Matty Hayward – @mattyhayward96
Being in a title race, let alone a title race where there’s a global pandemic on and little else happening, is stressful. More than that, it’s a catalyst for blind hope, all-consuming obsession, and sometimes complete delusion. To be honest, I can see why we haven’t bothered with “being good” and “global pandemics” for so long. Going into last night’s Sutton Vs Woking game, it was abundantly clear before a ball was kicked that the Us would come away winners. They’d given up! Dowson literally loves Sutton! Anyone whose anyone who plays for Woking has either been furloughed or resigned to the treatment table!
And yet. After a minute or so the hope sprung again. Perhaps Gerring – whose tirsesome Twitter patter I’d mercifully avoided – would finally do something worthwhile for the Gulls. Maybe one of their youngsters would have a career-defining match. Or could it be the day for Malachi Napa to take his team higher (this is a joke about Ayia Napa. Higher Napa. Thanks). Obviously, like anyone rational would’ve predicted, that wasn’t the case. Didn’t stop us thinking it, though. And Stockport’s failure to beat Dagenham at least gave us some reason for optimism before we head to Edgeley Park on Sunday. We study the table this morning – which hasn’t changed since last night – and desperately try to work out how we can win the league/balls this up (depending on how full our glass is).
Everyone’s been doing plenty of mental gymnastics over the last few weeks. “If only we’d held onto that win at Yeovil”; “if only Wright or Whitfield could’ve been fit for a couple more games”; “if only one of Rob Street or Josh Umerah were any good in the home game against Sutton (or at all), or if Benji had tucked away that late chance at the weekend – we’d have it sewn up by now!”. We do this as if we haven’t benefited this season from our own undeserving victories, late goals, opposition ineptitude. Our league position is partly – far from entirely – built on opposition “if onlys”.
Two Saturdays ago I was playing cricket, so was unable to watch the Eastleigh game. I walked out to bat, my team needing its lengthy tail to wag furiously, knowing the score was 0-0. Shortly afterwards, I was walking back towards the makeshift outdoor seating area that has replaced any semblance of pavilion. No runs better off.
As I trudged, unstrapping the gloves I’d only recently strapped on and placing them in my upturned helmet, I walked past the on-looking first-team captain whose game had been called off earlier in the day. “Unlucky Matty,” he called out, “looked like that kept a bit low, did it?” My already bowed head sunk further towards my chest in a sort of half-nod, while I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t thought of that excuse for this particular duck, this particular missing of a straight one. I’d tell people (not the groundsman) that it was the pitch’s fault, the ball had kept low, it had snuck under my bat, it had absolutely nothing to do with my flagrant inability to see out an over from their skipper.
I walked up the slope towards what is usually the clubhouse but is now just a building that houses a bar, unused changing rooms and frequently used toilets. My bag was sitting on the slope, and in front of it were a couple of first-teamers watching the football on a phone. “1-0 mate. Waters.” Massive air punch. “F*cking get in.” My embarrassment of only surviving three balls, my shame at letting the side down, my frustration at depriving my teammates of some potentially crucial late order runs immediately alleviated. I watched the rest of the first half with those lads on the slope – particularly enjoying Gary Warren’s 60-yard charge at the referee and subsequent booking – before going out to field and being updated via hand signals from our umpire who was checking the scores on his phone. My body carried on making athletic stops at gully and point, but my mind seldom deviated from the Yellows.
It’s easy to wonder what the season would’ve been like had it been a “normal” one. I’m tempted to conclude that if we were able to be in the ground and there was more going on in the world aside from paying a tenner a week to watch our team on a screen, we (at this point I should probably start saying “I”, so as not to tar all normal Gulls fans with my frenetic brush) would’ve behaved in a less obsessive way. Perhaps being at the ground would’ve made us feel less nervous, less removed from the players, more like we could have an impact.
That said, I don’t generally buy into the idea that the players would have crumbled under the pressure of fans, or that we’d have had much effect at all. Football supporters tend to have an inflated sense of self-worth; games are seldom won or lost by crowds “sucking the ball into the net” or “getting on players’ backs”. They obviously have some influence and can capture the momentum of a game, but results usually end up being decided by which set of footballers is best at football rather than which set of people in the stands are the loudest/most supportive/best at being fans.
I imagine myself being at that Eastleigh game in a “normal” (any scenario where Torquay United are good feels entirely abnormal but that’s a different conversation) world. Plainmoor not at its bustling best but certainly with an attendance inflated by optimism. The Popside just a bit more squeezed than usual, just not quite sufficient room to get your arms wide enough for a full-blown clap so you end up applauding like your nan at an underwhelming school play but she loves you anyway so manages to bring herself to celebrate your performance with a timid slap of the hands. Bouncing around the ground being actually much more tiring than you remember, as the pre-match pints remind you why so many opt for the seats (and lemonade). The kids behind you, who appear to get younger and chippier each week, orchestrating a not undangerous surge towards the pitch when goals go in and your focus is actually more on keeping your own balance than joining in the mosh. You’re also worried about the slightly older folk in front who see you as a sort of human barrier between the bashful youths up the steps and their more sedate football-watching.
It’s obviously objectively less good than a proper season, and I look forward to our return against Barnet, but I think there’s something special – certainly more memorable – about the fact that we’ve been deprived of that volcano of joy, that landslide of celebration. The fact that we’ve had to find our own ways to enjoy football. By screaming at televisions and dodgy streams on laptops like non-legacy fans. By saving ourselves a few quid not paying pub prices for beer but supping on a few cans of Stella. By wittering away in group chats about how Gary Johnson is a fraud and thick and how Olaf definitely should or definitely shouldn’t be given a go in the last 15 minutes to provide some “directness” or some such guff, only for us to grab a late winner with the players that Gary Johnson picked and kept on the pitch and showering him with the praise he deserves.
I wouldn’t want this every year, and there are times where the romantic portrait I’ve created in my head has sometimes let me down (especially in this year’s failure to replicate proper away days, and goodness knows I need to stop looking at the League Two table and going “ooh that’ll be fun next season” like a total tool) but it’s been nice to experience football – especially successful football – in a new way.
Now let’s get this over with and never do it again.
COYY – Matty