“Rites of passage” tend to involve teenagers and revolve around love and/or sex, certainly in the Hollywood films that I know about. Being a non-league football fan, I missed that particular rite of passage completely, along with pretty much every other interesting rite of passage you could think of. I mean no disrespect the former Isthmian League club, but nothing remotely life-changing was ever going to happen to me at Wokingham Town on a cold Tuesday night in November. To trainspotters, maybe, as the ground was famously bordered by two separate railway routes and tracks. By the very fact that I considered such railway geography to be “famous” meant I was never going to appear in a real-life remake of “American Graffiti.”
Something changed recently, though. More and more often in recent years, the prospect of a “Wokingham-Town-on-a-cold-Tuesday-night” trip has failed to be an enticing one. But when the conversation about the logistical problems or desirability of getting to the game turns to the concept of “well, you could always not go,” we just laugh. Faced with that concept one recent morning, for the first time ever, I thought of the fixture to which I could travel and screamed out loud, as I was walking along the pavement: “sod it, I’m not going,” – which got a funny look from the postman, I can assure you.
Like all too many of my non-league contemporaries, I had a spell as an “ever-present” at matches involving my team, Kingstonian. This wasn’t the hugest challenge in my early days of watching Kingstonian in the regionalised lower-reaches of the already-regionalised Isthmian (Ryman) League. The league was a determinedly south-east England competition, its nominal roots along the “Isthmus” of the River Thames. And, even when that “isthmus” became wide to the point of contradiction, the lengthy trips were within the range of someone on a very flexible working hours scheme. Four o’clock finishes allowed me to make 7.30 kick-offs at Bognor Regis, although there was inevitably some railway ticket-office confusion when I asked for a day return to Bognor at 4.15 in the afternoon (“are you really coming back tonight?”). Had the office clerk known it was my 22nd birthday, he might have contacted the authorities. Yet not only did I think the whole thing worthwhile, I also still regard it as one of my better birthdays, because the 2-1 win took us into the semi-finals of the Isthmian League Cup.
Other difficulties were, for a long time, overcome. The fact that I was on a residential training course in York didn’t stop me from making a home game against Grays Athletic one midweek. This situation was made all the more surreal by the fact that I was travelling from York to London at the same time as Manchester United’s fan base was making precisely the return journey for a League Cup tie (which they won 3-1, only to lose on aggregate having already lost the home leg 3-0 with an understrength side –such things are far from recent phenomena). My excuse for leaving the course early, so that I could make at least a bit of the first half was “a family affair I couldn’t get out of.” This was a lie on almost every count. But I was proud (and, I must admit, drunk) enough to admit my subterfuge to students and tutors alike after I got back to the hotel bar at just after midnight, and the fact that the tutors that knew me simply asked me the score showed me that such madness was an accepted part of my personality. No wonder I was single. And, yes, I remember the score -yes, we won 1-0, and yes, it was 1-0 when I got to the game. And, yes, I’m still single.
“Fortunately,” Kingstonian’s three seasons in the Conference around the turn of the century threw up just the one fixture that would have required deception of the lowest depths to attend. But I wasn’t about to give up the “humanist” wedding of two of my closest friends (neither of whom are non-league fans and are therefore to be particularly cherished) – not for Boston United away, anyway. Humanist weddings don’t come along every week, unless you are even more weirdly obsessed than a non-league fan. And whilst I’m not quite brave enough to think about it too often, I’m pretty confident I’d have missed a home game for them too. And by then, 2001, my “ever-present” status had gone, stuck as I had been in a meeting of my trade union’s National Executive Committee as Ks won a Surrey Senior Cup tie at Molesey.
The fact that it was Molesey – a freak show of a club, even by non-league standards, supported by the desperate and the dismal – made my absence a deal less painful, although our talented striker Eddie Akuamoah became the tenth Ks player to reach 100 goals for the club and I was sad to have missed that, for “normal” reasons. But it was still very much the case that I would be at the game if I could, whether I wanted to or not. Now that I work on the Non-League Paper on a Saturday evening, most Saturday away games are beyond me. This means I’ve never been to Aveley – which most people would apparently regard as a plus. It was a wrench to miss a Dulwich Hamlet away game when I started working at the paper – three o’clock brought a sense of displacement which I have yet to otherwise experience. But this is now my routine. I enjoy the work – I’m proud of all those naff “Millers’ Tale” headlines I write on the paper’s Ryman League reports pages.
It’s lucrative. Taking into account the money I’d spend on booze, travel, booze, admission, booze and… booze going to away games, my bank balance has probably benefited to the extent of the national debt of a small pacific island state. And “I work for a national newspaper” isn’t the worst line to produce when an attractive woman starts talking to you at parties. At least it wouldn’t be if attractive women spoke to me at parties… or if I ever got invited to any parties. But if the opportunity arises to go to a Ks game and do my sub-editing work, I always do both. Home games are a bus ride away from the offices – and I’m the paper’s Kingstonian correspondent, so I have professional justification. And places such as Tooting and Sutton are similarly adjacent to the paper’s Wimbledon offices for me to be at work before the match reports start to flow in.
The other week was different, though. And I suppose it was coming. The idea of dragging myself the few short miles to Walton-on-Thames for a Championship Manager Trophy game was briefly as appealing to me as it would be to any rational individual. But I went, tipped over the edge by the relative ease of the journey and the adjacency to the station of the very welcoming bar at the ‘Ashley Park Hotel.’ The same sort of prospect awaited me for the Surrey Senior Cup-tie at Leatherhead. It was five miles and one relatively quick bus ride away. The town has enough good hostelries to make a Saturday game there a joy. Leatherhead are doing well enough at the top of the Ryman League division below us to make the game too close to call. And I had no other plans. But when it came to it, I made other plans. A bit of extra article research (the sacrifices I make for you, dear reader). The shopping trip our relatively empty fridge suggests is required much sooner rather than later. The chance to recover from the very late nights watching the cricket from Australia. They all combined. “You could always not go” – the voices inside my head were suggesting. So I haven’t. Instead, I’m actually typing this. Appropriately somehow.
Ah, but, look outside, you cry. The game’s off, isn’t it? It was probably called off this afternoon. The prospect of it ever being on was remote even when the decision was made not to go, wasn’t it? Well… yes. All of the above is true. My thought “sod it, I’m not going” was quickly followed by, “won’t be on anyway.” At the merest sign of wet weather, Leatherhead’s Fetcham Grove ground has always become that bit more adjacent to the adjacent River Mole – to the point that you often can’t see the join. And the recent arctic conditions put paid to this match hours ago. So, maybe, just maybe, when the fixture is re-arranged, the old feelings will return, and I’ll go. But maybe not. Maybe I have passed this particular rite, crossed this particular metaphorical Rubicon and am striding purposefully towards a new life… a life, in fact. Maybe I will get invited to parties, be able to tell attractive women that I’m a national newspaper journalist and hope against hope that they never ask, “which one?”, and that’s got to be a rite of passage worth missing Leatherhead away for, hasn’t it?
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