To get to Clockhouse Way, home of Braintree Town Football Club, from London involves eighty minutes on a commuter train followed by a brisk fifteen-minute walk through Anytown, UK. You pass a pub called ‘The Pub’ which will sell you a Bellybuster Breakfast from 7am, and whose attached nightclub ‘Jardins’ is both available for private hire and the venue for Aeropump classes. Further along is another pub, called THE SPORT MAN (I think an ‘S’ has been liberated from the sign somewhere along the way) which proudly boasts that it is ‘Open from 10am-12pm', a brave two-hour window to be trading in. The ground itself is pleasingly non-league. There are rusty turnstiles, and dusty terraces, and a timewarp of a bar/social club with That Carpet. In the way of non-league football, there’s no home or away end- you just stand behind the goal your team is attacking. It was at Braintree Town that I realised that we’ve been lied to all these years. Never mind Shankly and his ‘more important than life and death’ schtick. The thing about football is that it’s much, much more enjoyable when you don’t care.
I mean, I cared a bit. The reason I happened to be in mid-Essex was that my friend Ross is a fan of Gateshead FC. This was a proper six pointer- Gateshead, at start of play, sat three points ahead of Braintree in a playoff place, but with an inferior goal difference. That’s where they sit now, too, since neither team could conjure a goal- or, if we’re honest, anything much in the way of football- over the 94 minutes. But although I wanted Gateshead to win, for Ross’ sake, and because my late granddad was from Gateshead, and although I managed a sort of strangled happybark when Braintree’s late penalty was saved, it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t invested, you see. My heart was gently pumping blood rather than imitating a Prodigy bassline (the Prodigy, by the way, are from Braintree, which explains them).
Things are very different where Fulham are concerned. Like Hugh Grant, Lily Allen, and Mohamed Al-Fayed (I’ve long considered myself a perfect combination of the three) I support Martin Jol’s I mean Rene Meulensteen’s I mean Felix Magath’s Lilywhite Army. I’ve watched us lose at home to Torquay and beat Juventus 4-1. I’ve seen a 0-0 draw with Carlisle and a 3-0 win over Manchester United (and Manchester United, like A-Levels, were harder in those days) but I’ve never watched us with the simple, uncomplicated pleasure that I got from watching Braintree hoof it one way and then Gateshead hoof it the other.
This season, in particular, ‘pleasure’ has not been the word to apply to any but the most cringingly masochistic of Fulham fans. We have lost about ten matches more than we’ve played. We’ve conceded more goals than have been scored in the entire history of football. Going 1-0 up has generally meant losing 3-1. And yet, due to either tactical genius or a cruelly delusional Dead Cat Bounce, we’re not out of it yet. Having scraped a win on Saturday while being comprehensively outplayed by Norwich- I’ll say that again, by Norwich- we’re in a position where a couple of wins from our last four games might just see us lining up alongside Hull and Stoke and Burnley in one of Europe’s elite leagues next season.
And all I’m getting from it is the potential for a stomach ulcer. During that Norwich game I was working, keeping one eye on Soccer Saturday and the other on my job. For most of the last twenty minutes of the game, as the might of Norwich bombarded Stockade Stockdale, I felt genuinely physically sick. When the whistle blew for full time, seemingly some seventeen hours after all the other games had finished, I didn’t feel any euphoria, just a knackered, spent kind of relief. And I have to do that four more times before the end of the season, and STILL we might go down at the end of it. I don’t mind the despair, as John Cleese says in the best line ever to grace a bad film, it’s the hope I can’t stand.
Yes, there’s an orgasmic buzz when it goes well (‘Dempsey- FOUR-ONE!') but in general football makes me uneasy, and breathless, and dyspeptic, and aggressive (‘Why won’t you just blooming lie down and die, you Welsh fools’ I yelled at my laptop when Cardiff went ahead at Southampton, except I didn’t say ‘blooming’ or ‘fools’). It gives me a good two hours of unremitting nervous tension a week. Remind me, which bit of that is supposed to be fun? Why have I, a grown adult, allowed myself to become emotionally- and, dammit, physiologically- invested in the (under)achievements of a bunch of twentysomething millionaires? Give me a 0-0 draw between Braintree and Gateshead any day. Enough of being THE SPORT MAN; I’ll see you down The Pub.