Football: Far from home in the madding crowd

Thomas Sutcliffe, the Independent's TV critic, enjoys his first taste of the big match atmosphere

On the train out to Wembley it became clear that my previous experience of important fixtures had not quite prepared me for a capacity Wembley crowd. As you sit in the Lyttelton waiting for the curtain to rise on a first night, for example, it is not conventional for the Stalls to shake your diaphragm with a chant of "There's only one Michael Gambon". It is still relatively uncommon to see gentlemen with filed incisors and "Hockney rules" tattoos queuing outside the Tate Gallery. And while the Crush Bar at the Royal Opera House has its moments of humid confrontation the more corpulent audience members are unlikely to find themselves surrounded by patrons jabbing their fingers and bellowing: "Who ate all the pies?"

Inside Wembley 73,000 people appeared to be doing their best to discover the natural resonance of the stadium, voices swelling and surging beneath the rafters. After television, the pitch looks surprisingly small, your field vision so much larger than the blinkered view of the cameras, but that only serves to concentrate the anticipation and excitement. This much man-made noise is irresistibly exciting, even more so when coloured with the apprehension of fans waiting to see just how much pounds 15m had bought them. I had other anxieties: would I even be able to tell which one Shearer was? Would my fragile grasp on the offside rule - repeatedly rejected after countless transplant attempts - survive for the next 90 minutes?

I need not have worried - the larynxometer hit the stops when Shearer was announced and the afterburner roar of the crowd continued to provide an unignorable clue to the critical moments of play. Besides, even for a footballing innocent there are pleasures that need no footnote - one commentator may have felt that Ryan Giggs had "taken a little time to find his touch" but, for me, his ability to pluck a ball from the air and redirect it, without pausing to read the address, appeared a repeatable miracle.

And if this is theatre after all, what an awe-engulfing kind it is, that clamorous proclamation of passion abetted by happy accidents - the sky darkening at the Manchester end in the second half, a flicker of lightning answering the lovely glitter of flash bulbs from their supporters at the other end (less cameras, or less will to record the moment from the solid crescent of black and white that faced them). The second act, as second acts should, exceeded the first in drama with sub-plots of incipient violence, audacity and even farce. And if the expensive leading man ended up upstaged by players lower down the bill that hardly counted for me. If this was, as precedent suggested, one of the blander fixtures of the season, I'm not sure that I'm yet ready for an exciting one.

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