Monday, 12 February 2018

Diminishing returns

It occurred to me on the way home from the Olympic London Stadium on Saturday that I’ve been to five away games so far this season, and each has been a less enjoyable experience than the one before.

Southampton in September was certainly enjoyable: a 2-0 win, new signings starting to shine, Silva’s team finding its feet. Chelsea in October was, in retrospect, the high water mark of that progression. While we ultimately lost 4-2, I left Stamford Bridge feeling that, if we kept playing football of the quality we’d demonstrated in the first hour, we’d have nothing to worry about this season. Little did I know what lay ahead…

By the time I got to Selhurst Park on a cold, damp December evening, things had started to go wrong. We led for most of the match, missed good chances to make the game safe, and then threw it away in the final minutes, losing 2-1. The journey home seemed particularly long that night.

The return to St Mary’s last month for Javi Gracia’s first game in charge was worse still. A Watford team devoid of confidence looked totally incapable of turning around a 1-0 deficit, while in the away end, what started as black humour (essentially, responding to the Southampton fans’ taunts with a wry acknowledgement that, yes, we know we’re not very good) escalated into out-and-out barracking of our own team. Not a good day to be a travelling Watford fan.

And so to West Ham.

One thing about attending away games on your own is that you have no control over where you’ll be sitting or who you’ll be sitting next to. (The word ‘sitting’ should really be in inverted commas, since no ever sits at away games, for reasons that escape me.) On arrival at the London Stadium, I initially thought I’d done quite well; my seat was three rows from the front, near the corner flag, at the extreme left-hand edge of the Watford block.

As soon as the game started, I realised my error. Immediately on the other side of a tunnel entrance was a block of West Ham fans who have clearly chosen their seats so as to be as close as possible to the away fans, with a view to barracking them throughout the game. I’m sure you know the type. They spent more time looking at us than the pitch, and one bloke got so worked up that he was ejected midway through the first half.

Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the seats immediately to my right hadn’t been occupied by Watford’s own species of this pond life; two twentysomethings who were more interested in responding in kind to the West Ham fans than in watching the game. Now I’ve got nothing against swearing (I do plenty myself), and I like to think I’m unshockable; nevertheless, being caught in a crossfire of c-words did make it hard to focus on – let alone enjoy – the game. Then there were the spittle-flecked threats – “Come over ’ere and I’ll batter yer”, and so on – that are so easy to make when there are a couple of dozen burly men in high-vis jackets between you and your adversaries.

Once West Ham scored, my neighbours’ focus soon switched to discussing how completely and utterly useless Watford were. “We haven’t had a shot!” complained one of them just before half-time. I reminded him of the two smart saves Adrian had made to keep out Mariappa’s header and Capoue’s shot, but I was wasting my breath. For some people, extremes are all that exist. Watford could only be brilliant or rubbish (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), and today they were rubbish.

This went on throughout the second half, to such an extent that I found myself doubting my own eyes. For it seemed to me that, while short of the standards we reached against Chelsea last week, we were still looking way more positive and confident than we had for most of the last two months of Silva’s time in charge. We were deservedly beaten by a team that was sharper in front of goal and tighter at the back, but it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. By this time, though, I’d realised that trying to express any of this to my neighbours would be pointless.

By the final whistle, caught between the West Ham fans who were now singing highly abusive songs about some blameless female Watford fan and the angry complaints of my neighbours, I was thoroughly miserable. Isn’t going to football meant to be fun?

Look, I know this probably sounds like the whinging of a middle-aged, middle-class supporter who doesn’t ‘get’ football fan culture. I certainly don’t want to see the passion eradicated from the game, and I do accept that brain-dead morons have as much right to buy a ticket as anyone else. But I did find myself wistfully hankering for the hooligan-ridden days of the 80s, when the idiots on both sides of me could have met up for a ruck before the game, kicked seven bells out of each other and spent the afternoon in A&E, leaving the rest of us to watch the match and support our team.

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