Saturday 3 May - Crawley Town 1 Bristol City 1
I think most people who were at this match would agree that it was a particularly strange occasion. For most of the crowd, events on the pitch had already ceased to be the focus of attention long before Simon Gillett scored his equaliser just after the hour. The celebrations at the final whistle had nothing to do with a bang mid-table finish taken from the teeth of a second successive relegation and everything to do with Bristol Rovers dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 94 years.
We were celebrating the end of a two-club era in Bristol football; the new state of affairs may last for a year or a decade, we don't know yet. But undeniably things are changing. Back in Bristol, the Ashton Gate pitch had already been torn up, the scoreboard of the East End was about to come down, the seats had been sold and the ancient home end at BS3 began the process of being removed. And Louis Carey, our record appearance holder, would be released within the week as expected.
Furthermore, the club appears to have arrested the spiral of decline it's been on for four or five years; certainly as long as I've been writing this blog. And with half the team, including loanees, departing it'll be very different watching a new side, with a more optimistic crowd behind them, in a three-sided stadium come August. At the very least I'll need to pick on a new player for miscontrolling the ball out of play.
That's not the only amendment I'll have to make to that box at the top right though. Because this is a personal end of an era as well. For the first time in six years I'll no longer be a season ticket holder.
You see, we're all in our thirties now, me and my friends from Bristol. That meant a spate of weddings which we seem to be coming to the end of now, which has given way to the spate of pregnancies one might expect. And Ross, being the virile chap that he is, has played a full and active part in all this. Ross Jnr is on its way, with paternity leave handily scheduled for the middle of the World Cup.
Perfectly understandably that makes his season ticket an unrealistic commitment both financially and temporally; you don't want to guarantee nineteen Saturday afternoons and four Tuesday nights out of the house when you're raising a not-even-one-year-old. So my gesture of solidarity-slash-acceptance that regular solo football is less fun has been to not renew my season ticket either.
This may not, initially at least, make a huge difference. I still have a pool of friends I can go to games with; Ross himself will no doubt be back at some stage; and certainly until and unless City make a major promotion push, getting home tickets ought to be possible even given the reduced capacity. But the significance of it is clear, and was rammed home against Crawley. As he has done for many years, Ross spent the Saturday night at my place in Peckham. He won't be doing that again for a long, long time. And without the need to justify the already-outlaid spending on a season ticket, I quite possibly won't find myself booking the long winter journey to home games against mediocre opposition as often in the future. Even recently it's felt like lunacy sometimes and I think that this blog has become a way of ameliorating that.
I've had many moments in those dark, horrible, 2-0 home defeat, 23rd in the table train journeys where I've questioned the purpose of the trip; when I've sat alone on a cold night in some southeastern retail park backwater and wondered what it's all about. Why am I dragging myself to these painful encounters; why is so much of my income and leisure time going on watching football matches when there are football matches on TV and all over London, when I have options other than going to football matches at all? Why?
It's not even as though I'm the obsessive sort of fan, although I know people who'd snort derisively at that comment. I don't have to do the 92, I don't have to watch every Premier League game on Sky, it doesn't bother me that the Spanish title decider clashes with the Cup Final. So my journeys cannot realistically be in the pursuit of football, that strange 90 minutes of shouting and wrestling and occasional magnificence. There must be something else that keeps me going. I think it's the part of football that really is more than just a game. With a resounding capital F I am travelling for Football.
I am travelling because Football has, in the 24 years (to the day!) since I watched Manchester United and Crystal Palace contest the FA Cup final, become the major narrative of my life. That's not to say that it has been all-consuming – there's no programme collection, no set of ticket stubs – but it has become the bedrock upon which the rest of my life, school, university, work, falling in and out of love, friendships, nights out, days in – has been built. I haven't been in education for over a decade now but I still think of years that start and finish in late summer. Not school years. Football seasons.
1998 means Zidane and Ronaldo and Guivarc'h before it means anything else. 2008 is Xavi, Iniesta and Torres. 1994, true, has competition from Parklife and His 'n' Hers (a certain strand of indie music being the countervailing narrative) but it still means Baggio's penalty when it comes down to it. Now we're in another World Cup year and I'm sure that I'll look back at 2014 and remember this summer's heroes, Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi or whomever it is, before anything else springs to mind.
Partly this is because these events are always connected with the dates – France '98 is called France '98, none of my other memories from that summer are so denoted – but if you're reading this you will have a similar highlights reel for each year, I'm sure. Anyway it's not just the dates, it's the way that the brain can mix up memories based on what really mattered – your life – and what felt like it mattered – football – because the feelings at the time were exactly the same. I can't think of one breakup without remembering that the 7-1 defeat at Swansea coincided with it. Nor can I forget starting to fall in love again the night after Gary Johnson's first game, a 3-2 victory at Brentford.
(No, there wasn't much time between the two. Dirty stopout.)
And Football has brought me so much closer to so many friends because my narrative is also theirs; doubly so for fellow City fans but it goes for fans of Arsenal, Tottenham, Blackburn, Northwich Victoria or any team you could name. There's a lazy cliché about men together always talking about football, but take away the sexism and it's close to irresistible. You forge friendships, relationships, through common ground, and if two people have that same narrative then it makes perfect sense to share it.
But for Ross, Football won't be the main narrative any more. He'll be a father, and while the two will chug along nicely together (particularly given the expected date of birth of his child, which does make my point rather fabulously) he won't have the same time to invest in Football for a while. No more should he, of course. It's right that his priorities will shift. His awfully big adventure won't be next season's promotion battle but his first chance to nurture and inspire life.
As for this blog? Who knows. I'll be going to fewer games, sure, but I don't update every time I go to a game (you can have too much reflection, you know) and I've always tried to write about more than just football – I've tried to write about Football, what goes on around the game, principles, philosophies, bad jokes. That will all still exist in future. And it doesn't just happen at Bristol City. Perhaps going to fewer games will allow me to get up to Dulwich Hamlet from time to time; to go with my friends to Arsenal matches; to watch more of the big games in the Premier League that kick off when I'm normally arriving at Temple Meads these days.
And, just as I sometimes am now, I'll be to the left of other people in future. I know some great people through shared love of Football. Maybe their stories are worth telling as well.
I don't know what life To The Left of My Friends looks like. I do know I'm not going to change the name of the blog. And I'm sure I'll continue – an unexamined life not being worth living, and all that. I may not be to the left of Ross every week in future, but it's far too late for my narrative to change. I expect to continue exploring my relationship – everyone's relationship – with this mad, stupid game for as long it feels right.