10 Wonders Of Matchday - The Ultimate Goal
Nick Catley looks at what makes going to football special
Up until now in this series, I’ve talked about the incidental pleasures of match day, the little things that make football worth going to.
But this. This is why we go in the first place. This is our hit, our drug, the ultimate source of our addiction. Simply, there is very little in life that can provide quite so much unrestrained joy as Watford scoring a goal.
It’s not like joy doesn’t exist elsewhere, of course. A child’s achievements, a work success, a good meal, a day in the pub, a night at the theatre – they all enhance life’s balance sheet. But they generally give a nice warm glow, rather than the pure adrenaline shot of a Watford goal. Even sex – the most commonly used comparison for that intense explosion of joy that, er, comes with a goal, isn’t quite the same – there’s usually less unpredictability, for one thing, besides which Watford aren’t limited to scoring once in any 90-minute period (even if it seems that way sometimes), and I’ve never wanted us to delay getting a goal for just a few more minutes.
Plenty’s been written about the celebration itself – the mental, the limbs. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s cathartic. Everything comes out, in a way that simply isn’t socially acceptable anywhere else. I’m sure it does us good. Perhaps we have essentially spent all these years travelling to Barnsley, Coventry and Middlesbrough for primal scream therapy because doing it in an office in Garston seems a bit weird.
I’m as interested though, in why we react this way. I think there are two main reasons for the incredibly intense feeling a goal brings us. To wear my maths-teacher hat for a moment, one is the change in probability of winning. Goals matter. They’re far from a given when you enter the ground. A single goal changes your chances enormously. I’ve talked before on these pages about the importance of goals’ rarity, and this is shown again here – they don’t happen often, which makes them significant.
But those other things – children, work, food, friends, entertainment, relationships – they matter too. For all the talk of obsessive fans, most of us are (more or less) functioning human beings, with hinterlands that barely involve football at all. But the joy in those other areas is rarely so instant. In real life, changes that happen quickly are generally bad ones – the prized ornament smashed on the floor, the coffee spilled all over the computer, the realisation that the car isn’t stopping. By contrast, life’s delights tend to be more gradual – in a new relationship, for good or for bad, people reveal themselves over time, while the pleasure of a concert or meal evolves over an evening, rather than arriving all at once.
Even within sports, football provides these instant highs (and lows) more than any other. Its fluid nature means that most goals are not even slightly on the cards ten seconds before, in a way that isn’t generally true of a cricket century or a rugby try. I’d argue that, for this reason, celebrations are never quite as intense for penalties – celebrated in two parts, the first tinged by anxiety, the second largely relief – or goals that only just cross the line. We need to know immediately to get that proper hit.
Between 1993 and 1998, Watford changed from goal nets with wide gaps to ones with much smaller holes. This may not sound significant, but it made a difference to me. Presumably because they were heavier due to using more material, they just didn’t change shape as much when a ball hit them. This meant, particularly when play was at the far end, that you had to go through a mental process, however slight (the ball’s stopped travelling – that can only mean…) to work out that we’d scored, rather than that glorious, instantaneous Pavlovian billow that comes with a lovely, loose net. I’m getting warm and tingly just thinking about it.
You can probably guess what this is rumbling towards. Both these factors are less pronounced in the Premier League. Goals have less importance in games which are tilted towards one of the big teams. A fourth-minute opener against Manchester City is welcome, but not celebrated with any degree of belief that it’ll make much difference to anything.
The instancy of goals, however, is under even greater threat. Every single celebration takes place under VAR’s Damocletian sword. Memories of the ruled-out winner in September’s Newcastle game (and similar experiences in future, no doubt) make it difficult to greet any goal without an element of doubt. By the time it’s confirmed, the moment has passed, the world has moved on. It’s not a new point, but this is the reason VAR has made watching football demonstrably worse. I don’t dispute that it makes decision-making better. My point is that I don’t really care.
If we concede an offside goal, I’ll get over it, but VAR ruling out a strike when you’ve given it everything in celebration is one of football’s worst experiences, one that leaves a bitter taste months later. Even worse than that, though, it introduces an element of caution to one of life’s extremely rare uninhibited experiences.
An old fable has it that a scorpion needed to get across a river, so asked a frog to carry him across. The frog was sceptical – she wasn’t stupid, and had a memory long enough to recall when Jamie Moralee had been touted as The Answer, so asked: “How do I know you won’t sting me?” “Why would I?” replied the scorpion. “If I do, we’ll both drown”. The frog thinks this is a reasonable argument, and so they set out. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The frog asks: “Why did you do that?”, and gets the reply: “I’m a scorpion. That’s what I do”.
The imbalance between teams and VAR means that watching football is much more enjoyable outside the Premier League than in it. And yet, if we reach the last game of the season with our status at stake, I’ll be at Stamford Bridge, desperately hoping we can somehow stay up. Because that’s what we do.