October 26 1996 at Ashton Gate
The event: October 26 at Ashton Gate Bristol City v Notts County, Division 2
Result: Bristol City 4, Notts Country 0
No sign of travel fatigue yet, amazingly, despite the fact that Ashton Gate is one of the worst sign-posted football grounds I ever visited, as well as being the most awkwardly positioned. It took me about two days to get home.
Six weeks into this bizarre assignment, and a few significant footie moments have now taken place, which indicate how life has been irrevocably transformed. Allow me to describe them.
One: On Wednesday night I dream of Alan Shearer, although curiously he is working in a furniture shop (quite happily), so perhaps it doesn’t count.
Two: Finding myself among unfamiliar men on Tuesday, and listening vaguely to their excluding chat, my ears pick out “Le Tissier” and I feel jolly smug. (It is like suddenly — miraculously — being able to eavesdrop on people talking Portuguese).
Three: At a Penguin publishing party on a night of Coca Cola Cup matches, I produce the famous BT pager from my pocket, flourish half-time scores to general amazement, and find myself instantly the most popular female author in the room.
Football is thus beginning to invade night life, social life and professional life, and if nothing else it proves that pleasant American proverb: “Weird happens”. Not that I can quite get used to it. Taking my friend Kate to her first ever football match at Bristol City last Saturday, I was in the unlikely (nay, almost impossible) position of knowing more than she did, and this unearned superiority gave me a permanent sensation of vertigo. “Er, you see those little perspex bus-shelters?” I whispered during the warm-up, pointing confidentially. “That’s where they keep the spares.” And Kate looked at me with admiration mixed with pity, which was nice.
Luckily, no awkward questions about corners were raised by my wide-eyed neophyte, because to be honest I’m still a bit hazy about that technical stuff. I may know a little about Matt Le Tissier, but corners are something else. The more arcane rules will sort-of seep in gradually, I expect, like damp up a wall, and in the meantime I do have authority in other areas. “The ref points in the direction of play,” I explained. Meanwhile on the pitch, those red-red-robins of Bristol City scored four goals in the first half against Notts County, which was pretty exciting. “You have to stand up now,” I informed Kate, as the first, surprising goal went in (Shaun Goater in the 7th minute), but she was on her feet already yelling “Yes!” so I addressed my words to the hem of her coat.
There are two big footie predicaments for me at the moment: one is that I somehow neglected to supported a team from earliest youth, and can’t now bring myself to be arbitrary with a pin and a blindfold. The other is that the personnel of football keep hopping about like fleas, transferring hither and yon without a thought for the person with wild hair trying to keep up. Take Nick Barmby. It’s taken me six weeks to establish who Nick Barmby is, and now — well, he isn’t. These frantic swapsies should be done all together at half term, in my opinion. It’s chaos otherwise.
Still, it adds to the mystery of football supporting, that fans put up with all this unpredictable insy-outy. Bristol City looks like a good solid team to support, for example, and coach-loads of small fanatical children packed our stand last Saturday, yelling “Off, off, off” in high (and rather sinister) voices, sounding like a mass denunciation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But how does a child decide to support Bristol City instead of Chelsea or Newcastle? Isn’t it dispiriting for those poor little chickens to know that if Shaun Goater turns out to be a top-class player (he scored a hat-trick on Saturday), inevitably he will be snapped up by a club with a bigger wallet?*
In theory, such continual sacrifice should make supporters into better people: they sing bravely, “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go” while educating their souls through pain. But patently that doesn’t happen, so perhaps the system just trains young men never to get emotionally attached instead. Either way (I’m in deep waters here), the transfer system will certainly present problems for me, in selecting a team to support. I’d be choosing the players, you see, and getting attached. Then, when they moved on, I’d have to spend a fortune on psychotherapy to explore abandonment issues.
Back at Ashton Gate, a splendid first half used up all the available steam, leaving the remainder a bit flat, but the robins were rightly chipper with the excellent result, which brought their goal total for the season to an almost reckless 29. Saturday was the sort of famous day when fans would storm the club shop to buy Bristol City duvet covers, I expect, or those desirable Bristol City cotton curtains (with tie-backs). The visiting Magpies were sparse and unhappy, but since they had brought with them banners saying “MURPHY OUT”, they evidently had their minds elsewhere in any case. All in all, a satisfactory afternoon. And when Kate didn’t understand a line decision, I found myself barking, “Offside, he was offside!” as though I’d been doing it all my life.
So the world is changing. And it’s becoming the world according to football. When I scan television listings, I no longer pass blankly over the football matches, as though par-blind; instead I grab a highlight pen. Meanwhile my perception of British geography is turning crazily inside out, like a hoover bag with all the grey wobbly stuff on the outside: Wolverhampton is now a town attached to Molineux; Southampton borders the Dell, but luckily does not impinge.
And Bristol, which previously meant the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Johnny Morris chatting with a camel in Bristol Zoo, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a shiny top hat, now mainly exists as Ashton Gate, a secret stadium without signposts in a remote suburb unvisited by taxis.
We don’t mention Bristol Rovers, you notice. Those gasheads. Absurd irrational loyalty just has to start somewhere.