The Phantom Goes To A Football Match
As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, this year I’m going to be widening my experience of cultural stuff – from ballet to tennis, opera to darts, comedy to circus, you name it, if I haven’t done it before or haven’t done it for a long time, I’m going to be giving it a go this year.
I’d long been embarrassed that I’d never been to a Charlton match – never even visited the Valley. My problem was that I have no interest at all in any kind of sport. Football no more or less than any kind of sport – it wasn’t that I don’t like it, I don’t actually think about.
This state of affairs needed to be remedied, so on what has to have been the coldest Saturday of the year so far (I’m sure someone will tell me it was positively balmy in comparison to such-and-such a day…) I trudged over to Charlton to see them play Tranmere Rovers.
What follows is not an account of the match as a football enthusiast would see it; more from the point of view of a curious observer.
I made a couple of beginner’s errors, mainly concerning alcohol (though another mistake was simply not wearing enough clothes – my socks weren’t nearly thick enough under my thigh boots, I didn’t wear enough vests under my cloak and I would have been better served with a bobble hat than a tricorn… )
Firstly, all the local pubs seemed a bit full so I decided that the Antigallican was close and comparatively empty…
Aw, c’mon – as a football virgin, I wasn’t to know which pub is the away team pub, and in the event, the Tranmere fans were friendly enough chaps. Besides, I was only nominally a Charlton supporter – given I’d never been to a match, couldn’t have told you which division they’re in (I know now…) and had no idea what constitutes offside, it was all a bit academic anyway. But just for interest – was I right? Is it an ‘official’ thing to have an away-team pub, or was it just coincidence?
We trudged over with plenty of time to start, and I began to notice stuff.
Now, good football fans, you’re going to have to forgive an ignorant Phantom, but most of the stuff I noticed was surprising to me because of my own ill-informed prejudices.
As I have only the vaguest awareness of what’s going on in the sporting world, for some reason my image of football seems to hover somewhere circa 1980. So the stuff that surprised me was to do with the crowd behaviour. Everyone filed down towards the Valley in a quiet and orderly fashion. There were loads of families. I mean – heavens – there were women. The police on horseback seemed totally superfluous.
I am well aware of just how ignorant this makes me sound – but the only time I had ever been to a match before was sometime around the mid 80s, standing on the home team terrace at West Ham on a particularly bad-tempered day, where I’d been, frankly, terrified. And I’d never been since there were actual seats.
Tickets easily bought and paid for. Check. Friendly, helpful staff. Check. Clean areas in and outside the stadium itself. Check. Alcohol available. Check.
Again – I was quite surprised to see alcohol allowed in the ground. Of course, this piece of information went to my head and I recklessly bought what was probably the only glass of wine sold in the entire stadium that day – only to find that it’s not allowed on the actual stands and there were three minutes to go to kick off…
My guide was a Tranmere fan, who graciously condescended to sit with us in the Charlton side (it was our conditions of agreeing to come.) He told me that Tranmere, at the bottom of the division, would be happy just to get a draw; Charlton, at the top, really expected to do better.
Just before kick-off, there was a minute’s silence/applause for people associated with the club who’d passed away during the last year, which I found very touching. I liked all the stuff beforehand too, with the clubs’ mascots looking after the freezing kiddies who’d been chosen to come on to the pitch beforehand (maybe someone can tell me what the kiddies actually do?)
From what I could tell, much of the first half was a glorified kickabout. The ball spent quite a bit of time down the south end, but no actual goals were scored. I’m not entirely sure what happened to the Charlton goalkeeper that saw him writhing in agony, as all the action was going on the other end at the time, but it must have been serious enough as he was substituted.
I was quite amused at both sides’ attitudes to injury – basically if anyone fell over, he rolled around squalling, looking like he was done for until the ref had decided whether or not to book the other side, but since this happened every single time, it was hard to tell if someone was really hurt or just hoping for a spot of retribution. There was less rolling around for sympathy after all the substitutions had been made and there was no hope of getting replaced.
Much passing of the ball seemed to be between members of opposing teams – I thought that the idea was to pass it to members of your own side, but hey, what do I know…
Oddly, although even I don’t think I was watching great football, I found myself really rather getting into it. I know they say that it’s different when it’s live, but it really is. I started to be interested – and to actually give a damn what went on. When the half-time whistle went I was quite surprised at how quickly it had all gone, despite there not having been much in the way of memorable moments.
I hung around during the break to see what would go on – a attendance number of 16,168 (which meant there were 16,167 people who understood what was going on) birthday announcements, certificates for junior achievers, a raffle. It really stuck me how much this is a family club. I know I was sitting in the family stands, but it goes further than that. There’s a real feeling of bringing along both the players and the supporters of tomorrow.
There was a slightly surreal advert on the screen, telling people not to swear in front of the children, but presumably it was also implicit that it meant Phantoms too, as the only rude word I heard in the entire afternoon was ‘plonker’ – from a small child behind me, who then collapsed into hysterical giggles for having said a Naughty Thing…
Second half, seen through a steam-haze of sundry beef-based products, was more interesting, though I’m still not convinced that either team was playing at its best. I missed the first goal, as it was a total mess – but as far as I can see it was an own-goal from Charlton (the announcer failed to mention it, for fairly obvious reasons, and the scoreboard only admitted to a goal a good three or four minutes after the unfortunate event.)
Still the Tranmere fans did their best at celebrating – and given how few of them there seemed to be, they made a decent noise.
The equaliser was much more lively and from then on a strange thing started to happen. While Charlton got more animated, Tranmere slowed down. The goalkeeper especially, took his time – pulling his socks up, spending ages trying to decide which angle to kick the ball, checking distances. Even I could tell what was going on – and he did eventually get booked for time-wasting, if memory serves.
The most interesting bit of the game was definitely extra time, when both teams suddenly decided to make an effort. No extra goals were scored but both teams could have. And there was a sending-off, which for me, who had just gone to see football happening, was an interesting thing.
I got the feeling that Charlton fans weren’t wildly happy about the outcome of the game. The man in front of me, who looked like he’d been cut-and-pasted from an old 1930s photo – long mac, flat cap, scarf tied up round his neck – shouted ‘rubbish, rubbish, rubbish’ for a full two minutes as the players left the field.
But for me, who’d gone to experience what it would be like, it had been great fun – and – you know what, I think I might be going back rather more quickly than I had assumed. Since I went, I’ve – goodness – looked up the divisions, looked up the team, found out who was playing that day and started looking out for what’s going on next.
I’m not a diehard fan (yet) but I’m probably going to be back sooner rather than later…