Football: Fan's Eye View: Escaping from the Lone Ranger

No 152: Scunthorpe Utd
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Thirty-five years ago, my father took me to my first football match. I was seven years old. I stood with his friends on a dark, damp Saturday afternoon. The smells from that occasion are timeless: the peculiarly attractive aroma of tobacco which was only to be found on the old terraces; the damp autumn dusk of cinders and mildew.

I remember nothing of the game except that it was a first round FA Cup tie and we lost 1-0 at home. Every other Saturday from then on I would sit in the back room of my nan's terraced house with a bottle of Tizer on a drop-leaf table watching the Lone Ranger and waiting for my dad to walk in from the match. He would always stand silently in the shadows by the door, in the far corner from the television, with his coat and flat cap on, waiting to recover his strength, before announcing that they had lost again.

On Saturday afternoons I would take a broom and clean my nan's back yard, dreaming of becoming a road sweeper, and every once in a while I would hear a roar from the ground. I would stop and wonder if it meant that they might win a game.

I don't know which Saturday it was, but it must have been near the last of the season, when dad came in during the Lone Ranger and stood, as usual, in the flickering shadows. Nobody said anything for a long time, eventually he declared that they were relegated.

Sometime during the ensuing years "his" team became "my" team, "they" became "we". The pattern for a lifetime of support soon became apparent. Every game, every season followed the same cycle. Any period of success and elation was inevitably followed by failure and heartache. An away victory in the Cup against First Division opposition would draw double the normal home crowd in the next game, when we would lose in the most inept manner.

The fleeting moments of success allowed us a glimpse of the euphoria which the more successful teams enjoyed as if by right. January 24 1970 at Hillsborough was one such occasion, when 39,000 people saw Geoff Barker score the winning goal with a diving header. He knew little of it and only found out the result from his hospital bed. There have been other exhilarating games; against Leeds in the 1980s and Chelsea in the 1990s.

However, the strongest memories are those of ignominious defeats at home. The 2-4 defeat by Barrow and 2-5 defeat by Walsall have the greatest claims to being the moments of deepest despair; times when the ground stood cold and empty, the wind cut through to the heart and the crowd countenanced abandoning the cause once and for all. You earn the right to be a fan at this level. No easy passages here.

When my father was too ill, and the years of dreaming had become too much for him, I started taking the next generation. I sometimes think that it is wrong of me to get my son involved in this particular lost cause. I imagine he knows that we are never going to quite make it, and that they will always flatter enough to offer up the dream, only to see it falter and fade into the summer dust at play-off time. But he seems fo be falling for it too. He already worries about who he'll take when I'm not there to go any more...