In 1983, Watford played a friendly against Corinthian Casuals. Apparently the players wore nineteenth century kits and handlebar moustaches, and played for a trophy similar in surface area to the Isle of Wight. I say apparently because I wasn't there. I wanted to be, but my only reliable transport source at the time was late home from work, causing one of the biggest tantrums of a relatively placid childhood.
Twenty-one years later, my outlook hasn't changed too much. Losing is an integral part of being a football fan, and has never bothered me for too long. Being there to see it, though, is the very point of being a football fan, and far more important to me. I've never understood people saying that they wish they had stayed at home after a poor match, and have often wondered if they really meant it. Not once (really) have I felt that way (Hillsborough in the League Cup under Vialli came close for a while, mind).
This is one of the reasons I'm looking forward to Thursday, which is when the fixture list comes out. It's not that I'm desperate for football to get going again, for a sign that the unbearable summer is almost over. The close season is short enough anyway, and appears to have been officially abolished this year - three weekends between the European Championship final and the start of The Football League Championship (don't get me started), all filled with pre-season matches. A decent break from going to matches helps sharpen appreciation when we do return. Plus it's always worth watching the Test Matches (sadly increasingly marginalised by the duller fifty-over game).
It's more to do with the series of possibilities opened up by the places you can reasonably expect to be at some point between now and next May - the prospects for a whole year's worth of being there. For those of us who pick and choose our away trips to at least some extent (and given that away attendances sometimes drop below three hundred, that's almost all of us), there are certain games we'll be trying to get to more than others. I'll be looking out for trips to Coventry, Plymouth, Sheffield United, Rotherham, Preston and Wolves, amongst others, for reasons including places I used to live, an opportunity to meet up with friends, areas I haven't been to for a while or just towns I enjoy going to (that one isn't Wolves, incidentally). Norwich's promotion is a shame - excellent place and always used to be handy to combine with a visit to the in-laws. I don't suppose that particular absence will last more than a season, but good luck to them anyway. Equally, there are fixtures which will be a useful opportunity to miss a game if necessary - Reading's retail park springs to mind, as does Burnley - we can't win there again, surely?
If the locations are important, so are the dates. Holidays already booked, dates already agreed (such as weddings, last year most notably my own), weekends already spoken for. Watford haven't played at home on Boxing Day in years (six, to be precise), and, for many, visiting family in the area at Christmas is one of the best chances to get to a match. For me, though, Boxing Day won't be spent anywhere near Vicarage Road so I'm hoping the game is one I'm happy to miss.
The crucial thing about this, though, is that these are my preferences, my circumstances. The fixture list doesn't mean anything without the interpretation of the individual reader, and will only matter if being there is important. It can't be the same for people who follow football by the more modern method of watching a big team on TV in a pub. What can the difference between Southampton in September and Fulham in February be if you'll be watching in exactly the same place? Presumably a more eagerly awaited date is the publishing of Sky's schedule of live matches every few months.
The media have noticed, in recent years, that people seem to be interested in the fixtures being published, and have tried to make something out of it - but they can't do it. Their usual story involves an obvious focus, and making it into as big a story as possible, ideally telling readers what to think in the process. For the fixture list, though, without the personal element of individual fans there is no story.
This generally leads to an emphasis on the opening day of the season, or perceived big matches. League clubs' websites promise to send details of all 'crunch' fixtures - Watford's are shown as against Leeds, Wolves, West Ham and QPR - direct to subscribers' mobile phones. Quite why these are likely to be important games is unclear - probably the biggest matches last season were against Derby and Crewe - although if we are in another relegation fight the Leeds games may be important. Essentially the media will always flounder on this story because it doesn't have a mate who supports Plymouth but is going away in January for six months.
Is this important? I think so, if only because it provides an oasis of individuality which can't be hoovered up, repackaged and sold back in inferior form for the sake of profit. The world claims to be increasingly driven by consumer choice, and yet is actually more interested in selling the same mediocre products with different labels (look at the 'range' of beer on offer in most pubs for proof). The tendency to simplify any story into a convenient headline is the media's version of this. But the fixture list is not one large story, it's a series of small ones of differing interest to different people. Sky won't be able to show people in jester's hats with painted faces crying on Thursday, but people will be taking an interest. It's a pleasant Sunday afternoon pint of a story, rather than a binge in a bar followed by Destiny and a kebab. And that's the reason I look forward to being able to say "Preston? On a Tuesday night? Again?"