nascent clubs were able to claim as their own way back in the day. Some progressives might have moved to the trendy edge of town. All grounds though in every village, town or city are landmarks or waymarkers in the same way that pubs, churches and market places are. Football grounds tie the past, present and future of places together.
It is of course the case that the brickwork of older grounds is infused with more charm and character than the cladding of their contemporary stadium counterparts and I certainly do not envy Clive Nates having to decide whether to push the ‘redevelopment’ or the ‘relocation’ button. To modernise or die is an easy question to answer, but the question of where to modernise is less straightforward, let alone the question of how. Unsanitary burger vans and toilet layouts or sanitised seven-day-a-week, 52 weeks-a-year revenue-generating opportunities? I have been to the London Stadium. A house does not make a home. The best of both the old and the new have an authenticity, a pride and a sense of stewardship. Much like, on reflection, the best of our towns.
I miss football and I miss not being able to go to new places. I miss looking out for the floodlights. I miss either the boisterous train or tube carriages or gambling on whether to park here or try to get a bit closer. I miss investigating which pubs to meet friends in.
I miss away days providing some rhythm to the week, to the month, and to the season. I miss having them to look forward to.