10 Wonders of Matchday - Pre-Match Locals
Nick Catley looks at what makes going to football special
It’s different for everyone, of course…
I imagine there are people who treat football like it’s any other leisure activity – the cinema, say, or a game of ten-pin bowling. Turn up just before the start, enjoy the afternoon, go home.
But plenty of us make far more out of it than that.
I mentioned in the last part of this series (and it feels like that was published no time ago at all…) that I leave plenty of time before games to ensure I’m not late. And that’s partly true. But mostly, it’s because the period before the game – never mind the match itself – is one of my favourite bits of the week.
It’s a chance to catch up with people I only know through football, whether in one of the normal spots in Watford, or in a carefully chosen venue for away games. Some I still only meet at matches, where I’m delighted to see them, while others have become some of my best friends over the years. Sometimes random people flit in and out of the mix – like the work colleague of one of the group, an Aston Villa fan, who turned up for the match during their dreadful 2015/16 season. After we’d been talking for some time, he realised that we’d played in the same football team for five years as kids, far beyond Watford’s environs. Small world, and so on.
The best thing is that whoever you talk to, you will always have something in common. Football acts as a conversational safety net. As it happens, though, some of the best pre-match gatherings are the ones where the game is rarely mentioned, as everyone goes down the motorways, B-roads and back alleys of conversation about life’s highs and lows, annoyances and amusements. Indeed, the approach of 3:00 and the need to finish up and head to the game is sometimes genuinely frustrating – often, the most enjoyable part of the day is already over. However, it’s extremely unlikely that we’d travel the distances we do to meet up if there wasn’t a match on.
It’s also a good time to catch up with my brother, nephew, and a mutual friend. We don’t sit together, as I like to stand up all afternoon in the back row of the Rookery, while they prefer to actually see the game in the SEJ. We might travel a fair distance to meet up with no match on, but maybe we don’t as often as we could because – well, you don’t, do you? Football matches are immovable (other than by decree of the Sky Gods) and go in your diary months in advance, and mean I never think ‘I haven’t seen them for ages’. It’s overstating it to say football keeps the family together, but – it helps.
In a time when so many of us have wider networks of relationships that don’t centre on the town where we live, it’s a chance to be a local – to be around family, good friends, cherished acquaintances and people you’ve barely spoken to but have recognised for years, in the pubs, cafés, coffee shops and streets of Watford (or wherever else we happen to be playing that day). It’s just that this only happens on Saturday afternoons, after which the magic vanishes and the same places become as anonymous as anywhere else in the modern world.
I miss these afternoons. I miss them terribly.