Men call to other men, clambering into plastic retractable seats, treading liquid courage. The seats trap the chill of early British spring. Women greet friends with tender embraces; families castle like chess pieces, switching places for better views; men of a certain character shake hands in an overtly pugilistic manner, wrap arms around shoulders and slap backs.
These men gravitate toward each other. Singles become plural, and curds of group form from watery spectators. Those standing in the midst of the stands are too close to the noise to recognise the steady increase in pitch. From outside, it sounds like waves. Great, rolling whitecaps of volume, fit for a final between two historic rivals.
The air coruscates with chants, rhythms, percussion. They compete with and complement one another. The crowd is Emotion’s instrument; it tunes nerves and anticipation into simple melody: ‘You’re shit, and you know you are!’, ‘Come on, you [Reds/Blues/Greens/Blacks/& c.]!’
Eventually, players trot onto the cropped green. Lyrics move from generic pejorative to targeted insult. Encouragement becomes idol specific. Athletes stretch and sidestep like children with warrior frowns. They dig their cleats into the turf. A whistle blows, followed by first touch.
The waves crash.
Light passes and timid attacks
Around the stadium, curious clumps of those specific men tuck themselves closer together. They are hidden from view by yet more men who form a privacy wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the rows in front and behind. These walls of men emphatically clap and cheer for the game louder than anyone in their vicinity, covering the activity at their centre.
Safe behind a perimeter of puffer jackets and clinging denim, the hidden men turn to one another in earnest. They relax into casual patterns of intimacy. A few of them hug again, gentler than before. Others smile and wink at old friends. Some names are traded, and new introductions are made.
Home team player falls, pause in play
In one hidden, cosy cloister of men, two grandfathers discuss recent life updates. Their cheeks the colour and texture of strawberries, they gush about their grandchildren’s first weeks of school.
A man, uncomfortable in his skinny fit chinos, asks a well-built man for advice on calorie maintenance.
A man on the other side of the stadium tells his neighbour he fears he is losing his hair.
Home team mounts surprising offensive
Four men gather in a makeshift circle on their plastic seats, each opens and flattens out a packet of crisps. They enjoy the shared picnic together.
Home team scores, crowd roars
A man close to the away goal takes advantage of the volume to call across a row of seats to ask another man how his garden is faring after a recent, unprecedented cold snap.
The second man, under cover of the unseen goal and its rapturous reception, replies, ‘Surviving!’
A man in the nosebleed seats tells his neighbour about his recent success with a Nigel Slater recipe. The other man takes notes on his phone.
Next to him, a third man apologises for inserting himself into the conversation, then suggests a half-teaspoon of turmeric in the rice, citing a recent dinner party as proof of its success. The other two men nod and welcome the suggestion. Discussion moves to wine pairings and desserts.
An ambitious, but unsuccessful cross inside the penalty area of the home team
A man close to the pitch thanks another for setting him up on a recent blind date. He confesses the vibe wasn’t right but insists the first man doesn’t think this any reason not to set him up again with anyone else he feels might be a fit.
Away team player falls to shocking tackle
Two men in their 40s embrace tightly. Neither speaks. One rubs the other’s back rhythmically, in a calming fashion.
Away team is awarded a free kick
A young man discusses his pending wedding day with a handful of seniors in the seats around him. ‘We had purple tulips for our centrepieces,’ offers one elder, ‘but I always regretted it. I’m more of a forget-me-not kind of guy.’
‘Make sure you have a think about wildflowers,’ suggests another. ‘In a couple of weeks’ time, there’ll be some beautiful colours in bloom.’
‘Lovely, vibrant blues,’ agrees the first older man.
Away team scores, levelling the game
Two old friends sip from a shared bottle of juice.
A flat-capped old boy near one of the corners listens intently to a much younger lad talk about the book he’s reading. Four minutes of unremarkable,quiet, football lets him get the broad strokes of character, plot, and intrigue without interruption.
The lad promises to lend the book. No rush to return it.
Dramatic, erratic skirmish by the home team’s goal area
A man, late 40s, admits he’s on edge. Today is the first day he’s left his new puppy at home alone. He asks the man sitting beside him if he thinks the dog will be okay.
Back-to-back, full-pitch runs from both teams
Two men in their late 30s swap contact details after lamenting the challenge of making new friends as adults.
Cycles of frenetic attack and defence in the home team’s half of the pitch
A portly father of three and grandfather of two tells the man beside him that he has very striking eyes. The two have been friends since school.
Last-ditch attempts from both teams to tip the score before half-time
A timid man of 24 segments and shares his orange with a man twice his age.
Unproductive stoppage time
A newly wed, 30 years of age, shows photos of his wife’s artwork to a man he met for the first time 46 minutes previously.
Families take selfies, friends shout drink orders, spectators shuffle stiffly along long rows, minds focused on full bladders. Amid the activity, the protective walls of men disintegrate and those that were hidden from view begin to mingle with the regular crowd. As they exit their chrysalis, they receive updates on the unseen game.
Blockages form in the arteries of the stadium. Lengthy, trailing lines for food and drink take over the hallways. Queues for the women’s toilets outstretch the men’s, 2:1. Open and vibrant discussions ripple throughout their lines in contrast with the sparse volleys of nipped conversation amongst the men. Disinterested, hands in pockets or idly browsing phones, the men scuff their feet in languid progression toward toilets and bars. Few allow their gaze to wander as they trade terse punditry.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere is buoyant on both sides of the stadium. Across the abstract divide of the rivalry, both sets of fans note the level score and the lingering prospect of triumph.
Steady drips become streams of people pouring back into the stands. Those that are here to experience the game in its full, dramatic glory are none the wiser when the groups of peculiar men rearrange their seating. A changing of the guard: those that sheltered their fellows during the first half now take the seats. In their bubble of camaraderie, they ready themselves for the second half.
Whistle blow, intense passing
A middle-aged father of three is inundated with compliments on his shoes. He thanks the other men, telling them that the trainers are a prized gift from his husband.
Home team makes uninteresting attempts at gaining territory
A tired-looking man in his 30s kneads the knot in an older man’s shoulder, after noticing his obvious discomfort. Some of the old men in surrounding seats look on with envy, shifting their own spines involuntarily.
Goal, sudden, unexpected, against home team
A bookish man in his early 20s concedes defeat in a bet (predicated on which team would score first in the second half). He pulls out his phone. His forfeit is to read one of his latest poems to the man he made the bet with. The listener feels a swelling in his chest as the poem unfolds.
Interminable passing, no clear victor
Two men who met at a match three weeks ago share a kiss.
Courageous striker flies up field, seizing a window of opportunity
A shy man, early 50s, hands clasped in his lap, sits quietly while the men around him engage in ebullient conversation. He is suddenly looped into the discussion; tactfully, everyone pretends he was always part of it.
Goal, home team equalise
Buttressed by frequent deep breaths, one man tells another that he has considered suicide in recent months. His companion fishes for eye contact, and when he catches it, he assures the other that he too has suffered from the same thoughts over the years. Neither man knows that this will be the beginning of a long but careful friendship.
Play becomes more aggressive, several dodgy tackles
A handful of men in the starched, smart-casual shirts of city careers play a simple game of I-spy. To the escalating hilarity of the others, one man continuously guesses absurd, childish things.
Away team striker dives, followed by intense argument with referee
A man describes his experiences as a person of colour living in the city. He candidly speaks about the racism he has seen personally and heard about second-hand. Five men listen intently.
Corner kick is awarded to home team
Through smiles and chuckles, two men bicker. Each insists that they owe the other money for recent drinks. Neither will accept payment.
Corner kick turns into excited but unsuccessful scrap in away team goal area
Two men arrange a double date, choosing a restaurant that their respective wives have both shown an interest in.
Desperation, both sides mount feverish attacks
Four men, single for various reasons, agree to start a supper club. They spend the remainder of the game deciding on the perfect place for the first meet up.
Violent tackle against home team player, game slows to the speed of tantrum
Two men quietly meditate, using the noise of the game as an exercise in focus.
Away team striker given red card
Amid the warring yells and cheers from fans, a man practises British Sign Language with his neighbour who wears hearing aids.
Foul results in home team free kick
A man of around 60 listens with rare focus to the person next to him as they describe the process of discovering their authentic gender identity.
Botched free kick, play resumes
A man delicately plucks a stray leaf from the crown of a man in the row in front. The second man doesn’t feel the gentle touch.
Home team player pulls a hamstring, play pauses
Two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood agree to take dance lessons together.
Play resumes, following home team substitution
Two men in their 70s nap, each head props the other up.
Foul play colours stoppage time, fatigued tackles and loose arms abound
After 45 minutes of close tutoring by a man forty years his junior, a greying man runs his finger along the final crease in the origami swan he has been fashioning from his ticket.
Delighted, he gifts it to a stranger on his right.
Final minute of stoppage time, fiery passion dwindles to embers on the pitch
A man in a pocket of seats next to a stairwell helps his elderly neighbour to his feet and aids him down the steps. He decides to exit with the older man, beating the crowds and holding his hard-won catharsis close. He is happy with the day’s result.
Final whistle, tie game
Around the stadium, the canvas of banners and faces reverts to swirls of colour with the movement of leavers. The simple harmony of the private groups of men breaks down as strangers side-step along the rows.
The men melt back into the pointillist puddles of people pooling at the stadium’s exits. They shuffle across packed car parks, feeling the weightlessness of their shared experience begin to sag with the heaviness of life outside of football. They trade knowing winks and reassuring half-smiles as they bump fists and slap backs again. These parting flickers of encouragement will be shielded in their memories until the next match.