As Joni Mitchell once sang, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. But in the case of away days, I don’t think you really know what you’ve got until it’s come back.
I’m hardly the first person to say how watching football almost exclusively on iFollow for the past 14 months or so has been far from ideal. Yes, you pretty reliably get to see what’s going on - you aren’t at risk of, say, having to jump to see over the lanky guy in front of you (an occupational hazard of being short) or peering past an inconveniently placed pillar (cough Loftus Road cough). But you’re denied all of the charms and oddities that make matchday what it is.
All of that starts hours before you get to the stadium, let alone kick-off. Like all the best dramas, matchday’s charm comes from the slow build, the gradual increase in tension as you progress through the narrative. In my case the narrative for Stoke City away went something like this:
Early wake-up, morning coffee (in a Reading mug of course), out of the flat by 9am, tube to Euston...
...train to Birmingham New Street (where I spot fellow Royals for the first time), train to Stoke-on-Trent (during which I spot Stoke fans for the first time), arrive in Stoke, work out how to get to the stadium on Google Maps, walk along the canal (where I spot a TalkReading sticker)...
...shelter from the rain under a bridge on that canal to tweet the team news, continue my walk and get my first look at the stadium...
...before finally getting into the ground at around 2.20.
I could hear the bellowing songs of the travelling contingent in the concourse as I approached the ground from outside, let alone after I got through the turnstile. It was so deafening that, when I tried to speak to someone I’d run into in the concourse (another one of those little joys you don’t get with iFollow), I could sometimes barely hear what was being said.
That matchday buzz, which is hard to properly define, was palpable from the very start of my journey. More than just ‘feeling excited because you’re on your way to a stadium where there will be a football match’, it’s the sense of being wrapped up in a unique experience that could end in any way possible. That buzz built at every stage of my journey - however tedious or mundane the stage in question was - so that by the time kick-off came, it felt special.
And, like with all the best dramas, effective build-up of tension allows for a powerful release of emotion when the defining points of the narrative arrive. The gut-punch of seeing the ball hit the back of Reading’s net - evermore wrenching each time that happened - and the sheer ecstasy of seeing it hit the back of Stoke’s.
I’d typically describe myself as a pretty mild-mannered, introverted kind of person. But there’s a guy from a couple of rows in front of me that did a selfie video each time Reading scored yesterday, and both of those include me, arms outstretched and with a look of wild jubilation on my face, screaming “YEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS” as loud as my lungs could manage.
I did something similar in my flat when I saw Michael Olise score that winner at QPR on iFollow and, suffice to say, it wasn’t the same.
Reading have scored much more important goals in the last 14 months than those scored by John Swift and Liam Moore, and in much more important games, but you could only enjoy them so much through a screen. Not to forget: that’s assuming your stream is working (most of us missed Lucas Joao’s opener against Stoke in June 2020) and you’re not getting spoilers on Twitter (the local journos’ tweets were for me typically 30-60 seconds ahead of iFollow).
For sheer joy, none of last season’s goals compared to those scored at Stoke on the opening day. Both times: instantaneous bursts of pure emotion as the ball hits the net, before you and the hundreds around you are overcome with sheer exhilaration. It’s a huge shame of course that neither of those goals meant much for the result. But, in the moment, they were pure and special.
And living in the moment is exactly what an away day is all about.