Mark Steel: The madness of attaching such importance to a game

'Not since Portillo lost his seat have so many people screeched and pogoed and howled like werewolves'
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The Independent Online

On Sunday afternoon at around 20 minutes past two I was in a toilet in Stockport. It was half-time and Crystal Palace, in effect, needed to win to avoid relegation. But it was nil-nil, and I have never known a toilet so packed and so silent. Everyone stared forward, breathing deeply and dealing with the torment in their own private way. Even the urine itself seemed to sympathise, tinkling against the porcelain much more quietly than usual.

Back on the terrace, a small group began a chant of "we ­ are ­ cacking it, I say, we are cacking it". As the players came on to the pitch for the second half, a huge Palace fan strolled behind the Stockport goal and yelled at their goalkeeper, who was called Jones. "Oy, Jonesy," he said, "I've got money. We can all be bought, Jonesy, and I've got money, so name your price." It deserved a much bigger laugh than the crowd could give it, because they were cacking it.

"I hope it's a good game," someone had said, as I'd set off for the match. How little they understood. A talentless, shameful affair, with five sendings-off and not a single decent pass, in which we won one-nil with a penalty from a diabolical refereeing decision would be perfect. No one gave a toss about good.

From 45 minutes remaining down to 35, the atmosphere was worried, but hopeful. Then the collective dryness in the throat went up a notch, the sporadic singing ground to a halt and was replaced by fraught cries of " Come on Palace". With around 20 minutes left came numbness. I looked back at the clock, sure it was only a minute or so since my last check, but no ­ six minutes. Around then the cries became squeals, spurted at random from around the crowd of " please get a goal, Palace", as if Clinton Morrison was likely to say, "I will, now you've said 'please'," and then whack one in from 30 yards, before coming across to the fans to say, "Politeness costs nothing, you know."

It's clear, at most clubs, that the middle-class colonisation of football crowds is confined to a handful of fashionable teams. All this season, I've been sat in front of a team of gas fitters, who talk incessantly through the match about gas fitting, occasionally breaking off to acknowledge the game. "Then he sends me out to Sydenham, knowing I've got to come back to Croydon for me next job before heading back across town to ­ 'Clear it, Austin, you wanker' ­ poxy Catford." But with four minutes left, even they must have been feeling the strain.

On Sunday, about a dozen fans told me how pleased they'd been to see me on the telly, talking about the May Day demonstration. None of them said a word about anything I'd said, but they were all delighted because, during the interview, they could see a Palace scarf sticking out from my pocket.

To anyone who doesn't follow a football club, it must seem irredeemably mad to attach such importance to sporting events over which you have no control, held between players you have never met. And most supporters probably do know, deep down, that it's ridiculous. Perhaps it's similar to being in a plane that starts to wobble; you know, intellectually, that it's harmless turbulence, but the palms go sweaty, the mouth goes dry and all you can think is, "We ­ are ­ cacking it, I say, we are cacking it."

So most fans have no trouble keeping the whole business in perspective. Unlike supporting the England team, it's impossible to believe that winning at football helps to prove an overall historical superiority. As far as I know, Crystal Palace never had an empire that ruined the indigenous cotton industry of Tranmere, or made unwilling slaves out of the population of Queens Park Rangers.

But with three minutes to go, the suffering seemed real enough. Then, with the Stockport fans jeering "Going down, going down," Dougie Freedman side-stepped two defenders and walloped the ball into the middle of the net. Not since Portillo lost his seat have so many people screeched and pogoed and howled like werewolves. Strangers hugged each other like drunks at midnight on New Year's Eve, old men stood on a wall and shrieked and a few hundred ran on to the pitch.

But as our match ended, some people didn't seem to be aware that if results elsewhere fell into a certain order, we could still be doomed. Then these people dancing on the pitch would feel stupid. Or maybe no one would have the heart to tell them, until the start of next season when they suddenly thought, "Hang on, why are we playing Cardiff?"

So now we were at the mercy of people with radios. For a few minutes, the radio people were gods, controllers of all knowledge and wisdom. "Oh tell us," begged the rest of us, "oh wise one, how many minutes of injury time are still to be played at Huddersfield?"

Eventually the bona fide delirium could begin, and what better reason could there be for celebrating than avoiding relegation to division two of the Nationwide League? Still, I'm sure the election will provide just as much excitement.

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