Like all good love affairs, the passing of time hasn’t dimmed my memory of that first encounter. I was in the clubshop at Hayes FC on a pleasant evening in the spring of 1988 when I saw a magazine with a front cover that made it look like it look like a football equivalent to Private Eye. The cover featured a joke about Graeme Souness, then the manager of Rangers, having just lost to Hamilton Academicals. The following month, I was thrilled to see it on sale in WH Smiths. By 1991, I was a subscriber. I remain one to this day.

A little over a decade ago, I had an article published by When Saturday Comes for the first time, and I’ve never felt such excitement. It was the feeling of a lifetime ambition fulfilled, something that I could carry with me for the rest of my life, regardless of what came next.

So, a little context. I was brought up in two council flats, first in Upper Edmonton and then a short hop away from there by train in Enfield. We moved middle-class Hertfordshire when I was just shy of ten years old, but that upbringing never really leaves you. And it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can truly see the ways in which it manifested itself.

Dad was a scrap metal dealer and mum worked a variety of part-time jobs, but my own career ambitions were effectively non-existent. Maybe I’d like to be a teacher. Maybe I’d like to be a writer of some description. I was an early adopter of words, a reader by the time I was three or four, one of those infuriating early developers who coasted too much and for too long, and who nearly threw it all away.

I liked the idea of working in an office because it would be warm and dry during the winter. To a point, it feels like this is where imposter syndrome comes from. It’s that belief that other people have the right to do what they like while you don’t, a belief that if you find yourself among the great and the good, those who you’re in the company of will be able to recognise immediately that you don’t belong.

But I loved to write. I loved the sensation of sitting at a blank screen or a blank sheet of paper and filling it with thoughts and ideas that might make someone laugh, or might teach somebody something, or might otherwise do something valuable. All I needed was an idea, something to write about, and in 2006 I had that idea. I would write about football. I didn’t know what I’d write about football or whether anyone would bother reading it, but I didn’t really care. I felt as though I’d found myself.

A couple of memories really stick out from those long, long years of blogging. The first was following on from a lengthy series of articles I wrote for 200% about the collapse of Chester City. As the new club sought to build itself up, the Supporters Direct conference took place at The Deva Stadium, and in the bar there on the Saturday lunchtime someone approached me and thanked me for having written the series, saying that it had made a huge difference in explaining what was happening and drawing attention to the club’s plight. It was the first time in my life that I felt as though I’d actually made a difference.

The second came a couple of years conference later, again at the Supporters Direct, this time in London. I’d been asked to do a workshop on football and insolvency. I wasn’t expecting anyone to turn up. Jonathan Wilson was on at the same time as me talking about tactics, and this sounded way more interesting than me waffling on about CVAs and ‘preferred creditor status’. But when I got the room fashionably late there was a queue snaking its way up the corridor.

It was too late to back out, so on I went and I was just about to start when the door opened at the back and a familiar face walked in; David Conn, the ubermensch of football finance writing at that time. No pressure, Ian. But I got through it, and that evening at the FSF Awards we won ‘Website of the Year’ for 200%. Somewhere between those two conferences, I started to believe that yes, perhaps I could do this.

The possibility that anyone might ever have the faith in me to pay me to do this never really crossed my mind, but all that changed in August 2021. I’d been with the same company for 15 years, but working from home on account of the pandemic was starting to turn my career stagnation into a rot. I didn’t want to return to the office – working from home very, very much suited the fact that I had two small children by this time – but I could feel my attention slipping and my interest in the nuts and bolts of my job fading.

And from out of nowhere, it appeared; a tweet from Football365, a website that I’d long admired for the freedom they awarded a brilliant collective of writers, and they were advertising a job as a feature writer. At just about any other time in my life, I’d have shrugged, assuming myself to not be the sort of person who gets this sort of job. But on this occasion, I didn’t. I’d never know if I didn’t apply, so I did. A couple of weeks later, to my considerable surprise, I started working for them. My stars had aligned.

Last night, my name was on a list of football writers who range in my opinion from admiration to reverence. I didn’t win, but that didn’t matter. Just to be listed in that company meant that I already felt as though I had. And something in me changed with that nomination. Another layer of imposter syndrome was stripped away. I’d often wonder how it felt when others talked about how something could make them ‘spread their wings’, but now I knew.

There is one tiny hint of regret. Mum died in September 2019. She’d had dementia for a not inconsiderable amount of time, but I wish that she had seen this happen because she would have been absolutely made up for me. Hell, I’d probably have won the damn award, because she would have been on the phone with her address book in her lap for hours, telling everybody she could think of to vote for me. She paid for my first subscription to WSC.

I was on holiday when she died. The last time I saw her alive, a couple of weeks earlier, I had five minutes alone with her to say goodbye because I knew the end was coming. I told her I loved her, said all the thanks yous that I may never have said earlier and should, and told her that I hope she was proud of me. She was heading towards what turned out to be a losing battle with pneumonia and was drifting in and out of consciousness. I don’t know whether she heard me, but I choose to believe that she did.

I don’t know much about after-lives. I guess we find out after life. But if there is one, I hope she saw that and was as proud as I would have expected her to be. Dad’s still here, a force of nature at 86 years old, and I hope he’s proud too. As role models go, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. The same goes for my big sister, my two incredible children, and JJ. I am exceptionally lucky be surrounded by people who love me.

The space where the imposter syndrome used to live has now been replaced by gratitude, to all the people who ever read and shared 200%, to another force of nature, my editor Sarah Winterburn, who if she reads this will be rolling her eyes at the number of commas I’m using (as ever), to When Saturday Comes for making the nearest I ever had to a lifelong ambition come true, all those years ago. And that gratitude is my fuel now. It propels me, that desire to repay all those people for having faith in me when I had so little in myself.

And if you’re reading this, then I am grateful to *you*. You can go about your day knowing that you have made an appreciable difference to somebody’s life, made them feel valued, and given them a sense of purpose that they would likely never otherwise have had. In the overall scheme of things, writing about football is not important, but it’s what I do now, and thanks to you, for the first time I’m starting to really believe that I can actually do it.