I'd rather be here, doing this, than anything

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST sign, for me, that something has happened, that somebody . . . else is coming into the room, is that the screen to the right of the sportscaster's tie has suddenly taken on a bleached, less precise tone; the light from the hall is flooding into the room. The Sky sportscaster is introducing his studio guests, not quite speaking English but a related dialect, pre-match titillation, team-news foreplay. What's his name? Steve . . . Piper? No, Steve Piper used to play for Brighton in the mid 70s. Steve . . . Rider? Uh, Steve Rider is a BBC sportscaster. I think. God, I'm all over the place today.

The entire screen bleaches out from the light, and . . . it's Kate, Steve's girlfriend; a split-second glance behind and to my right tells me she's wearing jogging pants, trainers, a pink sweatshirt. She's half in and half out of the room. 'You're not . . . I mean, not again?'


'Steve, I want to talk to you.'

I'm staring at the screen, keeping my head down, hoping this will all go away without too much confrontation, or at least not on the scale of yesterday, when Steve and I watched Arsenal beat Spurs in a repeat of the Wembley cup semi-final of 1991. Yesterday, Tony Adams, unmarked, ghosted into the penalty area and scored with his head. Well, maybe ghosted is an exaggeration. It was just before lunch on a pleasant Sunday. We had the curtains drawn. Kate was beside herself. She said: 'What's got into you? How can you sit here watching this?' Steve said: 'I know. I can't bear to watch it. Ten minutes away from glory and foiled by Tony Adams' head]'

Now it's 7.30 on a Monday evening. The sportscaster is introducing his guests. They are: Ian Butterworth, injured captain of Norwich, and Kevin Richardson, captain of Aston Villa. Why is this so important? What's wrong with me? The game is Norwich versus Manchester United. Need I say more? The sportscaster says: 'With us today . . . ', in that friendly, excitable tone that gets me going, the tone which contains controlled jumpiness, apprehension, self-importance. We're cutting between expert views, ads, shots of the crowd taking up their position, footage of recent goals. Just minutes to go. My concentration, rattled for a moment, is still strong, but I've been jogged out of my dream-state.

Steve says: 'Look, Kate, I've told you. It's an important match.'

Kate stands in the doorway, flushed because she's just been on a run. What I really want to say at this point, and feel I can't, is that if Aston Villa win the league title this year, Kevin Richardson, who is sitting calmly in the studio wearing a jacket and tie and, of course, his 'trademark' moustache, will be the only player in history to win the championship with three different clubs. I'm tense. I just want the match to start.

Kate says: 'So. This is the cup, then?'

'Not . . . no.'

'But yesterday was . . . you said you had to watch it because it was the cup]'

'Right, but . . .'

'What's this if it's so important?'

'The . . . league.'

'Look, I'm sick of all this, you know.'

We must be two minutes from kick off. Steve says: 'Look. Come out here a moment.' He gets up from the sofa and closes the door behind him. The screen-tone gets better.

The dream-state is coming back. I watch the ball as it moves across the screen, letting my mind go blank, observing the patterns the players are making on the pitch. I can feel the drug working, flooding my mind with these unimportant things: if Norwich win, they'll go to the top of the league; is Ryan Giggs a better player than Paul Gascoigne; will Brian McClair move into his unfamiliar midfield role at international level?

I'm hunched forward in my chair, watching Lee Sharpe on the ball, turning his body, remembering the emotional moment of Sharpe's England debut, Bryan Robson walking on to the pitch with his arm around Sharpe, and I wonder exactly how Robson feels now, sitting on the bench. Suddenly, I'm there, a moment of pure blankness, total involvement with the game; I'm not worried at all about anything important; I've persuaded my mind to do a switch, to worry about trivia, to forget about everything else.

I can hear shouting from elsewhere in the house, muffled by the shrill roar from the TV as - look at this] - Sharpe's pass cuts crossfield to Cantona, who controls the ball, balances himself and knocks it, low, to Ryan Giggs; I can feel the beginnings of tears as Giggs touches it to his left, trying to push it past the goalkeeper; if he does, a goal is inevitable, although I've seen them missed from this range. There is a moment, just before Giggs touches the ball, in which everything else is blanked out; a moment when, by watching one man's feet, a ball, and another man's hands, I can honestly say: I would rather be here, watching this, than doing anything else, an unalloyed moment of pure suspense.

Giggs balances himself, somehow also pushing the ball to his left, and Bryan Gunn, the goalkeeper, throws his body into the mud, gloved fingers groping as far to the side as he can, and perhaps two people will call me on the phone tomorrow to discuss this moment in detail, to keep it alive, and Giggs pushes the ball around Gunn's hand and strikes the ball, left-footed, into the goal, and I'm not thinking about the state of my health, or the war in Bosnia, or whether or not I should have children; none of these things has crossed my mind for a second; the relief is intense.

'Oh no]' Steve has come through the door; his argument has lasted exactly 16 minutes. He says: 'United?'



'So . . . what did you tell her?'

Steve thinks for a second, and says: 'I just told her this was an important match.'

'More important than the cup.'

'As important. How's Cantona playing?'