Football’s back! I’m back! The column’s back! Fans are back!
After 17 months, I’m able to actually write this column from the actual Dolan in the actual Mad… Select Car Leasing Stadium. And it feels good. Purposeful, you know?
Making the journey up to the stadium itself was just like slipping back into the old routine, and with the excitement building from mid-afternoon, I was really keen to get up there and just be around the place. That probably sounds like an absolute loser talking, but when you’ve been away for so long, it’s the little things that matter in a match day experience.
Of course, what I did not miss was the absolute carnage in the red (why is it red?!) car park. To say the whole process was a bit iffy is like saying Spider-Man wasn’t bitten by a spider which in turn gave him superpowers: it was and he was. As I was eventually parked by a sweaty attendant, a car pulled up next to me to reveal its two inhabitants chowing down on some fried chicken. Glorious car park banter.
Getting back into the stadium was a really decent feeling: the smell of the grass, the terrible pre-match music, the wayward shots finding their way towards women of all ages (and I’m not being sexist, honestly - the next time you watch the warm-up see how many footballs actually hit the fairer species).
It was all a welcome return to “normality”, regardless of what the stadium is called this week (and for the record, I’m behind the name change). I was toying with the idea of buying the home shirt this year, until I saw the warm-up shirt. Oh my days! This little number is a solid white spectacle with what looked like golden accents around the key areas and the fabric just pings off the light in this weather. I’d imagine it will retail for around £25 and is sure to be a firm favourite among the thirty-somethings who don the training wear whilst running in the local area and buying cous cous in modern supermarkets.
Before kick-off, I took a moment to absorb the things around me: the waft of chips, stale aftershave and BO (I know it was 58 degrees, but there’s no excuse); the stewards nervously looking down the aisles to see if anyone was bringing beer into the seated bowl; people sitting in the wrong seat and then watching the real occupants of said seat apologising to the person who’d sat in the seat incorrectly - all delicious reminders that there’s no place like the South Reading Arena. Except Ibiza. Ibiza is a bit better.
The game started in typical friendly fashion, eg pedestrian speed. Rafa was forced into some early action and the trialists (who for legal reasons I shall name A and B) were getting on the ball early. Some nice passes in midfield failed to build into any proper attacks and I took a hearty swig of the water I’d been allowed to bring into the stadium because it was at least 72 degrees.
And then things turned ugly: Club 1871 began politely asking Pauno to wave to them. He either didn’t hear them or didn’t want to acknowledge them, which resulted in some pretty hefty booing that bounced around the Berkshire Dome like the noise of a dog barking in a mid-terraced garden.
To compound matters, the visitors scored via an OG from a corner put in. But as everyone who attends a friendly knows, it’s not about the result, it’s about the performance. Everyone knows that.
With half time on the horizon, I began pondering which chocolate snack I’d consume during the interval. Any hopes of snaffling a Twix were dashed like the idea of Boris attending a Wetherspoon’s on ‘Freedom Day’ when I remembered the food stalls were shut. I went to reach for the match day programme, but realised there were none on sale and I hadn’t bought one, so sat in stony silence as I watched the subs giggle and chortle with each other.
The second half swiftly rolled into view and West Ham doubled their lead shortly after, delighting David Moyes and his dangerously high shorts. Honestly, he’s like a caricature of Neil Warnock. At least 16 subs were made in quick succession and at that point, I completely lost track of who was doing what. I’d have referred to the numbers on the shirt or indeed, the match day programme, but there were neither/none.
West Ham knocked in a third and that was crufts, basically. The BO wafted back into range (I checked it wasn’t me and then I remembered it couldn’t have been, because I use Dove for men: the official deodorant of the British and Irish Lions Rugby Team) and I took my leave, slinking off into the warm evening air like a mountain lion in California.
As I got back into my perfectly parked car, I laughed to myself about how it all seemed so normal and routine and comfortable, like a well-made Italian loafer bought many years before in a little boutique in some part of London where the house prices are really steep. I took the key from my pocket, pushed it gently into the ignition, turned it, made sure the air con was set to cold, loaded Spotify, pushed the gear stick into first, listened to the gravel cackle as the tyres rolled over it, got to the end of the row, indicated to turn right, turned right to join the main slip road out of the car park, got to the mini roundabout, checked that the way was clear on the mini roundabout and headed down the road towards B&Q. Slipping the car into second gear, I glanced to my right to take a final look at the stadium in all it’s early sunset glory: it was great to be home.
Until next time.