A day out with Niall Geoghegan and the Millers fans…
When I first began writing these blogs, I told myself that their content would remain strictly concerning general issues surrounding football and RUFC, and I would never subject the readers to a horribly detailed commentary of a single match they care nothing about.
However, whilst doing my best to maintain that stance, one of the first things that crossed my mind after Saturday’s exhilarating win at Bradford City was ‘that was so good it deserves a blog all to itself!’ Thus, this piece aims to encapsulate all that’s good about being a football fan, why it’s so special, and why it’s about so much more than watching 22 players kick a ball.
But don’t worry, given the chronic inconsistency RUFC are suffering from at the moment, I have every faith I’ll have the opportunity to give the other side of the story quite soon.
In order to try and capture the true experience of the brilliance of supporting a football team, it’s important to avoid diving straight into the action itself. The day began, post-early wake-up and Wetherspoon’s fry-up, with a car journey from Derby to Valley Parade, with a few cans, some sophomoric humour and a morsel of laddish banter along the way.
Arrival at the ground saw a swift park-up and an even swifter pint, as the obligatory pre-match sup had to be rushed with just twenty minutes until kick off. All the talk in the pub was of Manny Figueroa’s 60 yard free-kick at Stoke, witnessed by the increasingly boisterous mix of Bantams and Millers watching the big screen, but little did both sets fans know that they’d soon be seeing something similarly sensational in front of their very own eyes.
Following that unhealthily speedy consumption of Stella came one of football’s most unrecognised, underestimated privileges: the walk to the ground. The buzz around the place, the anticipation, the scarves, the programme sellers, the burger bars: it’s all a fibre of football which you miss when you’re playing at a soulless athletics stadium in the wrong town.
On entry to the ground, we look inquisitively at each other as the team is read out, as the forty-something year old we’ve just stumbled past looks scathingly at our reaction as if to say ‘some of us heard the team 20 minutes ago, ya know, when we arrived more than a minute before kick off’. Unfortunately for said man, the fry-up was quite a few hours ago, and the scented gust of pie swirling around the away end is tantalisingly delicious. I fear we may be bothering you again, sir.
And then came that familiar sensation – we all have it – that sudden, unforeseen surge of belief that comes when you see the two sides walking out, that for all the rationale that told you you’d lose, for the hundreds of reasons you gave for why a point is the best to expect today, for all the pre-match negativity and scepticism and wondering why you’ve even bothered turning up at a game that will only provide feelings of hatred and despair, that roguish feeling rears itself: we can win this game.
It’s a feeling that comes with the realisation that despite horrendous form, unbeatable opposition, their purple patch striker and ours, who couldn’t hit the proverbial cow’s gluteus maximus with a particular stringed instrument, it’s still, after all, 11vs11 (insert crude joke about inexistent midfielder or Drewe Broughton*). As is often the case, however, those feelings of genuine belief were soon to seem childishly naïve and futile, as Lee Bullock pounced on some criminally static Millers defending and poked City ahead.
But before any real voluble discontent could set in amongst the 528 Millers penned in the corner at Valley Parade, Broughton had tested Eastwood with a glancing header and Kevin Ellison had reacted quickest to calmly wrap the ball in the bottom corner with his wrong foot. Ahh, the equaliser. A fine and unique footballing phenomena. The only real time when your celebrations will almost be of angry defiance, a series of violent fist-pumping that says ‘that’s what you get for taking the lead’ and an even greater ‘that’s what you get for taunting us’ towards the opposition fans in the form of a thunderous ‘you’re not singing anymore’. Not long later, things got better.
Adam Le Fondre’s subtle touch was enough to bring in the surging Kevin Ellison, who fired home with only the confidence and conviction found in a man who’s already netted one. The turnaround: a rare breed of goal, especially at this level, where plenty of teams are happy to take the lead and shut up shop, padlock it, and leave a mighty titan on the leash outside just for good measure. But when it comes, it’s a marvellous sensation – this time things are more celebratory, they’re less ‘in your face’ for the opposition fans than the equaliser, and more appreciative of the fact that your side has just completed an unexpected turnaround and are on course for three massive points.
Half-time was approaching, and in order to avoid the undoubtful surge of hungry Millers dashing into the foyer at the break, I was nominated to get the batch of pastries in for our gang. I could hardly argue against their decision – one of the lads had driven me to the game with no expectation of petrol payment, while it was the birthday of one of the others.
No qualms with the orders – a straightforward and sensible choice of four meat and potatoes all round. I tried to be as polite as possible to the man whose match experience I’d single-handedly ruined as I asked if I could squeeze past. And then something interesting happened. I was in the process of attempting to juggle four forks alongside four steaming pies when the stand erupted. There’d been another Millers goal. And I, perversely, shamefully, was a bit annoyed.
I felt guilty for feeling annoyed, and my guilt was compounded when in a matter of seconds the cheers died down, and we were informed that Broughton had been ruled offside as he headed in a third. But what did I feel? Aggrieved that the officials had prevented us from going in at half-time with an unfathomably comfortable lead? Concerned that Bradford would be spurred on by their near-death experience? A sense of dismay that that’s the closest Broughton will ever come to scoring for us again? Well, no. I felt relief. Relief that I hadn’t missed out on what would have been a pretty special moment. Yes, I was essentially relieved that a goal for the team I support didn’t stand because I didn’t see it. I’m a selfish man, and a very bad fan.
Half-time was typical. We discussed the events of the first half that we never commented on at the time, namely Gary Roberts’ infuriating tendency to play 40 yard diagonal passes when taking up any of the eight more simple passes would have been far more beneficial. Broughton, typically, was the subject of some criticism, mainly for playing for 86 different clubs yet not having a grasp of the offside rule. There was also a description of his disallowed goal for the loser who missed it (‘yeah, I was gutted when I heard it had been ruled out’).
But as is the case when winning, half-time flies by, and all of a sudden the second half was underway, leaving not much time to revel in the glory of being ahead. All thoughts now turn towards how we start the second half, hoping that we keep pushing for a 3rd and don’t do anything stup…2-2. Bloody hell. That’s schoolboy. Just 15 seconds after the restart, some unconvincing defending by Pablo Mills and Jamie Green results in Michael Flynn stabbing home an equaliser.
And that spurs Bradford on. The reinvigorated Bantams lay siege on the Millers goal, pumping in corner after corner, a few of those mad scrambles that you can’t see from the other end so just helplessly wait for the home end to erupt, and drawing a couple of top saves from Andy Warrington. It isn’t a completely one-way demolition though, we create a few chances down the other end, namely a free header for Ian Sharps which he criminally glances onto the post, resulting in some inevitable ‘my nan could have’s’ from the astonished Millers, still wondering which particular bookie Sharps went to to stick his three grand on a 2-2 draw.
And as the fans of either team continually raised the volume of their respective chants to try and outdo the other, as both sets of players matched their frustration of not yet being able to grab the winner with a sense of real belief that they could do it, and as the game seized the attention of the 11,578-strong crowd, so gripping and enthralling that there was no time for paying attention to anything but that spherical object flying from goal to goal, I realised something: this is proper football.
It was proper football because, contrary to the belief of some Premiership snobs, lower league fans don’t only consider proper football as standing on a soaking and abandoned terrace at Accrington, clutching onto a wind-attacked woolly hat with one hand and a soggy sausage roll with the other. Nope. Proper football is this – two teams, not outstandingly talented, but playing with passion, taking occasional time out from starting on each other to provide glimpses of proof of why these blokes are actually professionals at this game. Often we lambaste our players for lacking effort, for only wanting to pick up a wage, we struggle to admire a bunch of men who aren’t by any means supremely talented yet demand a wage of preposterous amounts. But not today.
Today, they deserved every accolade, they were giving their all, they wanted to win and, maybe, somehow, having embarrassed themselves with a woeful display at Luton four days earlier, they were trying to restore some pride for themselves and for the hardy fans who dedicated their money and time to witness that gutless capitulation in Bedfordshire.
And then the sublime happened. Just inside our half, Broughton is bundled over, and the big players begin to trudge forward in anticipation of another set piece to attack. Naturally, I don’t really focus on the game at this point. I can’t remember what I did – turned around and talked to a friend, checked the time, or simply dozed off in the knowledge that it would take Drewe a good 20 minutes to get back on his hooves – but I certainly wasn’t watching as Gary Roberts struck the dead ball from 50 yards.
My attention was only captured by the gathering cacophony of excitable ‘go on’s from those around me, and as I raised my head I was astounded to see the ball clip the underside of the bar and drop over the line. Presumably it took us at least 50 seconds to properly celebrate, as the natural reaction when a Rotherham United player scores from the halfway line, strangely, is not to celebrate – it’s to wonder what the catch is. Is it a wind-up of epic proportions, devised by Roberts, the ref, their ‘keeper, and a man who’s used a very strong piece of string/magnet to magically force the ball into the top corner? More simply, has the ref disallowed it? Yeah, he must have disallowed it. Wait, no he hasn’t. And all our players are celebrating. And the scoreboard’s changing. Oh. My. God. It’s a goal. IT’S A GOAL! Delirium ensues. Nobody can quite believe it.
These are the moments you live for. You spend years enduring relentless torture, watching 5-1 home defeats to Port Vale, sympathetically half-applauding the tearful set of players who’ve just hopelessly been relegated, all in the name of hoping against hope for a slab of nirvana like this. There is no better drug, no finer bliss, nothing more beautifully surreal, than the ridiculous goal, especially when it’s so crucial to the outcome of the game, hell, the season. That’s not an overexaggeration, it could be unspeakably crucial, insofar as a positive result today could lift the spirits of the entire club just in time for a massive Christmas period in which we face the other four of the division’s top five clubs.
The problem is, just as you knew that September’s Manchester derby wasn’t over when Craig Bellamy equalised, you could feel that this game was so captivating, so ridiculous, that it wasn’t over yet. The nail-biting and frantic screams of ‘get it out’ emanating from the away end on every Bradford attack told a menacing story – there’s another goal in this. And there was. The Millers cleared their lines and forged an attack of their own, and as Adam Le Fondre beautifully seized control of Gary Roberts’ clipped high ball, his prod across goal left Drew Broughton, scrumptiously as in line with the travelling Millers fans as with Bradford’s last defender, to tap home the winner, before sliding on his knees with the swagger of a champion.
At this point, Kevin Ellison made the day even more brilliant and memorable by losing the plot. So thrilled by the victory, he opted to engage with the joyful fans by performing the ‘easy, easy’ movement, before pacing around like a four-year old on speed once the game had resumed. To cap it all off, his reaction to the final whistle was not to engage in hand-shaking pleasantries with the opposition, but to dart straight over to the supporters and continue his rallying session, causing an inevitable amount of disgruntlement amongst the City faithful. And that was it.
As every Millers fan stayed behind to proudly applaud the wondrous efforts of each participant in this scintillating affair, all that was left to do was to go home and look forward to the X Factor final, Match of the Day and the chance to see THAT goal again (or, as the case may be, to simply see it!). Bradford had their chances and played reasonably well, our defence were hardly impenetrable; we were, actually, on the whole, a little bit lucky, and our performance wasn’t necessarily perfect. But where would the fun be if it ever was?