Feeling brave? Danny Baker has the ultimate test of bravery for any football fan. He suggests you pick your moment: ideally, wait until your team are a couple of goals up and looking good. Then, rise from your seat, hold out your arms in messianic fashion if you really feel like milking it, and declare, in your loudest, most confident voice: “Nothing can go wrong now!”
If you’ve any experience in a football crowd (and if you don’t well done – you’ve picked a heck of a game as your first taste of the game!) then you know exactly what’s coming next. Your fellow fans will be livid: you have just committed the cardinal sin of the football fan. You’ve tempted fate. Football fans might claim, in their alter egos as real people, to be devoutly religious or rigorously logical. Yet once they enter the football ground, they change. Fortune is their mistress, blind superstition is the ruling power in their lives. The worst crime a fan can commit is to provoke the gods of irony.
Baker does this at Millwall matches, which ramps even such a wanton act of recklessness up a notch. It’s the craziest, wildest thrill you can get at a football match. As I’ve learned to my cost, the second most dangerous thing you can do is tell the truth in Birmingham.
It’s tempting to assume the commentator is cosily tucked into a cosy, sterile environment, declaiming their wisdom while flunkies drop grapes into their mouths. (Okay, that last bit’s more a fantasy of mine. There should be more chaises longues in press boxes, There, I said it.) In some ways that’s true – it’s tiresome to hear commentators on European football pretend they’re in Gijon or Genoa when they’re obviously watching the game on a big screen in an industrial park on the fringes of London.
However, that’s rarity ,and an unwanted one – enclosed commentary boxes like those at Oldham, Southend and Rushden are horrible as you’re in a glass booth and completely cut off from the atmosphere. Generally you’re in the midst of the crowd, and in our famous FA Cup win over Birmingham City in 1997, things got real. Too real.
It was one of those fun, perfect days in following your team. City were floating on the stock market the following Monday and the day before the game their manager, Trevor Francis, stood in front of the press and effectively said “Nothing can go wrong now!” What he specifically said, obviously under orders to be positive in an attempt to encourage investment, was that the club were on the way up as a home tie against a lower division team meant City were essentially already through to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Text book fate-tempting.
So the scene was perfectly set. Put yourself into the minds of the Birmingham fans who were sitting in front of me. They turn up expecting to see the ritual slaughter of some bunch of Welsh amateurs. They see their side play poorly in the first half, but go ahead because Steve Bruce – the one City layer who seemed to have a bit of fire in him – scored with a header (the only way he could knowingly score, of course!)
But the second half their luck runs out. We dominate. We equalise. We go ahead. Now City’s fans are angered, the presumptuous words of their manager ringing around in their ears. And then they have a player sent off, and it’s my words ringing in their ears. They’re not welcome.
As I said before, I told the truth. Paul Devlin rammed his studs into Martyn Chalk’s knee and even Martin Bodenham, a Premier League referee usually known for his tolerant approach, had no option but to show a straight red. My mistake was to call it as it was. I went off on a rant about how deserved the sending off was. The more I said, the more I was aware of faces turning around in front of me. Angry faces. The more they turned, the more strident I got. I just couldn’t stop myself. My brain kept telling me to stop, but I spent most of my teenage years disciplining my body like a Shaolin monk, training myself to ignore my brain. The angrier they got, the more I slaughtered Devlin. The more they shouted abuse at me, the more forthright my condemnation became. The more aggressive their body language, the more indignant my declaration that justice had been done. If they’d gone any further, I’d probably have accused of the Kennedy assassination. And if the Saint Andrew’s press box didn’t, fortunately, have a small yet insurmountable gap between those fans and my seat, they would have gone a lot further, I’m sure!