A couple of years ago last month, I was lucky enough to be invited to watch Manchester City versus Reading from the comfort of one of the Etihad stadium’s hospitality boxes. I’m not a Manchester City fan, nor am I a Reading fan, but I felt it’d be madness to turn my friend down on an offer that included the words ‘free’, ‘Ricky Hatton’s box’ and ‘breaded quail’s egg’. Besides, I was due to be heading up to Manchester over the festive period, and it wasn’t hugely out of the way.
With just a few days to go before Christmas, the party season was in full swing. On the drive north, I counted no fewer than five people bent double at the roadside, trying desperately to hide from the prying eyes of smug-faced passing motorists, who were taking great delight in rubber-necking as the poor few expelled the previous night’s excesses.
That in itself was probably more exciting than the game. It was nothing to write home about; for 90 minutes, in the bitterly cold, horizontal rain, Reading succeeded in frustrating a City side that, for all their possession, couldn’t muster the quality they needed to put the league’s bottom side to bed. And so the relief was palpable when Gareth Barry arrived at the back post in the fourth minute of injury time to nod home a winner that would ensure a happy few days for those in the blue half of Manchester.
Now, I suppose beggars can’t be choosers, and perhaps it was churlish to expect a scintillating spectacle that would wash down the admittedly excellent pre-match lunch City’s catering staff had laid on. Nonetheless, I can see how you could get used to life in a box. There’s something a bit naughty about it. Sunk into a chair boasting the kind of padding normally reserved for the furniture in my grandma’s living room, wearing a t-shirt in a part of the stadium that seemed to have its own tropical microclimate, it felt like the definition of a guilty pleasure. Especially as the Royals fans below us looked, by home time, as if they’d just stepped off the world’s most disappointing log flume.
This was merely a precursor, however, to a much more important engagement. And no, I’m not talking about Christmas Day. I’m talking about the walk from The Greyhound, up Sheepfoot Lane and over Broadway to the Chaddy End at Boundary Park, where Oldham Athletic were due to meet Doncaster Rovers in the Boxing Day three o’clock kick-off.
The game – again – was nothing to write home about. Again, it was played in driving rain. One of the stands had been knocked down ahead of a major renovation job, and there were lengthy breaks in play each time a steward was sent scuttling between the puddles in the car park to retrieve a misplaced pass that had managed to clear the building site. A half-empty stadium did its best to rouse the boys in blue with cries of ‘Kick it, man!’ and ‘That were rubbish!’ A late Doncaster winner did little to lift our spirits.
About halfway through the first half, though, I looked to my left, up in the direction of the Boundary Park executive suites – three hospitality boxes in the corner of the ground that, at this point, were perhaps best described as Portakabins on stilts – and allowed myself a smile. The combination of sodden coats, warm bodies and near-freezing temperatures outside had come together to steam up the glass frontage of each of the boxes, and those inside were suddenly forced into watching the match through tiny portholes of their own making, pressing their faces to the window and holding their breath so as not to undo their good work. One club official was even gamely attempting to play the role of human windscreen wiper, balancing precariously on a chair and contorting his arm through the gap in a tiny awning window to try and clear some of the excess water with a Squeegee. If he’d been able to see what was going on, down on the pitch below, I doubt he’d even have bothered.
Coming, as it did, just four days after the trip to the Etihad, the afternoon at Boundary Park was a reminder of the myriad idiosyncrasies of a sport that has the ability to throw up wildly different experiences in the space of just a few miles. It’s not to say that one was better, or worse, than the other, of course; just…different.
Nor was there anything particularly special about either of the experiences – after all, thousands of people up and down the country are treated to corporate hospitality each weekend, just as thousands more trudge to half-finished stadiums in decidedly inclement weather to watch the team they love succumb to a last-minute winner. No: it was, above all, a reminder that football is as much about those small, personal, seemingly insignificant details and reflections as it is about the games and goals that grab the headlines.
And that’s precisely the thinking behind the Decider, the new online daily column from The Green Soccer Journal. By providing our writers – some of whom you’ll know, and others who are new to the fold – with a platform to explore the issues that matter to them, the Decider is the destination for fans of the game, its culture, personalities and eccentricities.
Often anecdotal, but always relevant and engaging, this is about creating a dialogue between writers and their audience, allowing readers to form their own opinions on the issues at stake. From supporter-owned clubs, to starting your own chant, to a player’s-eye view of the summer break, everyone can have their say.
We just hope that you have as much fun reading it as we did putting it all together.