Friday the 13th felt different, and I hadn’t expected it to quite so much. I should have known better as I’d been aware that in the hunt for transfer news I was starting to refresh Twitter far too often over the past couple of weeks. But I wasn’t prepared to feel quite so jittery nervous all day, especially as it’s been a long long time since I’d battled match-day nerves of my own. I always felt it would be a tricky opener: newly promoted side buzzing, small stadium, the Arsenal worryingly lukewarm during pre-season. As one of my old coaches used to say when disaster loomed: ‘it’s got all the makings’. And so it proved with a disappointingly anodyne performance leading to a feeble 2 nil defeat. It wasn’t quite reach for the service revolver time, but I certainly made too much use of the whisky that night, and woke the next day saddened and wretched and not at all sure I wanted to carry on putting myself through all of this. What after all is the point of supporting a club that are not exactly down the road from me and which seem guaranteed these days to cause me pain?
Due to a long-standing promise to take my son to watch Reading’s first home game of the season I didn’t have long to stew in my juice, and it was fun to set off for a 3pm Saturday Kick off. I enjoyed walking down to the station, catching the train and then the bus to the stadium: it pleased me in some kind of atavistic way to see more and more home shirts mass at each stage of the journey, and all the more so for it being the first match anybody had been to for well over a year. There was real excitement in the air, and as we gathered outside the ground in front of the big screen showing Man U demolish Leeds, the time-honoured triplet of banter, beer and burgers seemed to announce that all was well in the world again. I wondered how many there had Reading as their first side, and for how many Reading were just their little bit on the side. And I wondered whether there would be any Preston North End fans, and if there were, how much it would have cost them to make their way to what used to be the Madejski but is now the Select Cars Stadium. And on that theme of cost I liked the fact that for me and my boy the travel and the tickets cost under £50. Would it be better after all to follow a local side again, as I used to back in the 70s, or does the proliferation of TV coverage and media interest now force the Premiership on us all?
It wasn’t a bad game at all, Reading scraping home 2-1 after missing a couple of easy chances that should have seen them home and hosed just after the interval. And yes, there must have been two or three hundred down from Lancashire, who supported magnificently throughout the game and who took, or seemed to take, the defeat with philosophical good humour. And that in turn made me think of what the coming season holds for all fans, and especially those who go to such lengths to follow their team. In a game of winners and losers what’s in it for the losers, and what defines loss? After all, and unless Olympic High Jump is your thing, only one side is going to win the Premier League, only one side going to win the cup. There are smaller prizes of course: Champions League places, Europa League, Promotion etc, but that still leaves an awful lot of sides and an awful lot of fans out in the cold and far from the podium. In August most fans are asked to consider what would make a successful season for our club: I wonder how many end up with their hopes rewarded? Precious few I think.
Certainly judging by the increasingly toxic social media storms that follow any defeat most supporters seem to be in a state of perpetual anger. I can only speak with any authority about the Arsenal (which is magnificently toxic at the moment) but I guess it is the same for most clubs, and especially so for those who have offered their allegiance to teams where the expectation is to win, and to win with style. If, Faustus like, you sell your soul to the devil then of course it’s hard to accept mediocrity and disappointment, and I wonder how many of the Arsenal fans who moan the loudest only began supporting the club when Thierry and Denis were in their pomp? What will Chelsea supporters feel like if they don’t go on to win the title this year, or Man Utd, or City, all of whom have bought shiny new toys. And what of Liverpool, with VVD no doubt ‘just like a new signing’? They are not all going to win, and writing that list and thinking of Spurs and Leicester too makes me realise that 5th or 6th place is probably the maximum that any fan could possibly hope for from Arsenal this year, and that even that is going to take quite some doing.
So what am I signing up for right now? Disappointment, despair and disillusion? Well probably yes, and obviously a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience, but there might be some good moments, some unexpected glories that are made all the better for their rarity. And, like those Preston fans I shall resolve to enjoy the journey, and take some refuge in being on board a bus full of fellow travellers who if they’ve any sense will secretly enjoy lapsing back into the old-fashioned supporter’s mindset of knowing deep down that their side is no better than they deserve – but that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all.
Now, about those new signings….