Ten years ago today, non-league Lincoln City drew 0-0 with League One side Plymouth Argyle. It was a cold, dreary afternoon at the Bank, notable for very little. Few who were there and are reading this will remember it.
I do. I remember it well because it was a day I thought would never arrive. It was the day I gave up being the club mascot after 15 seasons.
I don’t talk much about my days as Poacher now. With the greatest of respect to modern football, mascots aren’t quite what they used to be. I watch our Poacher letting in goals from kids, waving politely, and I feel a bit sad. He (or she, I think) is missing a chance to teach kids a vital lesson (you don’t always win), spurning the opportunity to get balls clouted at you by Paul Warne and Barry Conlon.
Of course, the modern game, family-friendly as it is, has no place for the stuff me, and others like me, used to do every week. From what feels like casual racism when we played Welsh clubs to vandalising the away dugout without reproach at half time of a game, the Poacher I portrayed lived up to his impish origins.
I’ve written a book about how I ‘became’ Poacher, how some people didn’t even know my first name. That was my identity at the club, I felt like I was someone. Not in a Billy Big Bollocks way, I mean that I had a role, I had a purpose. If we lost a few games, there was something to keep me from giving it a miss for a week or two, taking that slippery slope to becoming a part-timer. Getting into that stinky suit every fortnight was my anchor; it bound me to the club that my Dad supported and his Dad before him.
That’s why ten years ago today was tough. I’d always sworn the only way they’d get me out of the suit was to carry me out in a box, and I firmly believed that. I had my highs and lows. I diced with the sack on a couple of occasions, but I loved that job. I perhaps took it too seriously, thinking that Poacher was as important in the matchday experience as everything but the players. Right up until that final game.
I’d become quite disillusioned with being Poacher, but then I’d been disillusioned with life as well. 2013 saw me up sticks and move to Cambridge, albeit for a year, and that meant giving up my role. It broke my heart that final game, and I remember it through the pictures rather than the memories. I know my Dad came, and we sat alone in the South Park Stand (I don’t think it was officially open). Casey said I was needed for a presentation at half time, which I guessed was to me, but I played along.
One moment I’ll never forget was doing a lap around the field, clutching the picture JV presented to me. I was crying in the suit as I made my way around – even the Plymouth fans applauded. I’ll never forget that. Sitting here now, writing this, it’s bringing memories flooding back.
You know when you miss something, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach? Part sickness, part butterflies? I’m getting that now. Only when I think about how much I loved being Poacher does it happen. I’ve tried not to think about it a huge amount since I released my book in 2019. I guess it was a bit like a drug, and I’m here now remembering how good the hit used to feel.
Of course, I had a couple more final hits – I donned the suit at least once in 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17. I had to feel that connection, I had to feel like I had a purpose beyond just turning up and supporting the club. I don’t know why; it’s not an ego thing. Maybe it’s a belonging thing, I don’t know. I remember I used to sit on my sofa in Cambridge (Cambourne, but near enough) and listen to the games, always aching with jealousy at not being able to go. When I went back, I couldn’t watch anyone else in the suit, in my suit.
Eventually, there was a crossover between this site (January 2016) and my last, last outing as Poacher (September 2016). This site gave me what Poacher had given me – a place, a position as such. I had a reason to be at the Bank beyond turning up and watching the game, and finally, I could lay that furry fiend to rest, metaphorically.
Ten years. I wonder where the time has gone. Being Poacher feels like a lifetime ago and yesterday, all in one. I wrote about a game 20 years ago yesterday, and I recall doing Poacher for that game! I recall who I went with, who picked me up and drove me in so I could drink (as I always did on a matchday, Poacher or not). How can that be two decades ago?
How can it be two decades since I was arrested against Scunthorpe, but got away because the police didn’t know what I looked like out of the suit? It’s nearly 20 years since I auditioned to be the World Cup mascot, and more than two decades since the York fans pinched my head, spat in it and I had to put it back on. Happy days, believe it or not.
You must forgive my indulgence today, something popped up on my timeline on social media, and I felt I wanted to say something about ten years out of the suit. So much has changed, and yet my deep connection to the football club, my family ties and my subconscious need for a purpose has not.
Nor has my desire to see Poacher actually try and save a penalty. They’re five and six, for heaven’s sake, have some respect and boot the ball away, running off laughing. It’s what I’d have done ten years ago today.