This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Football is a contradiction. It is joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, camaraderie and crushing loneliness, euphoric hope and the inky blackness of despair. Here, we have convinced a handful of VICE staff to tell us about the cruelty of football; the dark side of the contradiction within the game. One of them – though we can't say which one – is the man crying beneath this synthetic wig:
SHAUN SAVAGE – CREATIVE
As we grow up and life becomes increasingly complicated, sprawling and textured, football's ability to napalm your mood, outlook and sense of priority wanes. And that's a very good thing. However, at 15 years old – when life is reduced to a series of concerns relating solely to your football team, Three6Mafia mixtapes and an inability to chirpse girls properly – a joyless 2-1 home defeat to Wycombe Wanderers is capable of delivering trauma to both heart and head.
At the end of the 2000-01 season, my beloved Bristol Rovers needed to beat Wycombe to maintain any hope of Second Division survival. My memories of the game are admittedly patchy. The first half was eventless and definitely goalless. I remember a very young Nathan Ellington, and very old Mark Walters, both hitting the woodwork – this before Wycombe scored two quick goals midway through the second half. We got a goal back (which I remember) apparently through Kevin Gall (who I most certainly do not) to make it 2-1. But it was all in vain. Vitali Astafjevs, our future Latvia captain, was scythed down for a criminally unawarded penalty in the 90th minute, and we were unceremoniously relegated to the bottom tier of the Football League.
At the final whistle hundreds of people piled onto the pitch to vent their anger at the board and swear their heads off. Teenagers cried. Angry fat men bellowed their discontent at the efforts of reasonably well conditioned athletes. Some people were just utterly distraught – each of them wandering around aimlessly, wearing the bewildered expression of someone who'd just found out their favourite uncle had been picked up by Yewtree. Me and my mates Westy, Al, Dan and Will just kinda hung around on the terrace, muted and probably a bit embarrassed that we cared so much, before facing up to the prospect of going into school on Monday and being confronted by a braying bunch of Shitheads (our term for Bristol City fans). One hope was that we might actually win something the following season, though we were only promoted via the play-offs six years later. It felt really fucking bleak. But it benchmarked something.
In my lifetime, Rovers have never won anything beyond the odd play-off final and derby. But success is also relative. It's the poverty of silverware, and the genuine sense of loss I felt after that Wycombe match, that make moments like some of those we've had this season feel like paradise.
It's those periods between desire and gratification – via any number of bruises, flirtations, disappointments and mediocrities – that make supporting a genuinely shit football team a unique form of torture. Any successes, however minor or fleeting, always feel like rare moments of affection in the midst of an unhappy marriage. In football, as in life, you always lack more than you have – and that's kind of beautiful, in its own way.
ANTH STOCKDALE – 'OFFICE DJ'
As a Sunderland fan, it has to be going to Chelsea away – full stop.
Having heat lamps on the roof and having to take my jacket off during a winter fixture is the sort of modern football bullshit that would make my coalmining grandfather turn in his grave. Also, having nothing but bottles of Tiger beer and some kind of 'waffle-fries' shit on the menu at half time was an insult to the beautiful game.
JON KEARNS – ADVERTISING/MARRIAGE EXPERT
Just six months into my own wonderful marriage, and my beautiful American wife had the forethought to get us tickets and a weekend away to see Liverpool play West Ham at Anfield. It was January 2015 and just around peak optimism time for Liverpool fans in the post-Suarez, pre-Klopp era. The team had navigated the tricky Christmas period with four wins in five, and Sturridge was back from injury (this at a time when many Liverpool fans still had vain hopes he could develop into Suarez 2.0). I was a little disappointed not to see Gerrard play and it was a freezing cold January afternoon, but watching Liverpool win 2-0 – with goals from Sturridge and Sterling – was all I could ask for really, and it was all thanks to my dearly beloved huddled next to me in the northern English chill.
It wasn't until we were on the bus back to town after the game that I suddenly looked at her and made a face of such utter dismay that she still teases me about it two years on. In the freezing cold – and despite wearing gloves – I had managed to lose my wedding ring. I was devastated and, after scrabbling around coat pockets and bus floors, I quickly realised it must have been at half-time, when I took my gloves from my cold-shrivelled hands to pay for the tea and hot chocolate. I wanted to leap off the bus and run back to the ground to search for the ring, so frantic was my sense of panic. In my newlywed naivety, and still sounding out our transatlantic cultural differences (the wedding was a big deal), I had no idea how upset she was going to be. To my mind, this was an almost marriage-ending disaster. How had I managed to lose it without noticing? She'd gone and arranged all this for me – you'd think the least I could do was pay basic care and attention to the symbol of our undying love.
As it turned out, she was remarkably chill about the loss. She concluded, to the slight bruising of my supposed bread-winner ego: "At least it wasn't that expensive a ring to lose." Finally she determined, with the sort of pragmatism that made me marry her in the first place: "Well if you were going to leave me for anyone, I'd rather it be for Anfield than another woman."
WILL MAGEE – VICE SPORTS UK STAFF WRITER
They are a strange breed, are they not, away fans? They are a tribal bunch, a collective throwback to a time when human societies were organised on a much smaller level. They gather together in their little groups on the morning of matchday, each carpool a little band of hunter gatherers, a clan of cavemen ready to go to battle with some rival tribe across the windblown steppe. There they are, the away boys, armed not with the handcrafted spears of prehistory but rather with chants, with tins, with the boisterous aura of several grown men who are willing to fight and die for each other – or at least say so repeatedly – on the way to Carlisle, or Grimsby, or whichever post-industrial town happens to be hosting this weekend's game.
There is something atavistic about committed away fans, something primeval. These are men – for they almost invariably are men – who can turn a train carriage into a territorial wrangle, them against the common commuters and innocent non-footballing bystanders of the world. These are men who will belt out lewd songs mere metres away from a family of four, the children shrinking embarrassedly into their window seats, the dad turning an incandescent shade of scarlet, visibly getting angrier and angrier but realising that he, the lone alpha, is hopelessly outnumbered. There is something terrible about away fans, with their chest-beating masculinity and their strength-in-numbers bravado, exuding a fug of testosterone and antagonism as they hurtle towards their destination. Nonetheless, sneakingly, we want to go amongst them. Much like some eccentric primatologist who lives amongst mountain gorillas for months on end, a part of us wants to cultivate their acceptance so that we may see through their eyes, gradually follow their lead in shedding our own civilised pretensions and, eventually, learn to imitate their wild and exhilarating ways.
Still, much like the existence of a gorilla or prehistoric caveman, the life of an away fan can be brutal and unforgiving. While the away fan has a primal sense of camaraderie to keep him warm at night, he must brave many a frosty terrace and shite performance on the road in return. It was in the icy winter of 2012 when I learnt this for myself, in what would be my first and last long-distance journey to support the football club of my youth. That journey saw me rock up in the heart of Bradford, ready to watch Arsenal notch up a routine League Cup win at Valley Parade.
Accompanied by a friend who was making the near 600 mile round trip from Exeter – please bear his costly personal odyssey in mind come the conclusion of this anecdote – the life of an away fan showed promising beginnings. There were cans, there were chants and there was the warm embrace of an away pub, another aspect of the away days phenomenon which makes the whole thing feel like a primitive territorial feud. It was cruelly, bitterly, achingly cold, with the sharp Bradfordian air slicing through jackets, bobble hats and human bone, each gust of wind like a shard of glass through our flesh. Still, it would all be worth it, with the discomfort no doubt fading in the memory once our North London tribe had won the day.
Of course, Arsenal did not record a routine win against fourth-division Bradford City. Instead, they crashed out of the League Cup with possibly their easiest ever run to the final, this at a time when the club had gone without silverware for almost a decade. Not only that, it was one of the worst performances of all time and included this spectacular miss from the man, the legend, Gervinho, of which we had a fantastic view. To top it all off, Arsenal managed to take it to penalties before losing, hence causing frostbite amongst many of the huddled nomads in the away end.
It was at that moment that, looking at the faces around me, I came to the realisation that I did not have it in me to live amongst the away fans. I did not have the fortitude to survive alongside these cold and thwarted hunter gatherers, these hardiest and most heartbroken of men.
AARON GORDON – VICE SPORTS US STAFF WRITER
The worst soccer experience I ever had was a 2013 MLS game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders. The game was perfectly fine, to be honest. The bad part was the person in front of me had the worst body odour I have ever experienced in my entire life. I almost threw up it was so rancid, but there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to stand there and take it for two hours. Please don't make me think about it any longer. Please.
JOEL GOLBY – VICE UK STAFF WRITER
My worst experience at a football match is 'every football match I have ever been to, ever in my life'. First football match: slow slumping 1-3 home loss at Chesterfield, 1997, don't even remember the opposition but when the announcer struggled with the vaguely foreign name of an away team substitute someone in the crowd shouted "Who?" to a cacophony of that grim sort of football stand laughter, the bad laughter, the dark laughter, the one that I – a particularly wimpy 10-year-old, even for a 10-year-old – cowered to hear.
Subsequent football matches: another drizzle-strewn 1-1 at Saltergate; a handful of England games at Wembley, ones I'm pretty sure I only ended up at because of some sort of ticket scam (a friend of mine from back home used to get these England tickets face-value from 'a guy at work', who used to go – religiously – to England away days. "It's a jolly, in't it!" he would say, the guy at work, "it's good! See European countries. 40p, a pint, in Macedonia," but then curiously he would go to literally zero home games, and we puzzled over it for a while, why he would buy the tickets but not go, or sell us the tickets at face value, Do You Not Want To Go Yourself, we would ask him, Are You Sure, and then walking up Wembley Way once we figured it out at the bag searches: of course, of course, our guy was banned from Wembley for violence, and only went to away games so he could cave in the heads of new, extravagant and continental skulls, of course he was, of course); the FA Cup youth final between Arsenal and Liverpool, where Jack Wilshere was making his name, but me, in my infinite wisdom, walked away from the match talking up the quality of Francis Coquelin (???????) and Kyle Bartley (??????), Such Good Movement, I would say, Bartley Will Be At The Heart of The Arsenal Defence For Years to Come, Proper Ball Playing Centre Back, him.
Maybe I don't appreciate live football because I'm an idiot who knows nothing about the sport, admittedly, but I think there's something more: I just don't understand the buzz of it, the up-on-your-feet of it. I get self-conscious shouting along with chants I don't know the words to, saying "go ON!" in that performative way, more for the hard lad behind me in the stands than for the winger it was intended for. I don't think I've ever seen a live goal – apart from Yaya Sanogo's two-minute heartstopper against Borussia Dortmund, 2014 – that made me think anything other than "eh" and "I need to stand up now". I recently went to an Arsenal game – Arsenal, slumping awfully at home to Southampton, a truly atrocious League Cup game – and didn't manage to make it to my seat until the 35th minute, because the checks and queues at the gate I was going in through were so extreme.
Every time I've been to a game in modern times, all the fun has been stripped out of it – the bag searches, the pat downs, the frantic queue for an £8 hotdog and a £6 beer in a plastic cup, then you run back out to the stands, leaving the spirit of fun behind you in the foyer – sort of like going to the cinema, if the cinema smelt of grass and you felt nothing as the images on the screen flitted by. Listen, I'm like you: I don't want anyone ripping a plastic chair out of some concrete and battering my head in with it. But I do want to feel alive a little. Watching football in the pub: a joy. Watching at home with some cans, crisps and mates: one of my favourite things to do in the entire world. Going to an actual game, trudging in and then out, watching from a weird angle, the walk back to the station with all the grim mutterings of loss, or the quiet that'll-do joy of a routine win? Eh, it's not for me. I'm glad you like it – truly, I am. But it's not for me.