I’m walking to a football match. I cannot believe I’m walking to a football match. After nineteen years of meticulously avoiding anything even related to football, I find myself part of a ragtag band of Gills supporters converging on the Priestfield Stadium to watch eleven men in blue shirts and eleven other men in yellow jogging about and occasionally falling over.
I’m with Ben Winfield. It’s his job to make sure I don’t do anything that might cause me to get punched, like clapping when the wrong man kicks the ball. The floodlights are looming over the houses in front of us, and, I won’t lie, I’m feeling a little excited – maybe even nervous. I’ve never been to anything like this before. We find an entry point into the stadium, which frankly looks more like a public toilet block, where we join a queue and force our way through a full-height metal turnstile that looks out of place anywhere other than Pentonville Prison. The turnstile looks quite stiff and heavy, and there are lots of intimidating-looking men in the queue behind me. I push through as fast as I can. This doesn’t seem like the sort of place where I’d want to hold people up.
We find our seats, just above and behind the goal, and slightly to one side. We’re very close to the pitch and I speculate idly whether I might be killed by a high velocity football-shaped projectile. I practice the brace position a few times: bend down, head on my knees, arms locked across the top of my head. It takes about a second to brace for impact. Is that quick enough? I’m not convinced.
Four minutes until kick off and I notice the announcer is saying my name on the public address system. “Welcome to Adam Landau, here for his first ever Gills match,” he says. “Enjoy the game!” I didn't believe Henry when he said he could arrange that. Nice one.
The players emerge and the match begins. The ball is mostly at the other end, and, squinting, I can make out the players running and jumping from time to time. Rarely can I see the ball, and when I can, I’ve got no idea which direction it’s going in. Everyone else seems to know exactly what’s going on, but with no commentary and no action reply, I haven’t a clue.
Good. A man in a yellow shirt has kicked the ball and now a man in a blue shirt has got it. The crowd like that and some of them start chanting vowels for a while. “Eee-ahhh, eee-ahh, ohhhh, eee-aaahhhh,” they sing. It sounds like someone has brought a steel drum or other such musical instrument, and he starts drumming a rhythm every time the singing shows signs of petering out.
Half time. What’s happened? The announcer is saying my name again and I’m very cold. I remember the ball came down this end once but I didn’t see what happened next because I was keeping my head down in case it came into the crowd. Apparently both teams are playing badly, so I ate a pie. I wasn’t sure what to do with the rubbish, as there are no bins “because it’s a football ground”. The away fans are cheering a lot and I notice that the players have come back on. One of them must have scored a goal. He was wearing a yellow shirt which is bad for us. Apparently it was a brilliant goal but there’s no action replay so I can’t independently verify that.
The Gills are playing better now. They’re on the attack. The fans are singing even louder than before and have added a few consonants to their repertoire. There are quite a lot of corners and free kicks and such like, which is all jolly exciting, but nothing is quite working out for the blue shirts. The goalkeeper for the yellow team (but he’s not wearing a yellow shirt which makes things even more confusing) has saved a goal and everyone is standing up and shouting at him. “Now!” says Ben, which is my cue to join in with some carefully-planned moderate abuse. It’s amazing what strong emotions can be provoked simply because someone is getting paid by a sports club based in a town other than your own.
Two minutes to go. The yellow team are wasting time with pointless substitutions and there’s barely a chance of equalising, let alone winning. Everyone is in an exceptionally sour mood. I quite badly want the match to end but only because I can’t feel my hands or feet.
The final whistle blows. With an irritated communal sigh, the fans start to file out of the stadium. Everyone says it’s been a terrible game and I ache all over from shivering too much. Ben asks if I’d consider coming again, but I think my brain is actually numb from the cold and it might not be working properly. I said yes, of course. Who wouldn't?