The last time I went to a football game was on Saturday 7 March last year when my 12-year-old son and I went to see QPR play Preston North End. When we got there we were handed a certificate, signed by the manager, congratulating us on having travelled 228 miles. Pretty heroic given QPR’s record on the road is so poor the fans have a song they sing after away games, adapted from ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’: ‘We’re the Rangers, the mighty Rangers, we never win away… a win away, a win away, a win away…’ etc. But on that occasion we won 3-1, in spite of going a man down. The scenes on the train back to Euston were something to behold. When Charlie and I commiserate with each other about not having been to a match for more than a year, we can at least cling on to the fact that the last game we went to was an unlikely QPR victory.
I’ve missed going to the football with Charlie more than anything else in the past 12 months. I thought the greatest privation during lockdown would be the closure of pubs and restaurants, but no. Perhaps the reason is that football matches are still being played in empty stadiums, so Charlie and I can see what we’re missing. It’s a bit like peering through the window of your favourite watering hole and watching your mates enjoying themselves, but being unable to go in. The hardest game to sit through was QPR vs Brentford last month — not because we lost, but because we won. Brentford’s stadium is less than three-and-a-half miles away from QPR’s, making this a proper west London derby, and one we nearly always lose. But not on this occasion. We won 2-1, coming back from a goal down. The icing on the cake was that the winning goal was scored by Charlie Austin, a much beloved former QPR striker who’s back on loan from West Bromwich Albion until the end of the season. Not being in the stadium to celebrate felt like something precious had been stolen from us. Memories are not made of this.
To make up for it, Charlie and I are planning to go to every single game next season, assuming there isn’t a winter lockdown. That’s a minimum of 46 league games, plus at least one Carabao Cup and one FA Cup game (we usually struggle to progress beyond our first tie in both competitions). The tough part, obviously, will be the away fixtures. What if we have to go to Lancashire again midweek? That will be a school night for Charlie and by the time the game is over it’ll be too late to get the train home. So we’ll have to take the car and complete the 456-mile round trip in one day — and it’ll be touch and go whether we’ll make it to the stadium for kick-off, given that he doesn’t get out of school till 3.40 p.m. And what if Newcastle get relegated and end up in the Championship? That’s a 566-mile round trip! But just thinking about the logistics fills me with pleasure. So much more fun than making the trip from the house to my shed to watch the game being played in front of an empty stadium on my laptop.
For the most part, we’ll be setting off on Saturday mornings, and if we leave early enough we’ll be able to get in a bit of sightseeing on the way. It’ll be a chance for Charlie to see a bit of England. In some places we’ll stay overnight, find a nice pub to have lunch in the following day and enjoy a leisurely drive home on Sunday afternoon. In normal times, such excursions might not be particularly thrilling, given that we’re talking about places like Luton, Reading and Blackburn. But after a year where venturing to the park for a picnic can lead to a stern talking-to from the police, such trips seem almost unimaginably exciting. Sitting in my shed, where I’ve been marooned for 12 months, the prospect of a rainy Tuesday night in the City Ground, watching Nottingham grind out a 1-0 victory over QPR, has the same exotic allure as going backpacking in Kathmandu.
Of course, there’s the cost of all this to consider, which is quite daunting given that the government is about to make things tougher for self-employed people like me. I may have to talk Charlie into creating a video diary of our adventures for YouTube which we can then persuade some betting company to sponsor. The competition may be stiff. Given the misery of the past 12 months, I imagine the motorways of England will be full of fathers and sons crisscrossing the country every Saturday to watch their teams play. I’ve no doubt they’re all drooling at the prospect, just like me.