A work meeting means I have to go to Cheltenham this afternoon. It’ll be just the second time that I have stepped foot in the town and my first visit since the day when Rovers fell at the final hurdle in the race for automatic promotion back in May 2008. Thankfully of course it all turned out OK in the end, but at the time we weren’t to know that. To acknowledge my return to the town of the damned and also the recent receipt of much of our old content rescued from S** Sp***s termination of Rivals let us take you back to our diary acount of what we dubbed at the time The Longest Day.
On the early train out of Lincoln and already the nerves have begun to give my body a strange empty sensation. This current state of unrest is not helped by The Guardian’s map of what they determine to be the weekend’s ‘Key Football Battlegrounds’. Rovers’ match at Cheltenham is labelled as ‘Epic’, the top billing. I was hoping they may have plumped for “foregone away win” to ease my nerves, but alas thats not how we roll.
“Have a nice day” says the guy behind the counter as I leave the cafe at Nottingham station. Of course he’s not to know that today will never be nice. Come five o’clock it will either be joyous or devastating. Up until that point it will be a steadily building feeling of helplessness and tingling nausea.
The only time I ever remember feeling quite like this is away at Chester City in the Conference play-offs. Such were the nerves that day that I gave up playing the trumpet in the second half and practically ate it instead. I faced the back wall of the Stand for the entire duration of the penalty shoot-out and in fact only watched those spot-kicks for the first time two months ago. Hopefully in five years time I’ll finally be celebrating this afternoon’s goals.
In an interview in the Daily Mirror Neil Sullivan kindly says this could be the high point of his career. “This is the situation we all wanted to be in going into the final day” he says. I beg to differ, especially given that I’ve just tasted a bottle of lucozade in two different directions. Yes this makes for a more exciting finale but I’m aging steadily these days and would much prefer the cocoa and slippers alternative of a sedate pre-secured promotion party.
In the Sullivan interview, whilst a seemingly irrelevant back story about Scottish keepers at Wembley got five paragraphs; Rovers own back-story was confined to just two. I’m fed up of being pigeon-holed by the media. The team who’s old chairman burnt the stand. The team who’s current chairman gave Melinda Messenger her breasts. There’s more to us that that. Today offers a chance to move away from this.
Between Birmingham and Cheltenham and I am trying to remind myself that this is only a football match. In the grand scheme of things it means nothing really, but sadly my own personal grand scheme has this club at its margins, a constant simultaneous plot-line. In my life Doncaster Rovers are my equivalent of Friends’ Ross and Rachel, always going on and occasionally like today, all that there is. So although it may only be a sport in which I play no physical part it does play a part in me and what has shaped me and so I am allowed to feel as I do now; unnecessarily yet genuinely sick.
All this pontificating is ended as the train carriage is filled with the opening bars of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Lets Get it On’ and a middle aged bespectacled white man seated with his family answers his phone with a thick brummy “Yo’ll roit mite”.
People often suggest that football has become detached from its working class routes. That the original social and local values of the game from the backs of terraced houses to the vast terraced football grounds have been lost in the age of the multi-million pound hyperbole of the Premier League. Sitting on a bench eating a pastrami ciabatta whilst taking in a jazz marquee on the flush central green of Cheltenham its hard to disagree with that school of thought.
Whilst the industrial football lands of Halifax and Mansfield have dropped, towns like Cheltenham and Wycombe have risen. Cheltenham, since the moment I got off the train has not felt like a football town. Walking past rows of pastel coloured Georgian houses through a street of wine bars and coffee shops to this flower bed strewn square I have passed others in red and white hoops, but none have been Rovers shirts. Instead they are the preppie rugby jerseys of the high couture shopping bag carrying middle classes. For want of a better word Cheltenham is too, well, too nice.
“There’ll be some twists and turns this afternoon” says the guy behind me in Varsity on Cheltenham High Street. I can only agree, as right now the majority of those movements are in my intestines. I’m feeling decidedly queasy and that’s by no means anything to do with the half pint of Wye Valley ale I’ve thus far drunk. At the bar a lad in an Aston Villa shirt unfolds the paper and takes a seat.
“Lot of police outside,” he says; “Yeah, its Cheltenham’s last game” replies the barman. “Oh right, I thought it was for this,” says the Villa fan and he points towards the television screen above the bar which is showing the Manchester United, West Ham match. This is the sort of general footballing ignorance the Premiership has created. His entire matchday experience will be forever played out on that bar stool.
It sounds patronising to describe Cheltenham’s ground as twee, but I challenge you to find a better adjective for Whaddon Road. Out in the suburbs, opposite a park and flanked by hedges and a bowling green; if this is not twee then I’m confident of promotion. I’m here this early because I couldn’t stay away any longer. I needed to be here to quell the nerves and use familiar stimuli to remind myself it is just a game of football. Seeing just another green football pitch with the usual fluorescent clad stewards and your every day football pie smells reaffirms this in my mind and the emptiness leaves my stomach.
After an hour of comparative calm the emptiness and general nervousness returns ten minutes before kick-off. Despite the bright warm sunshine I find myself rubbing my hands together and shifting my sleeves as if it were the middle of winter. If I was in a police line-up right now I would be prime suspect. The ground is now full; red and white in every section as the two sets of fans slowly edge up the atmosphere. The Rovers fans to my left are loud and confident, Cheltenham to my right seem more on edge. Both ends of the ground are confusingly armed in case a game of Its a Knockout breaks out; the Rovers fans bouncing balloons and beach balls around whilst the home fans are blurred by inflatable noise makers.
Half time is a more subdued affair. Cheltenham lead. The nerves are long gone now and instead I find myself slumped against my plastic chair gazing at the field in front looking for hope amongst the grass and dead balloons. No such problems for the old guy next to me who has begun making himself a cup of tea, pulling from his rucksack, a flask, a spoon, some sugar, a jar of coffee-mate and also a china mug. Meticulous but strangely calming; you can take the folk out of Yorkshire…
“So, do you know the way to Southend?” a Rovers fan asks the driver as he boards the coach for the trip back north. Rovers have failed, but not for want of trying with a relentless second half onslaught. All that remains is this sort of melancholy humour, the same streak of a smile that had the away end singing ‘We’re Going to Wembley’ as the Rovers players trudged off the field.
The nerves left at kick-off and for the second half it was simply a stand-up sit-down barrage of yells and sighs. Through all the excitement and the end to end action I could not help but notice the old guy in the seat next to me. As Rovers flitted between chance and chance and all around him was up and gesticulating and yelling toward the field, the old fella simply reached inside his bag and rummaged around for another mint humbug. There’s nowt as strange as folk.
“What was the score mate?” one of the kids on the bench asks the passing Cheltenham fans.
“No, to Cheltenham”
“Awesome, they stayed up. Were they any good?” asks another kid on the bench.
“They were brilliant,” replies the Cheltenham fan, before turning to his mate, “So yeah as I was saying if you switch your account there, then you get a 0% balance transfer…”
Sometimes you feel good results are wasted on some people. Seriously, how can anyone think of banking at a time like this? When your team has suffered as crushing a blow as we have I want to come out of a ground and walk down rain-sodden industrial back-lanes. Passing rich folk enjoying a lazy evening beer in a sun-drenched square to the sounds of a saxophone just isn’t what football is supposed to be about. Its been a surreal afternoon, endured in the most un football like of backdrops.