A few days later, I left the country.
Not because my time with Carlisle United was over, it’s not that romanticised, but because I’d got a job.
I did that, and I came back a few months later. I hung about for a year or so in which I took in no football and then I left again.
In that time I did manage to take in a game at the Olympiastadion, so three guesses as to where I was. Though the game was a Hertha Berlin game, so the less said about it the better…
But here we go.
’Twas the visit of Schalke, and to see all those passionate fans packed into one corner of that stadium was quite something, how I imagine other clubs looked at the travelling Leeds fans.
We sat in the family stand (cheapest tickets) and should have worn thermals, and even though we were with home fans that had access to 90% of the stadium, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Schalke supporters outnumbered us. Hertha at the Olympiastadion felt like much more of an attraction than a football club. A theme park on the outskirts of Berlin with its own line on the S-Bahn that was no-one’s team, just an imitation of one.
Despite the numerous insignias and graffitos around the city, it was hard to locate the passion inside that ground. With numerous other football clubs in Berlin with devoted fan-bases and admirable traits, Hertha felt like a conglomerate — a board room with a football team.
And I don’t know if it was just because we were in the ‘Family Stand’, but we couldna get a beer, which is unforgivable.
It was also the first match I attended with my non-football supporting friend, which would become a very short-lived annual tradition.
As I look back, this was my first top flight game. I used to think the race-track around the pitch looked pretty cool. But I like that closeness.
So I went back to England.
A few weeks in, I had a job interview at Selhurst Park to be their V.I.P. liaison or somet. I was the only one who turned up in a suit (something I had been taught was standard interview fare) and one of the other interviewees flipped out during his interview, while I was personable, charming, and a gosh darn delight.
Not only did I not get the job, but they didn’t even get back to me to say no.
I would have taken a stock e-mail. I hate that.
That’s the reason I don’t go to BHS anymore (I didn’t frequent it too often before), and it’s the reason I’ll always hold a little grudge towards Crystal Palace.
Just a little one though. The trip there gave me a decent day out in Croydon.
During that time, I was staying with the aforementioned non-football supporting friend, and one day he went to stay elsewhere and I forgot so I was wondering why I was alone in his flat for like four days.
That was fun, I didn’t mind being alone, I quite liked it. I watched all of Fawlty Towers.
And I liked going to the footy alone as well.
So that weekend I popped round the corner to Champion Hill. I TOLD YOU WE’D GET BACK TO IT!
The home of Dulwich Hamlet.
And they were embarking upon their pre-season schedule with a game against Tottenham Hotspur U-23s. Names like Maxwell Statham and Shilow Tracey rocked up for the visitors, and the now former side of Gavin Tomlin and Ashley Carew fielded Jeffrey Monakana, Nyren Clunis, Preston Edwards, and Danny Mills, among others (obviously, a football team has eleven players on it, and then there’s the subs (again, obviously, you know how football works)).
I suppose I neglected to mention this earlier, but when I was first getting into football and the majority of my access came through the family Sky Sports subscription — occasional school lessons off to watch important World Cup games when I had little to no interest aside — and the main focus on those channels was the Premiership. So I decided to pick a team in the Premiership to follow — not knowing much about any of the teams, but still knowing that I should hate Manchester United, I opted for following a crest. The most interesting crest obviously went to the stork balancing on the basketball, and when I say that that crest belonged to a side called Tottenham Hotspur, an infatuation was understandably born. I watched Match Of The Day with hopes of Robbie Keane and Aaron Lennon bangin’ ’em in while Paul Robinson kept ’em out at the other end. I was gifted a flag, an annual, and eventually the programme from their successful Wembley visit when they won the Carling Cup. At that point I was desperate to see Teemu Tainio, Steed Malbranque, Dimitar Berbatov, Tom Huddlestone et al, but that golden generation left before I got the chance. The closest I came to feeling that atmosphere was when I created my own watching the highlights of their 9–1 thrashing of Wigan. Big up Paul Scharner.
My mate (with whom I used to attend Carlisle matches) would always accuse me of not actually ‘supporting’ them because I’d never been to one of their matches — which is just so in one literal aspect what support is. I’m sure it had nothing to do with him having a soft spot for Arsenal.
So this was my chance to see Spurs. Just over a month after I’d dusted off my old White Hart Lane street sign to show my support for them in the Champions League Final.
Dulwich looked cracker and took the lead through Clunis, before Tashan Oakley-Boothe equalised. I remember the game mostly for Preston Edwards’ slide tackle like saves, and for the queuing up to buy tickets on the door — it had been a while since I’d done that.
It finished 1–1, but I was back again the next day as Dulwich Hamlet F.C. Ladies were to play their first match after merging with A.F.C. Phoenix against Leyton Orient W.F.C.
This was great. I’m not really one for friendlies, but this is the most fun I’ve had. I think ‘cos it was a wee slice of history, but also because it was great to see such obvious talent at the forefront when I wouldn’t have had a tonne of access to it otherwise.
The home side looked to still be gelling, and Orient took advantage of that with a cracker strike, but it wouldn’t be long before Rosie Stone would equalise with a strike of equal crackerness.
But the visitor’s pressure and cohesion was starting to tell, and they were on top for the majority of the second half — fractures were beginning to crevice and late on, Orient span one home to win it.
It was a shame, but it was obvious that this side was only gaan up from here.
And cheers to the friend of a friend that I can now call a friend who was working behind the bar at these games. Those pints tasted sweeter.
Seeing two games so close together — one men’s, one women’s — gave me a better idea of the difference I referenced earlier, but maybe Dulwich wasn’t the best club to use as a source. Their support across the board is nothing short of universally positive, with the worst plays being met with words of support and encouragement to get back on the horse.
Instead of cries asking certain players to ditch the shirt and get out of the club, there were calls to remount the steed and ride on.
I’m aware of Dulwich’s place in supporter’s circles, and why some might find it… ‘Wrong’ for whatever reason — but with that kind of support, all it tells me is that they’ve garnered interest from a caring, tolerant, and above all else, supportive fanbase.
And shouldn’t supporters be supportive?
At the end of the day, however, these were friendlies. Six months later, with my non-supporting football friend and another mate, one year after our visit to the Olympiastadion, we rocked up for our second annual match together as Dulwich Hamlet hosted Chippenham Town in National League South.
This is also my last live match to date (at time of writing).
I remember being late there because I had to get the tube across London, and that can take longer than a cross-country journey on any day, so I broke my journey up with a stop-off in a Victoria sports bar to catch the end of the Leeds-QPR game.
Six and a half years after I’d seen Rob Green and co. beat us at Elland Road, I was just in time to catch the last few minutes as Kalvin Phillips was sent off and QPR saw out the game by the scoreline, once again, of 1–0.
The goalscorer? That sandwich-buying, café-lurking, reliable goalscorer — Nahki Wells.
But I couldna stay mad at him, so off I went to the match, catching the overground to Denmark Hill and then trotting up to Champion Hill.
We were already late and then had to queue for tickets so missed the first fifteen, but we couldn’t get settled in the first half anyways, struggling for a prime spot to stand while one of my mates was more concerned with trying out the gourmet food trucks at his disposal.
For the second-half, we took up a lovely spot behind the Chippenham goal as the sun went down and the chill proper set in. It was almost impossible to be freezing though as we were stood shoulder-to-shoulder everywhere ya went, and the three of us huddled for more warmth anyways.
Dulwich conceded the first goal up yon end of the pitch, and that’s when the shithousery began. Not from the players, but from us.
I almost feel bad for Will Puddy in the Chippenham goal, but having played as a goalkeeper at amateur level I was subject to abuse and gamesmanship from spectators, so dealing with, in this case, the latter on a weekly basis, was a part of the job, I guess.
I mean, all we did was shout ‘Puddy’ at varying pitches, tones, timbre, and length, and pretending we were getting inside his head. I don’t think it worked, but it’s nice to say we helped when Shamir Mullings nodded home a last-minute equaliser.
I didn’t think the word ‘Puddy’ could create such an atmosphere either, but when that goal went in — well, if Champion Hill had a roof, it wouldn’t anymore. There was literal dancing, hugs all round. The only time I hugged a stranger at a football match was when Leeds got promoted, so for that to be replicated when Dulwich scored an equaliser in a mid-season game to stop them from dropping into lower mid-table, that should give you an idea of the euphoria that was abound that day.
So for your next party, if it’s flagging, I’m tellin’ ya — ‘Puddy’, you can use that.
Me and my non-football supporting friend would sadly be denied the progression of our youthful tradition in 2021. So I just made us both on FIFA and had a game there. We won 14–0 playing for Duisburg against Charlton. Clean sheet for me, fourteen goals for him. I know who my man of the match is.
From the Olympiastadion to Champion Hill in a year, younger me might have made a very wrong guess at what my favourite visit would be.
But maybe he wouldn’t. I knew early doors that a gig in a pub was capable of providing more fire than one in something called an ‘arena’. So maybe it didn’t take me that long to realise that a trip to Wembley, whether it be the English or the German variety, would leave me feeling distanced and alienated — would make me feel further away from the game.
A big stadium is there to house a great number of supporters, but those supporters haven’t just got to fill that space, they’ve got to fill that space.
Wembley, by and large, is a big stadium that suits the big occasion, but when those inside erupt into noise, it’s kind of what you expect.
But Elland Road dwarfs that. Champion Hill overpowers it. Brunton Park topples it. The sound isn’t just loud, it’s constant, and it’s powerful, passionate. If you were to give me the choice between watching Leeds in Elland Road or Wembley, I would pick the former every time. Even though Wembley would likely mean a cup final… That’d be a great day out, and while the possibility of a trophy might make up for it, it still wouldn’t hit right. Even though I’ve no doubt Leeds fans could fill that void with their passion.
But these places only exist with the meaning I’ve given them. And that meaning can only come from my perspective. Someone who’s supported Everton their whole life and loves Goodison Park because it’s home might feel above a visit to Brunton Park.
But I grew up with it. And I saw heroes there.
Then, yeah, I switched from DC to Marvel, but DC’s still cracker.
Am I reading too much into the Carlisle and Leeds stuff?
Maybe, but how about this; the goal that sent Leeds up to the Championship was scored by Jermaine Beckford, Leeds legend. But, when he first arrived in Yorkshire in 2006, he went out on loan and scored his first EFL goal against later-Leeds rivals Millwall. That club he went on loan to?
Like I even need to tell you.
Maybe it was all meant to be from the beginning.
And that’s it.
Up to this point, anyways. A childhood through the turnstiles that has gifted me the chance to see those I admire ply their trade in a game that I love. It’s given me anecdotes, stories, and memories. As I wrote this, I was surprised how many things kept cropping up — little things like players I got to see, or reactions I got to make, or the time that guy drinking his soup three rows in front of me in The Paddock kept turning around to look at me as I mouthed ‘watch the game’ back at him. At that same game, just before kick-off, I flung my scarf round my neck with such vigour that my phone flew out of my gloved hand and broke, scattering its pieces throughout The Paddock. After I’d collected it all, I saw a man with the lovely deckchair Carlisle strip on. I still wish I had one of those.
I don’t know why I decided to try and remember all of this now. Maybe now that I struggle to go outside, I’m looking back and hoping that the memories will inspire me to once again grace the grounds.
I hope that’s the case.
Because while football is very much the beautiful game from most angles, very little comes close to witnessing it first-hand.
There are moments in football that I will never forget, and I think people often separate these from the moments they share with the people in their lives, their family and friends. But these move from just memories into the hall of fame because of those people. Whether me and my mate were stifling our support for Leeds United for fear of getting beat up by the Wycombe massif, or my non-football supporting mate giving it all that to the opposition goalkeeper while huddling two of us for warmth, or my dad rolling up his programme and howling his celebrations through it as if he was reminded of why he loved his team.
Thank you to the footballers, the staff, the clubs, and thank you to my friends and my family, and mostly my dad, for showing me what life is like through the turnstiles.
To be continued.