By Mat Guy
The week leading up to a new football season is arguably the highlight of the entire campaign for many; where dreams of titles and cup wins are yet to be crushed by reality, and every aspiration for your club seems within tantalising reach.
A fresh fixture list stretches out before you – dates and venues that will map your emotional state until the following May – planned out with sometimes baffling results by ‘the fixtures computer’, sending you the length of the country on a cold Tuesday night in February.
It is the first thing you consult nervously when invites to weddings, parties, and other social gatherings are received, and holidays are planned.
I recently read a quote along the lines of ‘a football season is one month of hope followed by eight of despair’ such is the complete devotion a fan invests in their team and its results, their hopes and dreams so intrinsically linked to their club.
And through my travels and experiences for my book Another Bloody Saturday: A Journey to the Heart and Soul of Football I witnessed the same passions and devotion across the course of one season, no matter what level of the football pyramid I found myself at.
Whether it is at Wessex League Lymington Town in the heart of the New Forest, Accrington Stanley in League Two, HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands, or at one of Europe’s cathedrals of football in Celtic Park, Glasgow – the passion and dedication of their supporters remained a constant.
A club – your club – no matter its size and stature in the world – is everything, and that is seen by spending an afternoon (or a cold Tuesday night in February) in the company of the fans of any given team.
Indeed, the smaller the club, the easier it is to see; snatched moments between parent or grandparent and child, small groups of friends, young and old, generation upon generation of supporter that has for more than 130 years added to the meaning and fibre of their club, being easier to witness among the sparser terraces of the lower leagues and the non-league.
And the gallows humour among these die-hards at a bad season, or awful result maybe helps to dispel the notion of ‘eight months of despair’ once a season has got up and running.
The stoicism witnessed at Downton in the tenth tier of English football after a derby day five nil thrashing, or the drunken philosophy of three Tranmere Rovers supporters propped up against a fruit machine in the pub after a last minute defeat away to Accrington Stanley suggests that their team is more deeply ingrained than any single defeat or season.
And that, more than any dreams of silverware, is what is being celebrated at the release of a new seasons fixtures up and down the country, at clubs big, small, and minute; it is a joy at the impending return of the team that defines for so many people just who they are, that was supported by their parents, grandparents, great grandparents before them.
The clubs featured in Another Bloody Saturday rarely stray from the footballing wilderness that exists beneath the big money of the top leagues and the mainstream media that follows it.
However, their importance to those that follow them is everything, and is arguably more powerful than the ties that bind fans to top sides pushing for great honours every season, because the fans of these ‘smaller’ clubs know that, 99 times out of 100, their season will end in quiet obscurity out on the pitch.
But identity, belonging, friendship, family is their reward for stepping out onto half empty terraces week after week, in a celebration of the club that defines them. And you can’t put a price on that.
For some the release of a new fixture list is all about the silverware that is potentially waiting at the end of it. For most however, the true reward is the fixture list itself, in reviving their club from its summer hiatus, in providing them with their focus once more; their emotional and social heartbeat. And that is the true soul of football, that is why it is called the beautiful game; because it is far bigger than the trophies on offer.
For so many, me included, it is everything. And with a new fixture list in hand, it is time to set off on another adventure into the soul of football.
Another Bloody Saturday: A Journey to the Heart and Soul of Football by Mat Guy is available now from Luath Press, Amazon, and Waterstones.