It’s quarter to three on a Saturday afternoon in June. In the normal scheme of things, between August and May, I would be ensconced in a foul tavern in a bleak northern outpost, pouring a final pint of fizzy piss into my face before hotfooting it to a dilapidated stadium to hurl abuse at some moderately talented footballers. In other words, the very stuff of life itself.
As it stands, I’m lurking in a stranger’s garden in the Home Counties, examining what appears to be a sculpture of new Real Madrid manager, Rafael Benitez, but is allegedly based on the sculptor’s brother–in-law. Accompanied by an ant-based word game for the kids, it’s arguably the highlight of the Little Brickhill Open Garden weekend, which I am being forced to attend under the auspices of spending time with my family. Like the green-fingered equivalent of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, the village is traversed via its ornate gardens, each gradually sapping my will to live. Instinctively checking the time, it’s 3:23pm, and I almost sense a phantom goal. We could be 1-0 down. Possibly even 1-0 up. It could feasibly be 0-0. Either way, it would be infinitely more interesting than a prolonged discussion about how to treat hostas (that’s a plant, not a Spanish player).
Football’s close season is a tricky beast to negotiate. After nine months on the road, it’s initially a huge relief to put your feet up, freed of early starts, motorway tailbacks, uncooked pies and gut-wrenching disappointment. But as the months crawl by, the itch gets bigger, and the gaping void in your life begins to widen, exacerbated by a terrifying glimpse of how other people live. At my lowest ebb, I have even found myself missing being trapped in a car with some real ale bores while listening to Robbie Savage, Wrexham’s answer to Oscar Wilde.
Of course, televised football never really goes away. Even in this odd year, we have had an under-21’s international tournament and the Treacle World Cup (© Danny Dyer). But it is nothing compared to never-ending story of following your club, and you eventually begin to trawl the web for any little snippets: players gone, players signed, a sniff of the new kit. Pictures of the first day of training lift the heart, and the countdown to the fixtures being released is a daily sweat. I finally learned my fate while stood outside The Temple Of Mayhem at Chessington World Of Adventures, with my phone informing me that Chester FC would begin the season at home to Braintree, followed by a tricky midweek trip to Halifax, something that was uppermost in my thoughts as I absentmindedly negotiated the Tomb Blaster ride.
Finally adding some much-needed structure to my life, I can now turn down invitations with confidence, safe in the knowledge that I will be far, far away, both geographically and socially. One of the great benefits of following a dogshit team around the country is that you get to avoid dinner parties, or at least turn up when everyone’s pissed then speed-eat three courses while a massive Tory whopper bangs on about immigration. With almost comic timing, I receive an invite to a barbecue at 3pm on the opening day of the season. I simply won’t be there.
Life following your team also precludes any contact with the moron zone that is Saturday evening television, as you generally skulk home in time for Match Of The Day before waking up - cock in hand - for the final knockings of The Football League Show. In the absence of these mainstays I was recently forced to watch something called Master Chef, in which some people - one of whom used to be Syd Little - made some food and then some other people ate it and said whether they liked it. For an hour. I sometimes think I’m on the wrong fucking planet.
Thankfully, normal service will soon be restored, a tantalising vista of endless possibilities stretching through autumn, winter and spring. I don’t know what you people do with your lives; how you differentiate between a day, a month, a year. Without football, there is only weather.