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Golden days:
By Graham Walker
The Meaning of Life

There is an old adage that implies that come the appropriate time in life, you throw away childish things and take a broader, more adult approach. The passions of youth are diluted as maturity channels and reduces the emotional energy; reduces because of the ageing factor and channels by offering a greater range of options and directions, thereby spreading one's energy more thinly. Thus, radical passions become conservative complacencies, social and political conscience turns into mere mortgage and monetary concerns, the relentless masturbation of adolescence becomes marriage and eventual disinterest, the anal passion for league tables becomes superior armchairism with a cynical disregard for anything that has happened since Best, Bremner and Ball.

Probably a sound argument, but I have never been a comfortable cultural stereotype and the argument assumes a behaviourist logic that I completely disavow. I have an obsessive personality and I stand up to confess...I am a junkie.

"It's Just A Cold; I Can Handle It"

I blame my parents.

My Dad was a pusher, my Mum did nothing to intervene. A Mancunian by birth, my old man was a sports fan. Born just too late to get shot or gassed in WW1, he spent his spare time playing cricket, watching Belle Vue speedway, going to the fights and supporting Manchester City and, to a lesser extent, United. Although a true City man, if City were not playing he would go and support United. A true Manchester man in the days when that was possible. So my impressionable infancy was a kaleidoscope of images of Bert Trautmann, Cup Finals, Duncan Edwards , Bobby Charlton and the Munich plane crash. He even went to the funerals.

At the tender age of nine, he got me hooked on the hard stuff, I became a Watford ball boy. I did my track-suited duty until I was fifteen, feeling a part of it all, being a part of it all. It was not just that the pattern was established, that on a Saturday afternoon this is what one did....that was just the physical habit of needing to be at Vicarage Road when there was something going on. It was also the emotional kick. Not only was it because complete strangers would come up to me in the street (not offering sweets, this was the age of innocence !) saying "Look, it's the ginger-haired ball boy" and thus grant me instant street status, it was also the close personal association. Imagine being nine years old and getting howled at by ten thousand people because I was confused who to throw the ball back to, it was pissing down with rain and we were 1-0 down with five minutes to go. Or, much sweeter, a tradition that meant that once the ball boys ran out of the tunnel the crowd knew the team was coming out, imagine the feeling at the '60 Birmingham cup-tie when thirty thousand roared as I took the field with Cliff Holton leading the team out just a couple of yards behind me. At nine year old, that's a powerful buzz. Hooked!

I Love It, I Hate It

Sometimes I wish my life was not so completely dependent on Saturday's result, that I could be free from this addiction and lead a normal life. Free from this utterly irrational emotional involvement with something which doesn't love me back and over which I have absolutely no control. Sometimes it fades. My ballboying years turned into the 'rites-of-passage' hard-core fandom involving Hardy's Coaches, legging it from local nutters at Bristol, Walsall, Gillingham etc.: I was even for a very short while the cheerleader until a more extrovert character called Willy came along and assumed the role. Then I left the 'mob' as my sub-cultural life became counter-cultural, coinciding with a preference to stand on the half-way line in front of the Shrodells where I could see the game better, read it better and get more involved in it, away from the territorial terrace warfare ("You'll never take the Rookery") which tended, doncha know, to distract the concentration on occasion.

But even in the mind-numbing Taylor-less '70's and 90's, I still needed my fix. Home as much as possible (two hundred-mile distance) but more usually away, many away games being a damn sight nearer to my own yard than Vic. Road. This, of course, meant a disproportionate diet of defeats. But bad drugs are better than no drugs when you have an addiction like mine.

The 12 Step Programme

Right now, it's worse than ever. The twelve-step programme is not the good old AA tenets but the number of steps it takes getting along H row to my seat from the gangway! Times and circumstances change, but the hunger never completely diminishes. After years of Shrodells standing or Upper Rous treats, here I am again behind the goal. Whereas in the Upper Rous you stand only when the GB's score, a measure of the quality of the game in the Rookery is how many times and for how long I have to rise from my seat to see what is going down on the pitch.

This Premier League nonsense, it's good and bad in equal measure. The good is that it is such a big deal ! In junkie parlance, it's like scoring a bag of Persian White instead of dubious backstreet deals in the local red light area. It's Villa at home, it's is not, for once, freezing to bloody death on an open terrace at Stockport or trying to get excited about Port Vale at the Vic. And okay, so you don't really quite see what the hell is happening in the other half of the pitch but it matters less when...the ball gets pushed out to Kennedy or Wooter on the flanks and suddenly there is a clear space in front of them and the whole Rookery stands up as the Golden Ones accelerate towards the goalmouth...or when the song-starters at the back or the black dude to my right rouses the reluctant and the recalcitrant with another chorus of "EJ's TMA". Jesus, it's great. I feel at one with thousands of people I have never met and with whom I would probably disagree about most of the absolutely crucial issues of the day. Aaah, that emotional, adrenalin rush. That "little-us-against-them" feeling, that combination of communal and individual emotional bliss that the Hansens and Linekers will never ever understand. Millions of armchair cynics do not know that they are simply not alive. Just give me more!

It doesn't get better than this. I'm old enough to know better but also old enough to know I never will. Come the Nationwide again (long may it be held at bay), maybe I'll manage to cut down again, try to wean myself off this expensive habit of mine. It's easier in the Nationwide. Maybe, after the tenth consecutive Premiership defeat, it will be easier pretty damn soon. But for now, give me another shot. Graham Taylor's having a party. I'm a junkie. Lifelong. 'Til I die !

(Date: 23/9/99)