Thursday, 25 June 2009

Shared Obsession

The mixed aroma of a thousand under-cooked greasy chippy meals, under-brewed cups of tea and scattered mounds of mounted police horse-shit assailed me as I headed along Goodison Road to the Steward's gate.

It was a bright yet chilly October morning, and I hurried to make my way inside, wanting to exchange my paper-thin sweater for my heavy padded club-issue Hi-vis jacket. I made my way to the entrance and climbed the worn grey staircase to the stewards room, nodding to acknowledge a few old-time staff on the way up.

"Rylands, Main Stand North, Jacket number 384" I said to the attendant administrator, and he went into the back to retrieve my identification. He returned swiftly and handed me my new swipe card. I frowned at the mug-shot on the front of it.

Was I really turning into my father that quickly? When exactly did those "Droopy Dog" bags round my eyes materialise?

The administrator noticed my expression and smirked at me mischievously.
I shrugged back at him, signed in on the match-day rota, threw on my jacket and headed out to make my way to the staff safety briefing.

I'd been stewarding on and off for almost 2 seasons by then. It was the longest extended period I had attended football games since my father and brother used to constantly take me as a child, when ticket prices were dirt cheap and Everton were at their peak. The whole nature of the sport, the spectators and the finances had changed immeasurably since that time. Sky TV had snapped up the sport, put lots of flashy digital bells and whistles on it and marketed every game like a Hollywood blockbuster. I just couldn't watch games live on Sky as much as I used to before. There was a dramatic trashiness to the way they were presented, which seemed to get more pronounced and commercialised each year. I usually caught the BBC highlights instead.

But nothing beat actually being present at games. Feeling the shared emotions of the crowd, watching the players performances up close, reading the flow and ebb of each game. Live sporting theatre as opposed to TV drama - no contest.

I reached the vomitory exit to my section of the main stand and climbed the final short staircase, the stadium interior grandly sweeping into view. It was old, creaking, primarily wooden. It had seen better days, both in terms of physical structure and the football that had graced its pitch. But it had become part of my essence, my identity, my upbringing and my family.

Yes, she was a glorious old lady, Goodison Park.

After a quiet moment of reflection and getting that strange buzz you only seem to get before a game, I joined up with my fellow stewards at the centre of the stand, as we were read out a customary meet and greet statement for the match day. I suddenly remembered to turn off my mobile phone and fumbled with it in my pocket whilst Ste the head steward, read out the rules and regulations we as stewards and employees of the club, had to adhere to. We listened bored as we were told: "No celebrating goals, no shirt signings from players, no smoking, no drinking or eating in sight of spectators..." It dragged out interminably until we were given our match-day positions and someone handed out the team sheet for the day's game, which we all pored over and considered who to place a bet on.

After a quick cup of tea we were eventually given our match positions, and the clock gradually counted down to 3:00pm, the turnstiles revolving ever faster and faster as hordes of supporters started to enter the stadium, the noise from within gradually growing more and more expectant....