07/05/11. 3pm. 2nd vs 4th. Step 3. 7 goals. 2,411 spectators. 1 promotion. 1,589 days (4 years, 4 months and 7 days) have passed since my first game, but I’ve finally seen my beloved football team promoted in their most successful season ever. And it’s probably the greatest feeling in the world. In a week when Osama Bin Laden’s time was finally up, the country was still recovering from a Bank Holidaytastic Easter break and a Royal Wedding, and Chelsea finally got their arses back in gear through dubious refereeing decisions to challenge for the Premiership title, this was the biggest event of the lot for me. This isn’t going to be one of my usual let’s-have-an-argument articles; rather, it’s just a little piece on the joy of promotion, what it means to a dedicated fan, and how I ended up loving Angels instead.
It all began on a very rainy Saturday afternoon. Saturday, December 30th 2006, to be precise. My father and brother were paying a trip to watch their newly-adopted local team, Tonbridge Angels, and I was going along to the Longmead Stadium to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss appeared to be about a team that were losing 2-0 to Ramsgate and reduced to 10 men before the game was called off after 70 minutes, had a swimming-pool of a pitch (admittedly, owing to the diabolical weather conditions), and fans that sang and swore a lot. But, despite swearing being neither big nor clever, a certain very immature 14-year-old found it hilarious, and contrary to parental expectations, I adored the experience. Four and a half years later, I’m still adoring the non-league experience.
They didn’t convert me to liking football – I’d supported Chelsea since early childhood, during the Zola/Poyet/Wise years, when we won the FA Cup twice but were mid-table fodder. Gradually we crept up into the UEFA and Champions League spots, and then Mr Abramovich came in with wallet nicely overflowing, and we all know the story hereafter. Despite still having never attended a match, I’ve watched many, many games on TV, bought each new home shirt since I was about 6, and locked myself in a toilet to sob for fifteen minutes after we lost the 2008 Champions’ League final. But supporting Chelsea vociferously from afar is not the same as planning your weekends and Tuesday nights around the home matches of a team whose ups and downs you live and breathe, who you finance with your student ticket and cheese-and-bacon burger every match, and who you stand in the freezing cold to watch in a Kent Senior Cup replay against a team two leagues below you – and your club has put out a team of reserves and youth players. It becomes a lot more than ‘just a game’ when you turn up every week to watch a Jekyll-and-Hyde side whose favourite pastime seems to be yo-yoing around the league table, and when you chant yourself hoarse for ninety minutes in the hope that it will inspire a glorious victory from the players. You become totally attached to the club, its fans, the players and management, and perhaps even fall in love with the whole package. It’s also my weekly bonding time with my dad and brother, and makes up a lot of the conversations I have with both. So the promotion is something of a big deal to me, especially given that I hopped on the train from Penryn, a mere 300 miles and £63 away, to see the final. But at least it was all worth it.
I’d always daydreamed about the rush of a pitch invasion as the final whistle blew, but due to the PA box’s insistence on people keeping behind the barriers, it was rather belated by the time it came around. By the time I finally strolled onto the pitch I was there with at least a thousand people, most of whom were fair-weather fans, and it became apparent that the busy season had worn the ground out to sandpit status. I finally had the chance to sing the chant that every non-Premiership side aspires to – the one with the deeply profound lyrics “We – are – going up, said we are going up!”. It was incredibly emotional, and something that you just can’t understand unless you’ve had an almost unhealthy love for a team of some description. It was worth all the awkward conversations with friends when something had been planned that I couldn’t attend due to Angels commitments, all the times I felt crushed after a resounding defeat (c.f. Tonbridge Angels 0 – 4 Cray Wanderers, the last game before I went to university), all the times I felt crushed after a rousing victory that I couldn’t attend (c.f. Tonbridge Angels 7 – 1 AFC Hornchurch, the first Saturday after I’d gone to university), the heartbreak of losing in the play-off semi-final to Carshalton in 2009 and the stress of the game itself, having twice chucked away a two-goal lead. But we came through eventually.
Our joy will probably be short-lived; I foresee a relegation battle next season due to a fairly small playing budget. And while I’m rather smug about the prospect of playing Truro City away next year due to conveniently being eight miles from their ground during university months, I’m sure the fixture list will decree this game be played when I’m back in Kent for the holidays. But a football team is for life, not just for promotion – so I’ll keep loving Angels instead.