Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Summer leaves fall from summer trees

The start of the 2013/14 season, including 3 August 2013 - Bristol City 2 Bradford City 2

Outside, it’s like the final lines of Pulp’s wonderful “David’s Last Summer”: And as we walked home we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees / And the birds deciding where to go for winter / And the whole sound / The whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.  Summer’s finished, I think; this year I’d have said that Saturday 7 September was the final day, and Sunday 8 the first of autumn.

It’s a beautiful time of year.  Brown leaves in gutters doubling in number every three days.  Each day shorter than the last, not enough to notice day by day but certainly enough to notice week by week.  The smell of smoke on the air; sap, too, and that tang you get in the nostrils when they search for heat that isn’t there any more – apart from fleetingly on the back of the hand in the right light on one of your final evenings outside a pub, shivering and pretending you aren’t.

It’s also utterly, utterly perfect football weather.  Long shadows at quarter to five, the floodlights starting to come on in the second half, that first time you see your breath in front of you while you’re standing in the away end.  I can’t eat a pie during a summertime football match.  They’re revolting.  But give me a cold autumn day when I’ve underdressed slightly and that whitehot combination of steaming balti and stodgy crust becomes utterly essential.  Particularly at Vicarage Road, I find, not that I’ll be able to partake there for another year at least.

I’ve managed to miss almost all of the summer football this year.  Since the first game of the season I’ve not seen City kick a ball live, not even on Sky – pre-booked tickets for The Book of Mormon meant I even missed the derby, and my various August travels to Norway, Denmark, End of the Road festival and so on had the effect both of leaving me stony broke, and of cutting me off from football behind a kind of strange, semi-permeable membrane.

It’s odd.  Everyone’s got the internet on their phones these days, everyone’s got a device small enough to carry around with them, everywhere’s got Wi-Fi (and everywhere in Scandinavia doubly so).  So I’ve always been able to find out the scores pretty close to full time (12 hours afterwards at End of the Road being the longest gap – waiting half a day only to find out that we’ve drawn 1-1 at Gillingham whilst in a festival Portaloo isn’t a bad definition of pathos), watch the goals, all of that.  But it doesn’t feel real.  Over the last month or so I’ve felt entirely disconnected from football, and that at an interesting, formative stage of the season (because it’ll turn into a hell of a slog from here on in).  And that’s because I’ve been experiencing it in something approaching isolation.  It hasn’t been fulfilling the usual role for me of something which creates a common ground.  People I speak to either know a great deal less about City than I do, or a great deal more about what’s going on.  Watching Match of the Day on returning to England was a strange experience, like watching one of those Simon Pegg movies where the same actors he usually works with all turn up in different outfits.  “Ah, so Stewart Downing’s in this one too, is he, as The Hammer!  They didn’t mention that in the reviews.  Nice touch.”

Missing out on all but one of City’s opening to the season – which thanks to international postponements now has a self-contained feel, a prelude with three blank pages to turn before beginning Chapter One – has been odd as I’ve had so little visceral feel for it.  Every goal since Rory McArdle’s in front of the East End has been experienced post-facto, the confirmation of something I found out second-hand, through statistics, rather than first-hand.  Which has left me nonplussed about the very odd start we’ve had.

So we’ve played eight games so far.  Won three.  Drawn three.  Lost two.  That doesn’t sound so bad, fairly steady start for a newly relegated side.  Unbeaten in four at the moment.  That’s good.  Those four games included a first victory in 19 years against top-flight opposition, and a win in the Bristol derby?  Well then that’s excellent.

Yet we’re 20th in the division, the only positive about which is that I’d thought we’d be lower by now after the weekend’s postponement of glamour Shrewsbury tie.  We haven’t won a league game.  We’ve got Peterborough, having a mini-slump but amongst the strongest teams in the division, this weekend.  I’m there; I may well fail once again to see us win.

But it’s disappointingly hard to get that worked up about it when you don’t watch.  I’m reminded of my University days, cut off not only from the live games but from the Bristolian matchday buzz.  The appetite fades as the body learns to survive on what it’s getting – the occasional Match of the Day Cup appearance, odd game over Christmas and Auto Windscreens Final in Cardiff.  They weren’t immensely exciting days to be a fan, in all honesty, as we followed relegation by bobbing corklike around the top half of the division, but I certainly lost a lot of mojo for the club then and it’s disconcerting to realise how easy it is for that to happen.

I’m unbothered that we’re 20th, and I can’t work out whether that’s a perfectly levelheaded stance to take given that we’ve played five matches in the league, have a young squad, and have had three games against teams who have either just won 4-0 or would immediately go on to win 4-0, or it’s an apathy which has taken hold terrifyingly quickly.

Either way I don’t like it.  I want the buzz back.  I want to go to the game this weekend and really love it.  I barely know what the view from this season’s new, improved mid-Dolman seat is like, I’ve only experienced it for 90 minutes.  I’m already analysing City the way I analyse other football teams I don’t watch live.  See the outbreak of my inner Statto in the paragraph above.  Yes, it’s true, but it’s not really the point, and it’s certainly not how I’d have summed those games up if I’d been to more of them.

Going cold turkey has made me realise that, for all that I like football, I bloody love City.  I’m a geeky, analytical guy as it is, and I’ll never turn that off.  But augmenting it with something that makes me shout, cry, kick things, hug strangers, take absurdly long train journeys and sing along to songs that, on any musicological level, aren’t really very good – that’s the stuff of life.  That’s why we go, isn’t it?  That’s why I go.  Because you can read anything through stats.  But you can prove anything that way, too.  And I want things in my life that can’t be quantified.  That can’t be explained.  That just are.

Nobody’s ever succeeded in quantifying this passion, this thing that draws us back.  I hope they never do.  I want my unprovable, unendurable, unimprovable City.

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