I’d like to open with a promise. I will genuinely do my best to make no mention in this column of Chester conceding eight goals last Saturday. I have to admit that I’m not confident I’ll manage it.
We return to Eastleigh today, the scene of one of my most enjoyable commentating experiences. It came on the last day of the 2016-17 season, a grim campaign which thankfully petered out into nothingness rather than becoming our greatest ever disaster. We travelled all the way to Eastleigh, who also had nothing to play for, to witness a meaningless mid-table struggle between two sides, most of whom knew they’d be released within a week.
My co-commentator Andy Parkinson and myself decided to inject a bit of fun into proceedings by labelling the match “The Battle For Twelfth” and occasionally mimicking the overblown style of Sky Sports as we artificially built up the hyperbole around the game, with breathless score updates from Sutton, the other team which was competing for the privilege of not finishing thirteenth,
It was meant to be a throwaway bit of fun, but it grew into something more because the Eastleigh fans around us found it hysterical! Egged on by their approval, we went further and further in satirising the over-the-top style of reporting which is currently in vogue. It was a dull game, but a good broadcast.
Rather gratifyingly, a year later we returned and found that the same Eastleigh fans were in front of us, keen to recall the fun we had the previous April! Sometimes the pleasures of following a football club lie not only on the pitch, but in the small, happy details beyond it.
This experience is not particularly unusual. With National League press boxes tending to be in the middle of the crowd, you are usually pretty close to the other side’s fans, and every now and then they take as much interest in what you’re saying as they do in what they can see in front of them.
This is almost always a positive experience. A few years ago we played a game at Hereford, and throughout the first half a group of fans constantly turned round to stare at me whenever the ball went out of play. I started feeling a little uneasy, but ploughed on until half time, when they got up as a group and walked up to me. This was the point where I braced myself for evasive action, but their leader stretched his hand out and said, “We’ve been listening to you, you’re very fair!” I accepted the handshake and the compliment!
Generally fans of the other side are similarly friendly, and if not, they can be disarmed. Whenever we went to Kidderminster, there was a man who always sat directly in front of the away team’s commentator, and it became obvious over the years that his reason for having a season ticket there was so he could listen intently and make sarcastic, dissenting comments throughout.
I figured the smart thing to do was not to take him on, but to make friends, so I’d go out of my way to have a nice chat with him before kick-off. The result was that the sarcastic comments stopped, to be replaced by vigorous nodding when I passed judgement, especially when I used some of the research on the Kidderminster side I’d picked up during our conversation!
There are exceptions to the rule though. In our third season in the National League we travelled to Crawley for a huge game. They were top of the league, but we still harboured hopes of making a late run to the title. There are often issues at away press boxes because Wrexham turn up mob-handed. Apart from the Leader, the club’s media team, and two BBC channels will turn up looking for seats, usually in a press area which was built to cope with the level of interest you’d expect a local club to inspire. (To give an idea of the amount of coverage some National League teams receive, Borehamwood brought a grand total of one media representative to last Saturday’s game!)
At Crawley, I was told to sit in what was termed the “press overspill area”. In reality, this was a row of seats next to the press box, some of which had stickers on them suggesting they belonged to season ticket holders! I’m afraid many clubs’ attitudes to such problems is to tell the away team’s press to sit somewhere, and leave them to scrap it out with people who had already paid for those seats.
I took my place and waited nervously in case someone came to claim it. Of course, half an hour before kick-off, the most intimidating septuagenarian I’d ever seen arrived and grunted at me. He had the huge gnarled hands of a retired docker, and a holdall which looked like it would adequately accommodate an axe and my severed head! I tried my patented Kidderminster small talk, and was growled at. I suggested a compromise whereby he’d sit in the unoccupied, unreserved seat next to me, and enjoy the game a mere ten inches to the right of his usual vantage point, a novelty I attempted to sell to him with the desperate enthusiasm of a man looking to fill a bus to Chester’s next away game. (Sorry – I knew I wouldn’t manage to avoid mentioning that!)
He did sit there, but listeners who complained of an off-putting background noise weren’t experiencing technical problems. It was the sound of a man swearing threats under his breath for ninety minutes.
Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.