Football divides us, and for those of you who see the ‘beautiful game’ as irrelevant, aggressive or even repulsive, here is a health warning: this blog is not for you. However, those who empathise are invited to read on.
The final Saturday afternoon of the season was a topsy turvy affair with anxiety and exhilaration followed by relief and much indiscriminate hugging. We – my youngest son Oliver and I – together with some 87,345 others were at Wembley stadium to watch the final of the Championship play-offs. Not any old game this; the result would determine who would be promoted to the Premier League. Moreover, the prize for the victorious side, whether it be Queens Park Rangers or Derby County, would be well over £100 million. And while the financial stakes were clearly high, so to was our pride. Oliver and I have been watching QPR for decades – we started going to Super Hoops games together when he was five.
We nearly didn’t make the big match. I had failed to buy tickets using the usual channels, when four days before the match my son texted asking if I would like him to try to find some. Then, almost by return, another text: “tickets obtained – don’t know where we are sitting.” At the time the details of the seating hardly seemed relevant. And the dream began….
Soon we were making our way up a crowded Wembley Way with QPR’s supporters marshalled to one side and Derby’s to the other. As we neared the stadium, signs began funnelling us to our seats and the dream just got better. After walking across a vast atrium, through a tunnel and down some steps we were flabbergasted – our seats were right at the front at pitch level and just 15 metres from the half-way line. There was no one between us and the hallowed turf and during the game just to our right was the QPR manager, almost in touching distance. It was clear that I would have no need for the binoculars I had packed in my bag. How we landed such seats at short notice was difficult to fathom. Oliver had found them through a football ‘network’ built up over years through playing park football at weekends. All very mysterious.
QPR flags were draped over our seats as we sat down and we waved them with gusto before the start of the match and whenever we were doing well. As Derby gradually began to dominate the match, our waving and singing waned. The lopsided nature of the game was, at times, embarrassing. Soon QPR were down to ten men and Derby were running riot but we hung on like an old boxer. More importantly, Derby failed to score. Then, in the last minute the QPR players rallied and, like the ageing boxer with a few tricks left, heaved themselves off the ropes and, with one last effort and some luck, scored. In another ninety seconds the final whistle blew. We had won, and in August we will be back in the top division once again.
The result was completely unfair but nobody waving their blue and white QPR colours cared. When that whistle sounded there was an explosion of cheering, singing, whistling and hugging. I was hugged by all sorts; men, women, black, white – anyone would do. It must have been a bit like this on Armistice Day. Then it was time to go home. There were more hugs and handshakes to be had in the train. It had been a brilliant afternoon, at least for us.
The game would have been a nightmare for Derby fans and would have offered nothing but boredom to that part of the population who find football a turn-off. It was also a bad day for at least one neutral. Next day, when we got lost whilst out walking, I asked a man in his garden for help, adding a follow-up question, “What did you think about the game yesterday?” His smile faded, his face soured and fury welled up, “Up until that last minute goal I stood to make a fortune. I had bet that at the end of normal time it would be a draw. When QPR scored I lost a potential mint. I was seriously gutted.”
While I understand and respect the diversity of emotional involvement in football of those ‘for’ or ‘against’ but, win or lose, I have no sympathy whatsoever for those who coldly use the beautiful game as a tool for betting.