The real-life football experience, fridge adverts and all

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The Independent Culture
THE ODDEST thing that happened to me over Easter came when I was trying to take a short cut out of a car park in Scotland and climb over a stone wall. As I clambered to the top and lay briefly spread- eagled I heard the sound of muffled cheering. I looked round and saw a coachload of Glasgow Rangers supporters, all of whom were giving me an ironic round of applause.

This is the sort of thing that can happen when you're on your way to a big football match. I haven't been to a big sporting event for years, but it so happened that we went up for Easter to stay with Scottish cousins a dozen miles from Perth, and someone told me that St Johnstone were at home over the weekend to the mighty Glasgow Rangers, and the mad thought crept into my mind that I might go to the match.

I had the perfect alibi. My 11-year-old son and his 12-year-old mate were with us and, although both liked football, neither had ever been to a proper grown-up game. So I decided I would take them. I would be the traditional knowledgeable father taking the lads to the game... So it was that I bought three tickets at pounds 15 each, which I am told is VERY cheap by English standards, and set out at tea-time on Sunday to join a slow- moving football traffic jam on the outskirts of Perth, which eventually disgorged us into the Overspill Car Park.

It had been years since I had been part of that process whereby the little trickles of supporters flowing along the road towards the game join other trickles, becoming a bigger stream, joining other streams until there are enough supporters in your stream to overflow into the road and jostle the traffic...

The Rangers supporters seemed friendly enough. Well, they could afford to be friendly. Their team was way out ahead at the top of the Scottish Premier Division, and the last time they had come to Perth they had given St Johnstone a 7-0 thrashing. Nobody seemed to give St Johnstone a chance this time round. Rangers could afford to be friendly and patronising.

So it was something of a surprise when St Johnstone went into the lead within 10 minutes. I couldn't quite make out what had happened, as the goal took place the far end of the pitch from us, but someone's head went up, the ball failed to avoid the net and the inhabitants of Perth rose to their feet as one man, woman and boy.

On television there would be an instant slow-motion replay, but I was surprised to find that this doesn't happen in real life. In real life what happens is that the Rangers supporters in the next stand, who until now have been practising their chanting, scarf-waving and sort of static line dancing at deafening volume, suddenly go very quiet in an ominous sort of way, and the Perth supporters are suddenly heard again, even though they seem to have only one chorus, a lugubrious church-like chant of "Come on, you Saints!", which slides down a mournful minor third, and then dies away.

(It would actually be quite possible to offer slow-motion replays at the match. There is a large, electronic screen glaring down at the pitch which shows messages non-stop, none of which has anything to do with the football. They don't give you team changes and line-ups. They give you birthday messages for kids in the crowd, and endless advertising, so that when you glance up at the screen for help during exciting moments, the screen is saying, "For all your refrigeration wants, McAllister's..." Seems a waste of a screen to me. )

The Rangers army came to life again a bit when their team equalised, but it wasn't to last; the St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Main was playing an inspired game, the Rangers defence looked shaky, and St Johnstone boldly scored another two goals; 3-1 to the underdogs. Great game. I shouted myself hoarse. And during the entire game, lines of security men stood impassively on the touch line with their backs to play and stared up into the stands. What terrible violence were they expecting? Or were they perhaps medical attendants ready to combat outbreaks of illness following the massive consumption of Scottish meat pies during the game?

When we got back home, there was a soccer round-up on the TV, Scotsport. There was going to be highlights from the St Johnstone game. I sat down to watch it. "But you've seen the game once already," they all cried. "Not the goals I haven't," I said. And it's true. When you go to a game you get the whole experience. On TV you don't get the experience at all. All you get is a close-up of what actually happened. It's not the same thing. Nothing like.

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