October 12 1996 at Selhurst Park
The event: October 12 at Selhurst Park Wimbledon v Sheffield Wednesday, premiership
Result: Wimbledon 4 Sheffield Wednesday 2. An unexpectedly blissful Saturday afternoon
The ability to make the best of things seems to be important in football. At Selhurst Park, when you take your seat for a Wimbledon game, they don’t play Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” gut-bucklingly loud on the PA (as they do at Wembley, making all the blood rush into your eye-sockets with excitement); they play “Remember You’re a Womble” instead. And it’s a suitable theme for Wimbledon, actually, because a) it’s resolutely cheerful and b) everyone hates it. Plus of course it holds an important message, a warning against hubris. Oh yes. In life you must always remember-member-member what a womble-womble-womble you are.
I feel I could support Wimbledon. They’ve got a sense of humour. When Efan Ekoku took the ball off Sheffield Wednesday’s goalkeeper Kevin Pressman in the third minute last Saturday (“I’ll have that, thanks, if you don’t want it”), you had to see the funny side. But I was in the visitors’ stand at the time, partly because my friend Robert is an Owls supporter, partly because it was five quid cheaper (regular football supporting is ruinous), but mainly because — as the ticket office promised — there was “room to move about”, which sounded attractive. Seats are so packed together usually at football grounds that when everybody stands up at once, some of us have no choice in the matter, you know — wedged at shoulder and thigh, we are just lifted up involuntarily, sometimes still in the sitting position.
So the stage was set on Saturday for Wimbledon (currently going up, up, up), and Sheffield Wednesday (currently preferring not talk about it). The teams came on, we all cheered, the sun burst through dark cloud, the grass sparkled, Ekoku scored, and Wednesday (thank goodness) equalised immediately. Wednesday played in a plucky orange, right to left, though mysteriously billed in the programme to wear green. Meanwhile the purposeful top-to-toe indigo of Wimbledon had such an intimidating effect, I wondered whether football strips should be tested on chimps and infants scientifically — to see whether exposure to certain colours makes them hide in corners and whimper.
But the real difference between the two sides was not one I had anticipated. Whereas Wednesday seemed to play football with their feet (and Regi Blinker is an outstanding whiz), Wimbledon conducted the majority of the match with their heads, jumping up and jabbing the ball with their crania, evidently with no thought either to brain damage or to the irritating slowing of pace. It was most bizarre. In their possession, the ball scarcely touched the ground; it just sprang and soared off bonces — from bean . . . to bean . . . to bean . . . to bean — until it threatened to get quite silly.
“There it goes!” I said at first, enjoying the novelty. “Hey, this is like watching the bouncing ball at the panto!” But imagine watching the progress of an enormous flea across an enormous carpet, and you can guess the effect on one’s spirit (and neck muscles) after only a few minutes. “It’s not fair, this,” I said to Robert. “Wimbledon are all tall blokes! The Owls can’t reach!” At which Robert smiled grimly, and I knew I had voiced a truth.
As a six-goal match (4-2), it was pretty eventful, but the main interest for me was the way these styles of playing just wouldn’t fit together. The worst thing, however, was when Wednesday likewise got their heads to the ball in mid-field, because then it just soared tiresomely back and forth between them, like a pin-ball ricochet in slow motion. Wimbledon’s superiority in the air meant also that when Wednesday gathered at the goal and the ball went up (usually a cue for great excitement), I’d think, “Oh don’t do that, Wimbledon will get it.” Which alas, was often true.
But overshadowing the whole match for the Wednesday supporters was that shameful first goal. When Pressman was caught unawares in mid-dawdle (“Hello ball, you’re a nice ball, how are you today?”) Ekoku just knocked the ball clear and strolled goalwards, the picture of long-limbed insolence. It’s hard to recover from a humiliation like that; and opposing football fans are not good at charity, on the whole. They rarely sing, “Cheer up, it could have happened to anyone”, for example. Every time a ball was passed back to Pressman for the rest of the match, of course, a sort of audible sneer (like a hiss) went up, which was most unpleasant.
Finally, returning to the question of ticket prices, this may be a silly question, but why is the food so dreadful at football grounds? Why, oh why, oh why? If people can afford twenty quid for a seat, why would they want to eat pies? I bought a Football Fan’s Guide the other day (“You sad woman,” commented the deputy sports editor, supportively), and under the “food” heading for each of 92 grounds it tells you in all seriousness whether the pies are hot or cold, what the cost of pies is, how many pies were tested, where to buy pies, and how much filling the pies have got.
Pies and more pies — I just don’t get it. The rest of British society has moved on; station concourses are now little pockets of France, and even pubs are known to dabble in goujons and drizzle, yet at football grounds (which are otherwise very keen to take money) the tea has lumps. Why should we settle for this? In my Football Fan’s Guide, the highest praise is reserved for drinks with lids on. I shall be starting a campaign shortly. Football must wake up to the baguette before it’s too late.