Friday, 8 May 2009

Blubbing Like A Baby

There are few sports that impassions as much as football. From players to fans, managers to commentators, the game hauls you kicking and screaming, blubbing and weeping through the emotional mangle. The game tugs at every sense in the same way as compelling film, dramatic theatre or a gripping read. It matters not where you are; on the terrace, in the dugout, on the pitch, in the front room or in the pub.

In the aftermath of the emotional eruption at the end of the Chelsea-Barcelona game midweek, there have been a million-and-one flavoured reactions to the Stamford Bridge shenanigans. I can understand the huge disappointment of Chelsea fans and players. I can understand how painful it must have been to be so, so close to playing in the Champions League Final in Rome and then have the dream snuffed out at the death. I can also understand how Darren Fletcher must be feeling after his Rome dream was also snatched away by a poor refereeing decision in the other Semi-Final. And while the debate rumbles on about the over-reaction of the players, the inability to control high emotion, how the role models for our children should, or should not, behave, part of me struggles to be sympathetic for these guys.

At that level of football, at the pinnacle of the game, the players enjoy unimaginable wealth. They have their yachts, their Ferraris, their luxury apartments. They play at a standard of football that suggests, if they miss out on this year’s Champions League Final, they should get a reasonable chance to have another crack at it before their career fades. And they will experience other ‘huge’ games. There is no doubting their passion for the game, their gut-wrenching disappointment at seeing something they have worked so hard for come to nothing, but they have a couple of safety nets to cushion their fall.

I tried hard to feel very sorry for Chelsea, but I failed.

In the build up to the Glossop North End v Whitley Bay FA Vase Final on Sunday – it is here at last – I have been reminded how the emotion of football can really hit home. Whilst the Champions League stars seem so removed from reality, the players who ply their trade in the non League reaches of English football, and the fans who watch them, are not averse to exactly the same level of emotions. The joy, the despair, the ecstasy and the distress. For many who watch this level of football I would argue the emotion is closer to hand, it is easier to share and feel part of, and therefore it seems more real.

Pause and think for a minute how the Glossop and Whitley Bay players must be feeling this very moment. They are two days away from playing at Wembley. They do not get paid to play the game they love. This really is a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Likewise for the supporters and club officials. Who would have thought they would ever be able to say “I’m going to watch Glossop play at Wembley on Sunday”. Think also for a minute therefore of the players and fans of Chalfont St Peter and Lowestoft Town who lost in the Semi-Finals. Try telling me that they felt any less hurt, any less upset or dejected than those associated with Chelsea do this week.

This week I posed some questions to a couple of unsung heroes up at Glossop North End FC. Jonathan Haggart and Neil Rimmer are two of the volunteers who spent most of their spare time and waking hours working behind the scenes at Surrey Street. The latter stages of this FA Vase run has seen their workloads balloon to popping point. I asked them both how they felt about this FA Vase run, what it means for the club and the fan base, what the high and low points were. Their responses included facts about improving attendances, the financial benefits and the plans for ground improvements. However, the single most powerful message that pervaded the responses was the emotion that the whole FA Vase experience has wrought.

I asked Neil how he feels about Glossop’s FA Vase Run. “Proud” he said “for all the volunteers who started the season helping out a struggling step 5 club and who now get the reward of a trip to Wembley. For all the supporters who were supporters before Vase mania took over. For all the players that have played at Glossop this season because they love the place, and the beautiful game, and who now get the reward that their efforts and commitment deserve”. Here’s Jonathan talking about that win over Chalfont in the Semis: “And then we scored and all hell broke loose. The emotion I felt when Kelvin scored was overwhelming...but mostly it was bewilderment. There have been many days that I'll never forget on this run, but that moment will be vivid when I'm 102”.

And what about the big day on Sunday? “This is everything I wanted as a kid," explained Jonathan "but I was never nearly good enough as a player. To do things as an up Wembley way, visit the dressing rooms, sit on the benches, and maybe even step on the turf...amazing”. Neil will get to see his own son lead the Glossop team out at Wembley as team mascot. A truly special moment.

In a week where football fans around the globe were implored to feel for Chelsea, I was reminded that there is a much more worthy cause. I listened with moist eyes to a montage of Glossop’s FA Vase highlights on High Peak Radio around the same time Drogba was screaming and swearing into our living rooms. At the climax of the piece, as commentator Ben Price’s emotions exploded over the airwaves in reaction to Glossop’s winning penalty, I wiped away a tear in the same way I had done on that day back in early April.

On Sunday, when Glossop and Whitley Bay step out under the arch, emotions will be running high, but for all the right reasons. Come the end of the day there will be cheers and there will be tears. If the emotion of the occasion gets too much for me, I’m not ashamed to say that I will end up blubbing like a baby. Football just does that to you.

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