During those lock-down days Olly Wicken presented a Hornet Heaven tale, imagining when football begins again.
It was far too long since she’d last been here. Now, though, at last, she was back on Occupation Road. She walked down the slope and savoured what she saw. On one side of the road was a matt black wall, with bright yellow columns rising from the turnstile entrances. It looked, somehow, like a giant piano keyboard designed by Elton John. On the other side, resisting progress, resisting glamour, were lengths of rust-dusted barbed wire and creosoted planks splintering with age. She walked down the middle. This was her Watford.
Her Watford was old and new. She’d queued for 1984 Cup Final tickets here, alongside a brick wall topped with broken glass, and she’d stood here, behind a barrier, watching Troy Deeney, in his tracksuit and headphones, mind focused, jaw set, glide from team bus to players’ entrance in two strides. She’d had her autograph book signed by Nigel Callaghan as he hopped out of his Datsun, and she’d got a selfie with Roberto Pereyra who, close up, smelt more beautiful than anyone she’d ever met. She couldn’t compare the old and the new, and she didn’t want to. It all mattered.
Her Watford had kept her going during the pandemic while everyone waited for the football to start up again, hoping for the day when the delayed home game against Leicester could finally take place. During her quarantine, she’d rooted around in the loft and found old, fragile, discoloured newspapers with ecstatic headlines. ‘Watford’s Wizards! Walker, Scullion shake the champs!’ ‘Elton’s No. 1 Hits! Rocket Men Roar Home!’ And, every day, on YouTube, she’d watched the last match but one, time after time. ‘Ismaila Sarr! Watford two to the good!’ ‘Deeney is loving that! Watford aren’t just beating the would-be champions, they’re pulling away!’
Now, though, she was here again. Home again. She clutched the Leicester programme tight and went through the turnstile. She climbed the steps from the Rookery’s concrete concourse. At the top, she halted. She was in a crowd again. She’d forgotten what it was like. For a moment, she was overwhelmed by the noise, the colour, the movement: the humanity.
She gazed around the stadium at the people. Thousands of different lives were temporarily merging, in this one place, for this one event. Away from here, for the weeks without football, people had had to pursue their lives individually, vulnerably. Here was unity. A football crowd was a show of human strength.
She took her seat. To her left was a teenager in an away shirt a couple of sizes too big for him. To her right was a red-faced man eating vinegared chips from the wrapper. Anywhere else — on the street, or in a café — she might have avoided them, but this afternoon she and they would be watching the game as companions, and she was glad of it. A chant started up. The boy had an annoying, cracked voice. The man was chewing while he chanted, spraying food. She took a deep breath and joined her voice with theirs. She’d had enough of social distancing; football gave you social closeness.
Then it started. She felt it before she was conscious of what was happening. A shiver was tickling at the back of her neck, dancing through her shoulder blades, and scurrying down her back. It was her body’s response to something she hadn’t yet processed. A split-second later, she knew…
It was the call. The call she hadn’t heard for so long. As soon as she recognised it, the shiver became a warm wave, rippling through her body until it reached the outside corner of her eye — where it overspilled. She dabbed it away.
Below her, the Watford and Leicester teams strode from the tunnel. Behind closed doors, without these thousands here to watch and take part, it would have been twenty-two me walking onto a patch of grass. Instead, it was an explosion. The stadium resounded. It was a release and a ratcheting; raw and raucous. She peered through the raised arms of the fans in front. But this was no imprisonment, no confinement. In a crowd, she was free to express how she felt; free to over-react; free to rage; free to howl. She’d been keeping it in for weeks.
Soon, in the warm sunshine, the players took their positions for kick-off and everything she’d missed became a sharp, delicious anticipation. The arcing flight of a ball; the grace of a flicked pass; the tidal ebb and flow of a back four, shifting and adjusting. Only in a stadium could you get a full view of football’s patterns, its swirling choreography. You had to be here — and, once again, at last, she was.
The game kicked off and she felt blessed. Blessed to have football. All over the world, there was uncertainty and dread; there was loss. This was her escape. For the next couple of hours, she would be in her happy place, transported, spellbound.
This is an excerpt from the latest episode of the Hornet Heaven podcast.
You can listen at www.HornetHeaven.com.