Sunday, 18 April 2010

Going Down

For the benefit of those of you who like to know these things up front so that they can stop reading now, this post is about football. Well, that and the emotions it stirs. For those of you who are already familiar with Nick Hornby's 'Fever Pitch', you've probably got some idea of where this post is going. Nonetheless, there is still something here to add, because Hornby, being an Arsenal fan, will be very used to glory and attractive football whilst I, being a Norwich City fan, am more used to a rollercoaster ride up and down that ultimately ends in soul-crushing disappointment.

Over the last few years, Norwich City have moved up and down the top three leagues of English football with the grace of a bored toddler in a lift. Some years there are heroes, names that are carved on fans' minds as passes connect, goals are scored and point-blank saves made. Some years there are only villains, and time passes as they move through the club like ghosts at a time of bad harvests.

I am a moderate fan. I don't have a season ticket because I can't afford one and generally struggle from weekend to weekend knowing where I will be at any particular time. However, I do go to games on at least a semi-regular basis, I can sing all of the words of the club song and I have been known to occasionally shout insults at referees where I feel it is justified to do so. I have never rung CanaryCall or 606 to insult a player, a manager or a board member, but I listen when I have the chance because the occasional fen-dweller rant on Saturday evening radio raises a smile and reminds you just how much worse life could be.

The memories that stick at football games are charged ones. I have been pelted with coins in Wolverhampton, come within inches of serious violence at West Bromwich and Blackburn and watched a tide of yellow and green engulf Cardiff as my side took possession of the city for the day of a play-off final. I have seen Thierry Henry destroy a defence single-handedly with his cultured first touch and clearly remember getting a front-row ticket for a Tuesday night game in December years ago against lowly opposition and being first soaked and then frozen in front of a tawdry 0 - 0 draw.

It is despair that for me epitomises what I love about football. Before anyone sees fit to challenge my use of the word despair, believe me, I picked it specially for this occasion. It is the only word that will do.

On the day of that Cardiff final, I had seen a superior Norwich City team dragged to a penalty shootout by a lacklustre, uninspired Birmingham side, and ultimately fate smiled on our opposition. I had known all along that this would happen, of course, that it did not matter how many opportunities we had or goals we scored. We were simply not destined to win on the day. I remember sitting numbly, unable to find any words to say as my fellow supporters applauded the players at the end (and deservedly so, for they had really given it everything that they had.)

Don't ask me about the game. I know the facts, who scored, who missed, but I don't really remember anything about it. But I remember Cardiff's amazing Millennium Stadium, which from the inside with the roof closed was like a giant, bubble-shaped alien spacecraft. I remember being the only Norwich fan who couldn't sleep on the torturous eight-hour coach trip home. I remember the Birmingham fans, who were without exception dignified winners, shaking our hands as we passed, praising our team and assuring us that we would join them soon in the league above.

In my lifetime, Norwich City have been relegated three times. Each of the three times I have experienced the same funereal emotions, which can only be compared to losing love or walking towards the electric chair. There is the simple, desperate loneliness. There is the clawing sense of injustice, even though you know the league table cannot lie. There is the gut-wrenching and entirely visceral feeling of physical sickness. There is the knowledge that the opposition are indifferent to your plight, and in some cases, are even delighted to be the cause of your demise. There is the feeling that the world is happening somewhere far far away, and you are no longer a part of it.

Yesterday Norwich City defeated a spirited Charlton side in London to confirm promotion back to the the second tier of English football. In one of those little quirks that the game throws up from time to time, Norwich were promoted on the same ground that saw them relegated the year before, and the irony is not lost on our long-suffering fans. If, as seems likely, Norwich win the title next week at home to Gillingham, there will be no overwhelming sense of elation for me, for I am clearly the masochist of the piece. Instead, I will allow myself a wry smile and enjoy three months of cautious, tempered optimism before the unwinnable fight begins again in September.

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