Saturday 23 August - Dulwich Hamlet 2 Lewes 0
Growing up is a process of complication. That's a given, right? Experience means seeing a series of tiny fragments of the whole – nowhere near enough to understand, but enough to learn how complicated, and how ultimately incomprehensible, existence is. Paradoxically, the more you learn, the clearer it becomes that you can understand only an infinitesimal sliver of the totality. (Which may have been what Paul Weller was getting at.) And that's why we get nostalgic – if we miss anything at all, we miss that time when the world seemed simpler, possible to observe and catalogue in its entirety if only one could live long enough and find the right vantage point.
And clearly football's no exception to this. In fact there's a whole class of websites, magazines, and cheap late-night ITV4 clip shows pandering to our desire to return to that simple time somewhere between Toto Schillaci's brief spurt out of obscurity and Gareth Southgate's underhit penalty, when the world – by which we mean major football tournaments – seemed a simpler place.
I remember going to Ashton Gate in the early '90s, and supporting City in just that uncomplicated, no-strings-attached way was the simplest thing in the world. I knew we were the ones in red; I knew which way we were shooting in each half; and I picked up the players' names. Their names – Gary Shelton, Rob Newman, Junior Bent - were all I really needed to know. Where they'd come from, how old they were, how they had been playing recently – these were irrelevancies. Less than irrelevancies, they simply didn't occur. I knew that Bob Taylor scored the most goals, both from watching him do so and from seeing his name followed by a number between 1 and 90 beneath our score in the Evening Post, so he got his poster on my bedroom door. Other than that City were just the red team, with players as interchangeable as those in a game of Sensible Soccer (and, to my lasting frustration, a kit the manufacturers of Subbuteo considered to be interchangeable with that of Wrexham, Benfica, Barnsley, and even hated rivals Swindon Town).
It's not like that now, is it? Partly because we've come to learn more about the world, and partly because the process of doing so has expanded from Match magazine to Wikipedia, YouTube, Football Weekly and all that, the idea of watching the game in this charmingly juvenile way has become a remote, prelapsarian dream.
Now we know so much – in fact we know too much. Every touch is contextualised, becoming either an OptaJoe stat, ammunition for one side of a tedious forum argument, or both. Adam El-Abd came on for Bristol City against Colchester and did fairly well. However his first touch was misjudged and saw him pass the ball out of play rather than knock it in front of Derrick Williams. My first reaction wasn't to think that losing possession cheaply was a shame; it was to think about the “narrative” of Adam El-Abd, more construct now than human being, and how him giving away the ball played to one part of it just as his thereafter solid defensive performance played to the other. Shouldn't I just have been watching the game?
To a degree this is my fault – after all it's up to me what I focus on – but it's no great surprise if my internal football brain has been contaminated with the same asides, pop-ups and captions that plague televised football now. And the problem with this exposure isn't just that it's distracting; it's also something that can actively damage my perception of my club and reduce the wholeheartedness of my support. I should have been pleased that the Reds beat the Blues 2-1. Instead, I was thinking about how we've got the bigger wage bill by quite some distance and therefore 2-1 is a par score at best – about how Colchester would have been delighted to have players of the calibre of Luke Freeman, Wade Elliott and Luke Ayling lining up in their shirts.
This stuff spreads. We signed Kieron Agard the other day for a fee reportedly not too far off a million pounds. Agard scored plenty for Rotherham in this division last season and will, I'm sure, do something similar for us. Yet a colleague at work pointed out how unexcited I seemed. He was right; I was thinking about how we'd become a huge spender in the division and therefore far from an underdog. Given my natural sympathies to the less resourced and funded sides I was having trouble squaring the circle. I've no natural inclination to want a bigger side to go to Rochdale and pound them yet my 24-year support of City tells me that I must. It's heinously complicated.
Then there's the rest of it – the former club legend, now kit man, who spends his time on Twitter trying to see precisely how close to overt sexism and transphobia he can get before anyone at all calls him out on it (oh and Twitter, my God, how it fuels this stuff with its constant retweeting of facts, “banter” and awful, awful jokes); arguments about net spend, FFP compliance and all the other accountancy shite which were not contributing factors to any of our love affairs with football; the very existence of Jose Mourinho. From micro to macro it's just offputting and every single bit of extra information corrupts the basic purity of a game a five-year-old can enjoy, and enjoy for the right reasons.
So last weekend I went to Dulwich. And my God, what a relief; what an incredible relief.
Suddenly the team I want to win is just the team in the right colours (and the pink/blue combination is clearly the right set of colours). The manager doesn't have a Wikipedia page. The only player I've heard of is Terrell Forbes, who captained them and played for Yeovil for a bit. Their star man, Ashley Carew, sounds like a Championship Manager regen. I couldn't name the goalkeeper.
I stood by the side of the pitch, drinking a pint or two of local ale, in an atmosphere akin to a village fete's attempt to recreate the Curva Sud on derby day – but even better than that sounds. I spotted some people I vaguely recognised. The matchday sponsor was my local, which happens to do the best pizza in London. The local butcher sponsors the dugouts. The fans were wonderful – behind whichever goal the home side attacked, they chanted for 90 minutes and spent almost no time moaning about misplaced passes or an insufficiently gung-ho formation. Nobody appeared disappointed that the right winger failed to combine Ronaldo's power and energy with Cruyff's football brain and Makelele's workrate (something that enrages certain residents of BS3). In the inevitably transient world of lower-league football this was support for a team, a set of colours, an ideology even, far more than a group of men looking forward to being disappointed by a signing fee/goal return ratio.
It was hard to feel that I hadn't found a gateway to a simpler, better time. Whether it would feel the same without the trappings above I'm not sure, but as a release from all the noise of modern-day football without having to give up football it was unbeatable.
And yet – I now know some of the players. I know how they play. I know how a kid called Abdul came on and changed the game, injecting genuine craft into the attack. I know about Ashley Carew and Xavier Vidal. I know how much I like Terrell Forbes. Surfing the internet after the game I found an article about Rio Ferdinand supporting the club's academy and I turned away quickly. A little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing.
I can already feel the taint of knowledge starting to ruin Dulwich Hamlet for me, turning what is at present a delightfully idealised little crush into a tediously flesh-and-blood pursuit. It'll happen, of course it will – and that's good, because it means that Bristol City, flaws, financial aggression and all, will always be number one. But I'll keep spending the odd Saturday at Champion Hill, little enough to avoid developing insidious opinions, sufficient however to scratch the itch of football for the sake of football, rather than as fodder for an argument. If I'm very lucky then some of the love rekindled that way will spill back into the old relationship and we'll all benefit. If not then hey; the Dulwich scarves will make a lovely accessory this winter.