The Football League play-offs provide a sharp dose of Vitamin B. Not for the teams who take part and their fans – whose nerves are frayed by the experience – but for the neutrals who need an enlivening detox at the end of a draining season.
Football seasons are becoming a slog. They’re an eight-month trudge through idiocy and confected rage which leaves any reasonable person exhausted; how much incontinent nonsense can someone be exposed to before their immune system drops its weapons and despondency floods in?
The act of supporting a Premier League club has become distinctly weird. Fanbases are now cults and the clubs little churches. That strain of fundamentalism infected social media a long time ago and, while only really a digital playground, its omnipotence has a profound effect on the tone of the sport. Match-days retain their primacy and always will, but the six other days of the week are soundtracked by the rattling of Twitter sabres, as armies of sociopaths fight unwinnable, pointless wars which drain the community’s spirit.
This feels like something new. Supporters have always been one-eyed and tribal but, violence aside, previously in a more lighthearted way. They would believe that their team’s 11 players were the best in the land, tell people that their stadium boasted the finest, most raucous atmosphere, and insist that their history, according to their own invented currency, was worth more. It was tedious and charmless, but still bearable – at least in relation to what has appeared in its stead.
I won’t remember much about this season. Some teams beat others and lots of excellent goals were scored, but much of the resonance was drowned out by the noise – by those endless screenshots seeking to prove a foul or a penalty, the clumsy attempts to undermine rival’s success, and the witless use of the laugh-cry emoji.
For that reason, I find myself retreating into the game’s history. This season, I visited Dudley to stand before Duncan Edwards’ grave, I spent a few hours inside the museum at Molineux and also, although there’s really nothing to see, I went to the site of the long-gone Highfield Road. Each experience was different, of course, but all were similarly nourishing. Not because there’s anything original in any of the trips, hundreds – if not thousands – make those same journeys every year, but because they were necessary. Restorative, even. Today, football is almost inseparable from the seething gibberish and, to survive a season, it’s important to remember that it has a deeper cause. Something greater than transfer stories and wilful outrage, at least.
The play-offs are that reminder.
On Sunday, a stylish Rotherham side overcame Shrewsbury in extra-time. Over the years, the Championship final has been asphyxiated by its own gravitas and the memories of Steve Claridge, Mixu Paatelainen and Clive Mendonca seem to belong to a different fixture. But free of that kind of weight, these League One teams play with an affecting desperation. Shrewsbury are obdurate and Rotherham are both more gifted and better coached, but it is an old-fashioned, well-matched contest in which both teams play as if there is no tomorrow.
Press-box etiquette is relaxed. During the Premier League season, it’s all strained apathy and feigned cool. The fashion is for indifference – an irritating seen-it-all-before vibe – but here the whiff of partisanship is never far from the nostrils. Local Shrewsbury reporters spend much of the game loudly bemoaning their team’s failure to play with any sort of craft and an early penalty decision even draws an audible expletive. At a different time of year, that would draw tutting glances from journalists who believe their 350-word match reports to be sporting scripture, but here in May, nobody seems to mind.
It is a good game, too. Rotherham miss a first-half penalty before captain Richard Wood put them ahead, planting a header into the baked Wembley turf and up into the net. Shrewsbury never
threaten to equalise until they do, working one of the finest set-piece routines the stadium has ever seen. Eyes presumably rolled on the training ground when Paul Hurst walked it through, but it cuts Rotherham to pieces. 30,000 fans blink silently, social media ripples with appreciation and, somewhere, Tony Pulis puts down his rosé and reached for the Sky remote.
Eventually, captain Wood settles the game for good. He escapes around the back of the Shrewsbury markers to prod Rotherham into a lead that they will never lose. He runs 60 yards in the heat to
celebrate with his own fans, collapsing in sweaty exhaustion on the near touchline before being pealed off the floor by his teammates. A gaggle of fans near the press box miss it, though. One, bare-chested and dressed in a luchador’s mask and Miller-red cape, has spent most of the second half with his back to the game, chanting his adulation for Ronnie Moore into the press box. The net ripples, the mask and cape spin, and Rotherham are going up.
Monday brings something else entirely. Coventry’s away support is famous, sustained by a rejection of that botched move to the Ricoh Arena and an enduring resentment of the SISU goons. From
10am onwards, Wembley turns Sky Blue. Up Olympic Way they come, into every available crevice they flow. It’s heartening. Elsewhere, charmless sociopaths are clattering keyboards to wish death on a goalkeeper for making a mistake, but here an entire community has its shoulder behind a club which has no right to their loyalty.
Welcome to the antidote.
Coventry as promised. pic.twitter.com/HtwIS2THyH
— Seb Stafford-Bloor (@SebSB) May 28, 2018
It becomes a party. In the first half, City sag under the weight of the noise. In the second, their superiority quickly shows. Jordan Willis – born and raised in the city, and reared by the club – bends
in the opening goal, celebrating with a guttural road as one end of the stadium bursts with joy. Minutes later, Jordan Shipley makes it two, slamming a deflected shot past Exeter keeper Christy Pym. Then, with just over 20 minutes left, Jack Grimmer wanders in from the touchline and lifts a floating, arcing shot towards the top corner. It’s not violent enough to be an exclamation point, it’s more of a poetic flourish. The ball hangs in the air before bending gently in, kissing the net and soothing any remaining doubts. Exeter pull one back but it’s too late: Coventry are up.
The spectre of Joy Seppala, dressed provocatively in light blue, briefly flickers on the press box screens, but this is neither the time nor the place. The fans will get their chance to boo her back across the Atlantic later, but for now this is their moment. The limbs spasm in the far end, the balloons rise out of the stand, and flair resin fills the air.
Of course, the winners stay with you on days like this. Finances at the foot of the pyramid are tight and so victory here changes lives. It might come in the form of a salary bump, but more often an extra layer of security for players who feared release or staff on the run from redundancy. The celebrations, then, are very real. On go the garish wigs and out come the selfie sticks; there’s no inhibition, no reticence in sharing the moment with supporters. Whether it’s true or not, the suspicion at the higher level is that fans have to be tolerated, that they’re a necessary evil to be endured in exchange for a fantastic life. But when Michael Doyle thumps his chest before lifting the trophy on Monday, and when Coventry’s players dance in the confetti, there’s something unmistakably sincere about it.
The players seem to get it – they’re aware of the broader circumstances and they know just how many miles these fans have covered this season.
You remember the losers at Wembley too, though. Perhaps more so. They’re left slumped on the pitch with all the worries that their opponents have just been liberated from. Lower-league players
may not be society’s paupers, but it’s a relative situation and it looks an honest misery. And, in a way, that’s also refreshing. At the top of the sport, a great deal of time and effort is spent on humanising football players. Their social media accounts are filtered and manned by twenty-somethings charged with displaying the right emotions at the right times – of remembering that wins
‘can never be achieved without the fans’ and that defeat should always be met with contrition and a determination to right wrongs. Look like you’re happy, look as if it hurts.
The play-offs do hurt. There are are no European places to temper disappointment and no enormous broadcasting payments to warm summer optimism. Among the losing supporters I encounter on both days, though, there’s grace within the disappointment – a concession that their teams weren’t good enough, or that they were beaten by better sides. In each case it’s true, but such magnanimity is increasingly rare. The modern fan is generally so indoctrinated that they can only process defeat by explaining it away as establishment conspiracy.
It’s terribly boring. It’s also part of the relentless point-scoring and petty oneupmanship which now characterises the club season. As if to make that point, as the sun slides away on Monday night and Olympic Way begins to clear, news breaks that a petition demanding retrospective action against Sergio Ramos has attracted over 300,000 signatures. By Tuesday, The Sun will be victimising Raheem Sterling again and Piers Morgan will be clapping along for attention on breakfast television. Come Wednesday, who knows?
For now, we can dismiss it with a shake of the head, thinking instead about Richard Wood, Jordan Willis and those Coventry fans dancing giddily to Twist and Shout. In time though, when the season returns, the temperature drops and that thick fog of impenetrable ugliness grows, the dull drum beat will return and those armies will march again on everything there is to love about the game.