4 January 2014 - Bristol City 1 Watford 1
What a strange feeling I had leaving Ashton Gate on Saturday. A new and unusual one: fun. Pure, uncomplicated pleasure. Not something I'm used to feeling washing over me after a day spent in the cold and the rain in BS3.
Mad, really, isn't it? I spend £400 every summer on a season ticket. I spend £30-£50 on rail fares for every game I go to; half that again on overpriced First Great Western food and drink; and perhaps most costly I give up 20 or so of my precious Saturdays every year. And I do it for something that I rarely enjoy. What was striking was the genuine sense of novelty provoked in my by feeling that I'd enjoyed my day's leisure.
Everyone knows how painful it's been to go to Ashton Gate for the last couple of years, but this isn't really about that. Because I've also come away from the stadium feeling triumph, elation, or even out-and-out joy. (Honest I have, albeit not much in recent years.) And each of those moments has been worth the financial outlay above times several, which is good as it's the only basis on which I can justify it – that what I'm paying is the mean value of a fervour which may hit me only once in ten visits, but when it does is worth ten times what that particular trip cost.
It's unusual therefore to simply feel that I've paid the right amount for a good afternoon's entertainment. But that was Saturday. With the pressure already released by value of a) no league points being up for grabs, and b) being the underdogs by a division-and-a-bit, this didn't ever feel like a day that was likely to be upsetting. For that matter, we took the opportunity of the FA Cup to sit in different seats, breaking another unconscious link between this game and the numbing routine of League One.
For all these reasons it didn't matter that we didn't win. Sure, it would have been nice to do so, but what we did was just fine. We matched a side who aren't just in a higher division, but who made a habit of finishing above us even when we were in the same division. We equalised 60 seconds after going behind, which was lovely. We played good football, produced a fair few portents of continued league success, and yeah – we entertained a crowd who were there to be entertained, to support their team and to enjoy the day. It was terrific, and the fact that it set up a replay a short train journey from Euston (and therefore another game I can go to) was an extra bonus.
It was actually a lot more fun than the previous weekend's game. Then, we'd beaten a relegation rival 4-1, our greatest margin of victory for well over a year, we'd pulled closer to safety and we'd completed the taking of six points from two games about which everyone said we damn well needed to take six points. That was great – winning important games is a terrific feeling, winning them well best of all. But for pure entertainment? The Watford game beats it hands down.
Partly that's because matching Watford blow for blow is a hell of a lot more satisfying than matching Stevenage; we were made to play better football in order to compete, and we did. Partly it's because 4-1 was, perhaps, a flattering scoreline, two quick goals followed by both sides conceding possession startlingly cheaply, a lot of rocky defensive moments so that the bottom side's consolation goal came as no surprise, but all of this hidden by the decisive, matchwinning, potentially season-saving finishing of our front two. But I think that a key factor is the lack of tension. Every time you arrive for a game (particularly if you support Bristol City, I concede) you're thinking about what a win will do for you, and where a defeat will leave you. The crowd follow goals going in elsewhere and get swept away with rumour, speculation and bullshit.
And goals are the release of all that tension. They're not just something we applaud because we like to see them, they're something we can't help but wildly cheer because that's when the levy breaks. That's the moment of “thank Christ, maybe not today after all”. They're a mini-death row pardon in a spectator experience that really is normally execution by a thousand defensive errors.
OK, it's fair to say that by 3-0 most of the tension had drained from our crowd, but I'd say not before – the third goal was great because at that point I wasn't convinced that Stevenage weren't about to score. And nobody wants a 2-0 lead to start slipping. We've seen what happens then too often. So it wasn't until the end that we could really relax and enjoy ourselves, and inevitably at that point our very poor opponents helped themselves to a goal. City can't, it seems, stop being City.
It's obviously terrific fun having tension released like that (cheeky) – indeed there are, tragically, one or two tension-releasing goals which I can remember as clearly and with as much joy as nearly anything else in my life – but I'm not convinced it's entirely good for you. I've never pretended to be a cardiac specialist, but something tells me that voluntarily placing oneself in a situation of slightly scared anticipation interspersed with random adrenalin shots isn't how those recovering from heart attacks are advised to recuperate. That said, crushing despair week after week obviously isn't ideal either. So, short of not watching football at all (plainly not on the agenda), or just watching football in which one is neutral (perhaps worse) having a game that you can treat as entertainment, a valid option like the theatre or a gig, once in a while is – in the original sense of the term – a tonic.
And I'd like more of this tonic, please. I'm fed up of every game mattering so much. Since the mid-table seasons, the ones that eventually did for Gary Johnson when he looked treasonably more like finishing 15th than 9th, it's been relegation battle after relegation battle. Before that it was two promotion fights immediately following a relegation fight. Frankly it's too much. You don't want football to lose all meaning, but surely, surely, at some point you're supposed to enjoy yourself?
The season after Johnson left, Steve Coppell came in, destablised the club, left after two games and asked Keith Millen to pick up the pieces, which Keith did admirably. He kept us up with a few games to spare, and I vividly remember going to the final game of the season. We beat somebody (memory says Preston?) 3-0. I remember Jamal Campbell-Ryce grabbing the last one. It was meaningless, and after all that heartache it was great.
Steve Cotterill may after all have been dealt a decent hand. The squad's a transfer window or two away from being perfect, but he has an opportunity that managers who take over sides in the relegation zone rarely have. He doesn't have a lost, despondent, directionless group of players. He's got a well-drilled one with some rough diamonds and a little quality. A side who have been improving all season, particularly since November – momentum which, to his credit, he's maintained and developed. He's been able to skip that standard attritional thing new managers do. We were already getting harder to beat. This is not a lost cause at all. All the work done to this squad could yet pay off, and that good second half of the season I predicted way back in July may well transpire.
There's a chance – just a chance – that we might enjoy more matches than just this one. And who knows? Next season, if we're really lucky, we might do so well that we don't enjoy any at all.