In which the writer, from a Holiday Inn in Lincoln on eve of club #91,…
My Worldview After Doing the 92
The Americans in the elevator were not having it with the lads in the bar.
“What’s going on in there,” she said. “Some soccer game,” he said. “Well,” she said, “they have a bucket full of beers, and they’re making a lot of noise. Let’s eat in the restaurant instead.”
When the doors opened, I let them go first, then I banked hard for the bar. It was a European Night, after all.
And not just any European Night: PSG were at Newcastle. Mbappe at St. James Park! The light shining on the Toon Army after the dark days of Mike Ashley. Imagine the rendition of Blayden Races! Imagine the vibe walking up the hill from Chinatown, past the Robson statue, into the great footballing cathedral on the hill. Newcastle had two local lads in the starting XI, and the BBC had already said one of them, “Big” Dan Burn, looked on the verge of tears when the Champions League theme played.
Damn straight I’ll be in the bar for that.
The Hyatt Heathrow was, for me, something like an estuary to a migratory salmon, swimming back towards the fresh waters of home. It’s not fully on the road, but it’s certainly not home, either. The next day would be a flight to the US, but on this night it was a mixed zone on the way out of salty Football World and back into land-locked America. With terrace songs still ringing in my head, I was surrounded by Americans who were vaguely aware that soccer exists, that British people – or at least the drunk ones – care about it, but otherwise, to them, it’s just something on the TV.
I wanted to tell them about what PSG at Newcastle meant; or about Plymouth Argyle, where I was the night before to finish the 92; or about meeting the chairman of Lincoln City a few days before that; or about learning what a 99 is when I ordered one outside the ground; or about singing Elvis tunes at Port Vale; or about the game at Mansfield Town when the Peterborough fans were all over the Town keeper, because he used to play for them, and then how he saved two penalties to knock them out of the League Cup and turned around and gave it right back to them with both hands, swarmed by his teammates while the Town folks shouted “Who are ya” and threw wanker signs at the dejected lot in the away end.
Of course, I might as well try to tell the folks in Mansfield about the Florida-Georgia game, for all the good it would do.
The fact is, there are layers upon layers to any culture, and like in geology, some of them appear all over the world. Dig down deep enough, and you’ll find football everywhere you go. Or just look around with the right eyes. When they fly out of Heathrow tomorrow, the Yanks in the elevator will be scanning below for churches or castles; I’ll be looking to spot football grounds. Likewise, when the hotel staff is done serving dinner in the restaurant, they’ll go out back for a smoke and maybe argue about whether United should sack Ten Hag or if Jones deserved a red card in that Spurs game. Or, God forbid, they’ll argue about VAR.
In nine years, since my friend first invited me to an Arsenal game, I have had the privilege, for the most part, of exploring a world I only glimpsed that night. It’s like I was shown a rock sticking out of the ground and decided to dig. Since then, I have discovered layers I couldn’t imagine, learned an entirely new language, and found a new way to connect with people. I’ve also, to be fair, spent some cold, lonely and awful evenings in places I am relieved I don’t need to return to.
Somewhere along the way I learned about the idea of going to all the grounds in the top four divisions of English football – again, something the folks in the elevator would need some context on – and I decided, for better or worse, to do that.
I’ve done my best to be a good, if temporary, citizen of Football World. And like in any culture, as a newcomer, a non-native speaker, I have been welcomed, usually, but occasionally scorned; sometimes lectured, often about things I already knew; and very often treated like some kind of interloper or fool until I mentioned that, no, random bloke in the pub, or customs agent, I’m not here to see Chelsea and Arsenal. I’ll be at Exeter City, where I can’t wait to see the Big Bank, and then at Stockport County, because I’ve wanted to sit in the Cheadle End since I saw it from the train heading into Manchester Piccadilly.
At some point, it all blurs together into one big trip, one big game. All the details change, but wherever I travel, and whenever I look at a map of Britain, I see football.
In the bar, the lads were hooting and hollering about goals being scored in other games, about arcane bets coming in, about stuff that happened in Tenerife, about things I couldn’t make out because there are still areas of the British accent that I cannot navigate. But late in the first half, Newcastle put in a ball from the left, and Big Dan Burn went up and thumped it home, then stood in the rain with his arms out wide while teammates piled onto him like flashing lights on a Christmas tree. Later, Sean Longstaff, another one who grew up supporting Newcastle, banged one in, in front of the Gallowgate End, then pumped his fist and flew through the air like he might never come down. Imagine growing up going to games, then scoring for your club in the Champions League against Mbappe and PSG!
The lads went berserk, people around the lobby were shocked and confused, the Americans from the elevator won’t even know that it happened. I just watched it all with a grin, safely out of range of the lads, but certainly not over in the restaurant. And a part of me was up on the Gallowgate End, jumping and shouting and hugging the Geordies.