On Contemplating Life Without Football

I am unable to recall when or why I fell in love with football. There was no epiphany. No great moment of clarity. Football, as far as I can remember, was simply always there; eternally bobbling about alongside grazed knees and Why Don’t You? in the goalmouth scramble of my childhood.

In an age before Sky Sports, when all televised football available to a young boy in Yorkshire had John Helm’s voice over the top of it, it was the World Cup and European Championships that pushed football onto most kids. Invading our dusty Doncastrian summers of blue ice-pops and hose-pipe bans, with exotic temptations like marauding goalkeepers, corner-flag gyrating strikers, and men with ponytails. There’d be more where that came from if we stuck with football, and inevitably most kids became hooked there and then.

Football Supporters - Cost of Watching Football - popular STANDNot for me. I didn’t need this quick-fix from a biannual stimulant as football was already constant. My dad was manager of Rossington FC. He was also their secretary, their coach, their groundsman, their programme editor and more often than not their substitute too. Football didn’t come to me through the television, via Roger Milla’s hips, it didn’t need to, it already lived in our house. Match programmes were handwritten on our dining room table, players signed in our kitchen, advertising boards hand-painted in our living room, and a well thumbed league directory sat next to our telephone which rang constantly from Thursday through to Monday, August ‘til May.

My dad, to his great credit, never forced football upon me, but when you grow up in that environment following football is less a choice more an inevitability by osmosis. I can’t remember my first game; instead just a blur of sights and sounds smeared across my childhood. The smell of liniment oil, the sound of studs on concrete floors, filling the water bucket, trying to work out why the sponge was magic, cheese and onion sandwiches and syrupy coke mix in smoky working men’s clubs. Isn’t it. Wasn’t it. Marvellous.

Though I have grown up, though I have managed to get through school and university, through several jobs – some good, some awful – and hold down an actual relationship, football has, whether I like it or not, consumed my life. I try to insist I can take it or leave it, but just the other Saturday found myself near sprinting for a bus so as not to miss the kick-off at Cray Valley Paper Mills’ Southern Counties East League game against Lordswood. And who in their right and reasoned mind does that?

Doncaster Rovers 3-0 Wigan AthleticToo often football has left me, a logical and fairly educated man, bereft of all reason. A prime example came in March when I spent an entire morning convinced I had jeopardised Wales’ hopes of qualifying for the European Championships by virtue of having forgotten to take my ‘lucky envelope’ to Israel with me. It’s easy to scoff at the notion of a ‘lucky envelope’. Indeed with the benefit of hindsight I am doing so now, and in any other facet of my life I wouldn’t ever consider allowing myself to be swayed by such pointless superstition. But not in football. Because football has the casting vote in my life, and no matter how illogical I know it to be I can’t escape the comfort of inane ritual. It’s why I persisted in always pissing in the same spot in the Pop Side urinals, despite the looks I got if that superstition meant waiting for the only other fella in their to finish.

I sometimes wonder how my life would have panned out if I hadn’t got hooked. If I’d taken one look at a football, or men kicking one about, and merely shrugged and slunk off back to my Brio train set. What would I have done with the extra time, the extra money, the extra mind capacity? Would I have made the same friends? Would I still hold any attachment to my home town fourteen years after moving away in the manner I currently do? Indeed what would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this?

Old men watch non-league footballIt’s a sobering thought. I could have dedicated much more time to my career; I could be in a senior position by now, I could be living overseas. I could have mastered a new language, earned a small fortune (or such is the cost of football, saved an even bigger fortune). I could be penning the final page of my latest novel rather than the last paragraphs of my latest fanzine article. I have many friends who have achieved those things, that are doing very well for themselves, and sometimes I catch myself wondering ‘what if?’

But then, if life is your only pursuit, where is your escape? I am writing these words two years to the day since that match at Brentford. Could anything in a non-sporting life offer such a moment of pure and dramatic joy? Can anyone who hasn’t lost a part of their life to football in the way that we have, ever have experienced such an exhilarating, enthralling moment of tension, drama and, ultimately, ecstasy? A successful job interview? A new home? Your wedding day? The birth of your first child? All reasons to be cheerful, but let’s be honest here, not in the same league of rapturous elation that has you tumbling down a terrace into the arms of a screaming stranger, or losing all feeling in your body as your voice cracks into a microphone.

It’s a lot to invest; a whole life, for such fleeting moments, but whatever football may have taken from my life it has given back to me in unrivalled flashes of euphoria. And so if I went back to the start, even knowing what I know now, I suspect I’d only fall in love with it all over again.

by Glen Wilson

This article originally appeared in print in issue 76 of popular STAND fanzine. We still have several copies of this issue remaining. If you wish to order one then please fill in the online form here.

Aspects of this piece are taken from Glen Wilson’s chapter on Rossington FC in the excellent book Falling for Football, compiled by Adam Bushby and Rob MacDonald. Falling for Football is available via Ockley Books.