29 December 1979, about 3.45pm. I was standing with my dad in a near deserted Manor as hundreds of frozen London Roaders queued to consume three months worth of salt in a cup of half-time Bovril. We were drawing 0-0 with Hull City in what was a terrible game. Not that I knew, of course, as far as I was concerned, John Doyle was the best player in the world because he kicked the ball hardest in the warm up. That was the sophistication of my analysis. The one thing I did know, however, was that I couldn’t feel my fingers and that the fur lined hood of my parka would not be sufficient for any trek to the South Pole I might be planning.
My dad turned and asked if I wanted to go home; I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a pivotal moment. If I said yes, I would probably be an Arsenal fan following my team religiously through my Sky subscription. Football; live, winter, lower league football would have been an experience cast aside alongside other idiotic childhood obsessions like scrumping, fishing and heavy metal. We stayed and won 3-0.
This is the best part of the season; behind us is the grand departure, the sunshine and ticker tape. We’re the Tommies in the trenches, fighting the war in the dark, cold, rain and wind. Victories are ugly and gritty; with little satisfaction, just relief that it’s one step closer to being over. Ours is not to enjoy, but to expose our spirit and shred our souls, not for reward, just because without it we are but empty vessels adrift on the sea. That dreadful day against Hull tipped me from football hobbyist to football fan by giving me purpose whose charm is in its pointlessness.
Come the day of victory, you will cover us in garlands and kiss us passionately on the lips, and celebrate us with us as one, but as much as we will tell you the stories of Damien Batt’s 20 yard drive, you will never know what we’ve been through.