The referee points to the spot in the 6th minute of injury time. Our most talented player, who had just won the penalty, steps up to take it.
If we score, we are through, to Wembley and, maybe maybe, the Premiership.
The pub falls silent. Fear and pessimism – the usual companions to a penalty – sweep over everyone. ‘He’s gonna miss. He’s gonna bloody well miss. I know it.’
To add insult to injury, he misses the rebound too.
The ball breaks, they attack, we panic and within seconds they’ve scored and we are beaten. Scarves are scattered, tears break the surface, f-bombs echo over a stunned disbelief. Doors slam.
The most dramatic and traumatic defeat has been inflicted. The prospect of a Wembley final and promotion to the Premier League, the culmination of nine months and 48 games, all gone in the space of twenty seconds. But of course, hearts can break in less seconds than that.
I should probably take a moment to explain. ‘We’ are Leicester City. ‘They’ are Watford. Though in truth, ‘they’ could have been anyone. ‘They’ often beat us like that. Painfully.
It is arguably the most traumatic defeat I had ever experienced in the 30 plus years I have supported Leicester City. It wasn’t, however, as traumatic as the death of my close friend weeks before. A friend with whom, man and boy, I had spent most of those 30 years of football, sharing this regular dose of pain and the occasional actual triumph.
Though, of course, both traumas were inextricably linked, indivisible really. Because, you see, a football club is not 11 overpaid players and a middle aged man in a tracksuit armed with a post-match cliché, no matter what cynics might think. It is not a three year business plan, a TV deal or a marketing strategy. At its heart, football is simply where the games are played and who watches them. Our games are played in Leicester and I watch them with my friends and family. And one of them is now gone.
A few weeks earlier, only three days after the awful news, a considerably larger than normal gang gathered in Leicester’s football ground to watch City play Bolton. I think there was about 20 of us there that night. Regulars, irregulars, first timers, friends and family. My co-writer on this blog was there, despite being a Newcastle fan, a recognition of the fact that supporting Leicester was a way of honouring and remembering our friend. The team co-operated with good will, for once, and scored late to win a thrilling game 3-2.
On the way home and in the pub afterwards, I was deliriously – and probably slightly strangely – happy. My friends’ death, unexpected and as yet unexplained, had floored us all. It emptied and drained us of all emotion until we thought we had none left. Only to discover that we did – plenty in fact. He was 35, a great friend and lovely man and it made no sense and probably never will.
Beating Bolton did make sense, however. So did our last minute winner against local rivals Nottingham Forest two weeks later, securing a play-off spot. It also made sense that as I and others trooped down to the home leg of the play-off in Leicester another large group were gathering 100 miles away in The Stag’s Head in London to do likewise, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch’s army of cameras and swooshing graphics. It even made sense that on the other side of the world, others sat down by a laptop feed in Nicaragua. All were connected – by football and our absent friend.
A PJ Harvey lyric comes to mind: ‘And I draw a line between two hearts today.’ Football – not the game itself, really, which is no more enjoyable than any other in many ways – draws this line. And it isn’t limited to two hearts, it draws thousands of lines between a place and the people that inhabit that place. Football, like big music shows or natural disasters, is one of the few things that brings people together in vast numbers. It’s perfectly understandable why this is resented among the many who find the game leaves them cold (it’s how I feel about royal weddings), but it is there and it is undeniable.
Football has been an unbelievable help during a very traumatic time to a huge number of us – simultaneously a distraction from our grief and a connection to the person we have lost. So have the Pet Shop Boys and Billy Bragg, bizarrely enough, but that’s a private conversation between me, my friend and my headphones. Football is different because it has been a shared space. And it will continue to be so for as long as I live and probably to those I will inevitably and eventually leave behind myself.
Football isn’t more important than life or death. It does however help you enjoy one and endure the other, and it is never more important than the place where it is watched or the people you watch it with.
Up the City! RIP SJP x.