After 83 days Reading FC and I were back at the Madejski Stadium (I didn’t go to the Swansea friendly and by the sounds of it, neither did anyone else) and as my Dad pointed out in the car, this season will mark 20 years since our first trip to see Reading. You would have thought in all those years that we’d become a bit relaxed about it all but even after two decades it still feels like the first day back at school.
Much like the strange sense of excitement I used to get at seeing an unfamiliar teacher on my timetable, seeing #10 Royston Drenthe, #18 Wayne Bridge and #23 Danny Williams on the back of my programme gave a similar feeling of the unknown. Like those teachers they are going to be with me, whether I like it or not, for the next 10 months. Whilst times have changed a bit and these players are less unknown than in years gone by, I still watched these debuts wanting to know whether this was a Mr Pritchard whose company it will be a pleasure to share or a Mrs Bowman, where a feeling of dread immediately fills the room at the mere mention of her name. (If Mrs Bowman is reading this, I'm sure you're a lovely person in real life...).
Fortunately the first impressions were positive for all three. Royston (has a Reading player ever had a better first name?) looks like he could be a lot of fun and Williams the beast in midfield we’ve been lacking. Mind you, I’ve been burned before (I’m looking at you Mass Sarr) so I’ll reserve judgement until a month or so in.
The true football experience is never all about the game though and after so many years it’s just nice to slip back into the old routine after a few months out. The joy of the first game is that the old routine remains but always with things slightly different.
On Saturday our preferred parking spot was free, which I always take as a good omen, but we’d barely walked a few yards before it felt different. This was the point when we first spotted a new shirt. An integral part to any first game of the season is an arguement about the new shirt. Love itor hate it you must have an opinion and discussion is always prompted by someone walking ahead of you in a shirt that is both familiar and different. The first look at a new shirt in the flesh is like seeing someone clean shaven for the first time, you recognise it as them but you can’t be sure if you like it.
Little things on the way to the game suddenly take on an importance. The fact that KFC have a new box meal suddenly makes the usual call of “zinger tower meal” less certain some how. On this occasion I gambled and went with the strange burger with a nacho in it and the fact that we subsequently won means I’ve now got to stick with this calorific lunch for the rest of the season. It is that important.
Really it’s amazing how conservative we are as football fans. An outsider would have been perplexed at my Dad’s reticence to walk to a cabin to buy his programme. It just doesn’t seem right for the Golden Gamble man to be before the programme sellers and even something as small as that can seem like a challenge to the routine. No doubt with a few games under our belts it will seem normal but equally I fully expect my Dad to be pining for the days when the sellers were under umbrellas and shielding the programmes from the rain with flimsy cardboard boxes.
In my particular bit of Y21 I am surrounded almost entirely by season ticket holders and so, as is now my tradition, upon arrival at my seat (106!) I had scan of those around us. Of course I don’t know any of them by name so my Dad and I have nicknames for most of them. We make sure ‘V Man’, ‘Oi Linesman’ and the rest are still here and the elderly chaps behind us have survived another summer (incidentally I discovered not that long ago that for years I’ve been known as ‘yellow shirt’ by a group of guys a few rows in front of us when I had to sit with them for a cup game. It was nice to know it’s not just me!). In all the years we’ve been going we’ve barely uttered a word to these people but it just wouldn’t feel right if they weren’t there.
Then comes the cold shoulder of those who are new. This isn’t so common after a relegation but I recall a few people staring at their shiny new season tickets, trying to work out where they need to go as they made their way up the stairs before the Stoke game last year. As with the new kid who’s had to swap schools, they will be treated with suspicion. They may not know or understand it but they will never truly be accepted until they too have a nonsensical nickname.
Perhaps most importantly with the first game of a new season is that inevitable sense of optimism. Unless you are a Coventry fan, this is the one point where you allow yourself to imagine that this will be your year. We may have not won at home for 7 months or on the opening day for 7 years but hey, things will be different this time. For some fans that optimism will disappear at the reading of the teamsheet or about 30 seconds into the game but it is always there in the build up to kick off. If you're really lucky it might even resurface around New Year when you suddenly think "we can bloomin' do this!" (or words to that effect).
What I do know is that regardless of how this season goes, this time next year I will be having the same conversations and be clouded with the same sense of delusional optimism that always creeps in. I'll then tut at the redesigned programme, scowl at the new advertising hoardings and stare at a guy two rows in front, trying to work out if he's new or not before sitting down for another season.
What are your pre-season rituals? Please tell me I’m not the only one who makes up nicknames for those who sit around me!