Tonight at 7.45pm at Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham play Chesterfield in an npower League Two association football game. “So what?”, you may ask. “Who cares? Big deal!”
Well, it is an important game for me, though I may not actually attend. Which is the rub.
My father took me to the ground when I was still ankle high to a grasshopper in the late fifties and the club has stayed in my heart ever since. As a small boy I was lifted to the front of the crowd, and as a teenager I stood in the covered, “Kop” (aka Rainham), End singing local variations of then chart hits such as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Yellow Submarine”. As a young adult I spent a number of years away from home, but still traipsed around the north of England supporting “The Gills” at such exotic outposts as Bury, Mansfield, Rotherham and Bradford. And finally, as a man in his middle years, I have enjoyed the comfort of a modern stand with good catering facilities and toilets that work (usually).
I have experienced feast and famine over that half century, though hunger has generally prevailed over sufficiency. That said, for a decade from the mid nineties Gillingham Football Club enjoyed an unprecedented and wholly unexpected period of success, playing in Wembley Play-Off finals in successive years and reaching the second tier of the English football pyramid, maintaining their place there for five years, achievements most long suffering fans would barely have dreamt of.
The past half dozen years, with one notable exception, have witnessed decline and dispiritedness. The club has returned to the bottom rung of the Football League ladder, where they were when that little boy was first bounced over the heads of dour men in hats to get a close-up of his heroes. But, after a pitiful start to the campaign, the team has soared to the brink of the promotion pack with an impressive run of results, especially away from home where, for a year and a half, they had, until recently, failed to win a single game.
Tonight they have the opportunity not only to to rise to fourth in the table but in the process to keep the league leaders in their sights by beating them. The game has been rearranged following postponement due to a frozen pitch on the Saturday before Christmas. So the tickets are already paid for – so what’s the problem (if you’re still with me, that is)?
In 2007 I fell out of love with going to football. Now, I have had a love-hate relationship with football at the highest level in this country – overpaid, remote players, too much money concentrated in the hands of a small handful of clubs, blood-sucking agents, cheating – I could go on. But the spectacle of the games, many of which are shown live on TV, is compelling.
But why should I suddenly find it a chore to go and see my beloved Gillingham team, especially when I lived just ten minutes’ walk from the ground?
I’ll gladly confess that the downturn in their fortunes on the pitch at that time must have played a part. Failure always bends loyalty and faith, but it should not break them. My wife and I had put our house on the market and were hoping to move around thirty miles away. It was a financial decision in part, therefore, representing a saving of around £800 for two season tickets, money that could be spent in meeting higher accommodation and increased travel to work costs.
But there were other reasons. I just no longer enjoyed the atmosphere in the ground. Constant moaning from the first minute, booing the team off the pitch at half and full time if things were not going well, and irrespective of their form going into that match, picking on individual players, foul language, not only in the largely moronic chanting but from respectable looking adults, accompanied, amazingly, by children, many of whom had become so indoctrinated by their parents that they saw nothing wrong in that behaviour – all of this soiled my enjoyment of the actual game.
Why should my wife and I pay £50 a game to put ourselves through such an unpleasant experience? We could have a nice pub lunch somewhere instead with the money. “Ok”, people will tell me “well, that’s what it is like nowadays, it’s just something you have to put up with”. Well I don’t.
So I plead guilty to the charge of being an over-sensitive wimp. What I will not accept, however, is any claim, and they have been made – by people who don’t understand the nature of faith or fanaticism – that, by no longer paying my dues and attending the games, irrespective of the damage I might do by my behaviour during it, I am no longer a true fan.
Well, if by listening to away games live on the radio or, if I’m not able to, ringing my father several times during the game to find out the latest score, is not being a true fan, then I don’t know what is.
If by following home games on live text on the BBC Football website, Sky Sports News and Twitter, and listening out for the roar of the crowd, is not being a true fan, then I don’t know what is.
My dedication only falls short in respect of no longer handing over my money to the club, something I, and others in my family, including my father, have done in spades over the last six decades. And, up to a point, I do feel guilty about that. But, occasional away games aside, which my wife and I still enjoy – now that’s what sets out the true fan – attendance at home games holds no appeal.
The gentlemen “doth protest too much, methinks” I hear you cry. Well, perhaps – but I alone know what place the club has still in my heart.
Which brings me back to tonight. Rain is forecast, another demotivator. And both Arsenal and Manchester Unites have key games that are live on TV. Shall I stay or shall I go?
Well, it’s three hours to kick off and I am still undecided. The rain might be the clincher, though it has not arrived yet. I think I shall just have to let you know tomorrow whether I succumbed to the temptation or not.