News and Views

(Just Like) Starting Over

08 August 2013
By Neil Maskell

In days gone by, the advent of a new football season always felt to me like an episode of Bullseye; familiar entertainment, but the most sure-fire way of telling that it is a Sunday night and you are already experiencing that back-to-school feeling. Similarly, the arrival of a fresh football campaign - as welcome as it is - always had that sense of 'end of summer' about it. By the time everyone really gets into the swing of things, the nights have begun to draw in. Autumn leaves, autumn leaves, how sad, how cold, how drear! By which time the Horse Chestnut of Cliche has sprouted a Gary Birtles Conker, tumbling dramatically from the tree and demanding a penalty because there was “contact”. Soon be Christmas. But August 3rd? Preposterous. With temperatures in Costa Berkshire tied to the 80s, we should be sat around eating Soleros or drinking lager in pub gardens. Instead I find myself embarking on a nature ramble along the Basingstoke Road, taking in the flora and fauna of Whitley and skilfully avoiding dog turds and upturned shopping trolleys.

Bending that end-of-summer-back-to-skool analogy like a shatterproof plastic ruler in my reverie as I ramble, I muse to myself that the first day of term always throws up a few unfamiliar faces and today Bridge, Drenthe and Williams are the Johnny Come Latelies, the New Kids In Town. Rather than being eyed suspiciously in the dinner queue, here their first few touches are silently scrutinised by the ensemble. The classroom itself meanwhile has been given a lick of paint; hashtagged to buggery by Mr Social-Media-Gone-Boring in the PR department, Premier League badges steamed-off and the franchise itself has been re-christened as 'The Marussia Sputniks'. As my stroll winds to a close finally a glimpse of the Stadium itself; identikit to so many other venues across the provinces but it is our mass of steel, concrete and plastic. My home is where the heart is, sweet to surrender to you only. And that'll be £365, please. Outside as usual it is all bouncy castle, face paint and mascot cuddles for the kids at the Calcio Crèche. What about something for the dads for once? Decent, reasonably-priced beer perhaps? Failing that, some fit-as-hell Cheerleaders? Inside the ground the naffness is unrelenting; the Master Blaster - a gurning idiot patrolling the perimeter with an air-cannon - fires t-shirts and tat into an implausibly enthusiastic crowd. All you got at Elm Park was a toothless, flat-capped old git trying to flog “Tonigh's Po'”. Build Evolve Succeed.

With equal familiarity albeit noticeably less brand awareness and conviviality, the fans in the stands trade the usual generic insults. Ipswich supporters intone a quite criminal example of the double-negative (for me, this is an offence more befitting ejection from the ground than the simple use of every day bad language) concerning our lack of silverware. Our lot return serve with a mantra relating to Suffolk's agricultural industry. As repartee tennis goes, it is more double-fault than Super Smash. Ticking off the entries in my 'David Bellamy I-Spy Book of Terrible Banter' I am surprised not to score the usual 2 points for picking out the dulcet tunes of the Beach Boys and a ditty concerning the aesthetic virtues (or otherwise) of my home town. I am not expecting Philip Larkin - Christ, I'm not even hopeful of Pam Ayres - from a football crowd but any semblance of originality has long since vanished, our independent spirit battered out of us, death by a thousand Rumblestix. The Reading crowd croon the name of new darling Royston Drenthe to the tune of 2 Unlimited's early 90's dirge No Limits and my mind at once wanders to a Year 8 French trip to Normandy when this song topped the charts and specifically I recall my diabolically under hit backpass which led to Mr Higgins retiring from an impromptu game of beach football with a gashed knee. Therefore I feel very much like the Martin Peters of comical defending, 20 years ahead of my time, as Ipswich grab an absurd lead in the game, courtesy of a Reading back 5 taking the laws of irony into their own hand in allowing Jay Tabb - zero goals in 100-odd games for Reading during which time he rarely kicked a ball straight - two stabs at driving his new club ahead. Build Evolve Concede.

Drenthe himself, sans dreadlocks, is the leading light. How terribly disappointing though, this shorn look! Given his relative girth, this was probably a prudent choice of haircut otherwise he would be about as aerodynamic as a North Sea ferry. And no Samson is he. Drenthe is the most colourful dutch artist since Vincent Van Gogh and all he needed was a fat biffta and a pair of clogs, so much did his ability on the ball stand him out so markedly from the other 21 honest plodders on display. In the second half there was a quite stunning bit of slaloming which took him to the by-line, the crowd gasped and cheered as if they were watching a firework display. His cameo role was not so much Total Football as Total Burnout however; midway through the second half the bow doors had long since been flung open, he had ran out of Oranje and was pulled off by Adkins. Crikey, at Vladikavkaz he only ever got a slice of Edam!

Ah, Adkins. Himself. Half estate agent. Half Specsavers poster boy. No amount of snappy dressing, whiteboards and iambic pentameter can make one automatically warm to a man who is sickly-sweet to the extent of nauseosness. That Scouse accent hardly helps; when listening to Nigel you feel as if you're about to be simultaneously mis-sold PPI, a Time Share apartment in Corfu and a brace of magic beans. Adkins is footballing bling, but with 4 promotions under his belt he is both the fur coat and the knickers. Slicker than a BP leak in the Atlantic but faker than the moon landings, Nigel is not outspoken but he likes to speak and he loves to be spoken to. Nigel is happy in his world, but I still yearn for the bald awkwardness of Brian, a man who always looked about as comfortable in front of the cameras as a Giant Panda. We still miss our ex, yet in all honesty that in itself is nothing that a swashbuckling promotion campaign can't resolve. Sexy football supervised by a Curly Watts doppelganger.

Still, there are sprouts of green shoots of recovery in so much as we ultimately - finally - record a home win and a Reading player notched at HQ for the first time since February. To put that into perspective, that is both one whole Pope and one whole Royal Baby ago. Ah it is good to be back. Last season was about as much fun as 38 trips to the dentist, but suffering as we all do from Stockholm Syndrome we file back dutifully to the scene of much cruelty, bounce on the castle, catch a t-shirt, sing about Tractors and pump our fists on cue to 'The Music From The Darts' when prompted to do so by our PR overlords. For as long as we crave this kind of pre-ordained leisure activity we'll always be too easily pleased. Human beings, after all, crave routine and familiarity. And spending our free time in such an expensive and pointless way seems to scratch that collective obsessive compulsive itch. Innnnnnnnnn Oneeeeeeeeee.....

Share this article: