What it's like to support a crap football team
Going to the Cobblers is a stressful experience at the best of times, but it is always ameliorated by the pre-match rituals of a “lucky” lager and lime in the Sixfields Tavern with the boys, a sequence of more or less desperate bets on certain scores and scorers, and then, as we walk down to the ground, that unbidden and unjustifiable feeling of hope that every supporter feels before kick-off. This weekend we walked in silence to the game against Stevenage, troubled by the knowledge that we had not managed a win in our last 18 consecutive matches, and if we didn’t get a result and Barnet beat Accrington, we would be in the dropzone out of the football leagues, with one more match to go.
We talked about the fact that on the 22nd September last year we experienced one of the club’s greatest highs: the win against Liverpool at Anfield in the Carling Cup. That evening was so overwhelming, unexpected and delightful that I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything quite like that feeling when Osman scored with winning penalty (into the stunned, disgusted Kop). But when asked if I’d keep that result but see the Cobblers go down, or never have it happen but stay up, I’d choose the latter. Any football fan would, but it’s a terrible choice.
The game started brightly – Stevenage are a big, physical team and had been properly wound up by Gary Johnson during the preceding week (he has a serious problem with their boss Graham Westley). Our first set piece, a corner, caused confusion and our player of the season Davies lashed it into the bottom right-hand corner. Cue delirious scenes in the North Stand (we had been joined by top goalscorer Leon McKenzie, who was injured but had been sent by the gaffer into the midst of the rude boys to stir things up on the last home game of the season – pure footballing genius).
The next major event was Stevenage’s goal (reminiscent of that Lampard goal in the World Cup) that did not even register with either the linesman or the ref. Maybe it was going to be one of those days.
In the second half, things went from bad to worse for Stevenage, with the mercurial genius of Kevin Thornton carving a blazing path through their defence. As he arrowed in on goal the whole of the North Stand stood and roared him on, only to see his shot parried into the path of Uwezu, who slotted home from six yards. At 2-0 up we expected a battling comeback (we had thrown away 2-0 leads before), but Stevenage’s frustrations spilled over a few minutes later when Foster clattered into Twumasi right in front of the dug-out (and the noisy West Stand). A straight red was shown, and you could see Westley raging – this was not how it was supposed to go. To add insult to injury, Stevenage then scored again, sending their supports into ecstasy (a win would have guaranteed them a play-off place), but this time it was flagged for offside, much to the malicious glee of the home fans.
A second straight red just before the final whistle summed up the day for the Boro, whose bitter disappointment in their 9-man team was summed up by Westley who said after the match: “In the week they have talked a lot. You wish it was different, but they have talked a lot to create the environment that has made those decisions happen.” But for us it was a moment of unalloyed joy, a long time coming – we all ran onto the pitch and cheered on the boss (and some but certainly not all of the players).
A footballing memory that sticks with me is a time when I took my dad to Highbury to watch his beloved West Ham play Arsenal in 2003. They lost to a Thierry Henry hat-trick, and what surprised me was the complacency of the home crowd, in the face of such sublime skill. It is not an exaggeration to say that a dull 0-0 for a Cobblers supporter is the equivalent to an extraordinary Henry hat-trick for a Gunner. Our highs (such as they are) are always beautiful because we know them to be fleeting, and so we treasure them, and enjoy them as much as possible for as long as possible. And we meet our lows with a certain stoic resignation that this is our lot – most of the time we are simply not good enough. But in the back of our foolish minds we’re already saying to ourselves that there’s always next season. This is what it’s like supporting a crap football team.