The Night Game
Colin Payne on the joy of an evening kick-off
Perhaps it goes back to those games under Graham Taylor, those wonderful encounters; Hull, Stoke, Southampton, the oft-forgotten Forest tie, Wrexham, Kaiserslautern, the list goes on. But there is something special about a nightgame. A proper night-game mind, none of your five-thirty kick-offs.
There is a level of commitment involved, that a Saturday match just does not have. It cannot form part of a shopping-trip, nor fit in with any other activities that a weekend may involve. We go just for the football. The motorway with all its horrible rush-hour-ness needs to be navigated, there is no leaving home early, no doing anything beforehand, it is rush, rush, rush. There is always that worry around the snarled-up ring-round, we can see the unmistakable glow of the floodlights illuminating West Watford, so near. Yet so far. The clock ticking down to 7.45, and we are still stuck, inching along, the wipers sloshing away that pissy rain that inevitably falls for a night-game. Yet we know we will be OK, we have never missed an evening kick-off, despite always enduring the same anxiety-inducing journey every time.
Then we are there, parking up, grabbing the scarf and coat from the back seat, jogging along Vicarage Road. It is a different place on a winter’s evening, dark, surprisingly so for a built-up area of a busy town hosting a major sporting-event. Every few yards a streetlamp highlights the fine drizzly rain, but it is still dark, dark with lots of people. There is none of that hanging around normally seen before a game, as thousands of equally late supporters march at quick-step pace towards that increasingly brilliant light. Moths to the Premier League flame. Of course, there is the cliched aroma of onions, vinegar and tradition, all heightened in the night air, a sensory reminder of decades of taking this same journey on equally miserable nights.
Only now, as we walk through the doors that allow us that first glimpse of bright green turf, is it not miserable, not at all. It is joyous. It is like nothing else exists in the world bar that pitch and the four stands surrounding it. Only blackness above the bright ring of light. That damp cold that was so wretched outside becomes part of the night-game package, for we are wrapped up against it, maybe bothering our toes, but like everything else on these dark nights it is part of a fair greater whole.
The players come out, there is that extra edge in the atmosphere, especially against one of the ‘Big Six’, for strange things can happen on these occasions. We know this from experience, there is no such thing as a dull one-nil, they are last ditch battles, goalkeepers rushing up-field in dying moments to be there for corners, every night-game is a cup-tie, from a time when cup-ties meant something. Everything appears louder, you spend more time on your feet (perhaps just to warm them) with emotions heightened, for night-games are special.
And when over we traipse back into the dark gloom, inching up Occupation Road, the only light being the open doorways into the world of media suites and the players entrance, the world normally invisible to us, but looking so magical after a night-game. We know the queue for the car park payment machines will highly likely stretch into a neighbouring postcode, and that a journey home in near silence, bar the bomp-de-bop of the windscreen wipers, awaits. But that is part of a nightgame, the last ‘action’ of the day. Nothing should follow, for it demands exclusivity. Well, nothing other than bed with the bright dots of the floodlights still embossed on your inner eyelids as we hug the warmth from our duvets. Night-games are special.