‘Tis the season to….reflect

With Christmas approaching it seems a good time to stretch out the blogging fingers and share a few sporting thoughts about what has been an excellent start to the sporting season for both my egg-chasing Saracens and infuriating Chesham United.

As previously posted, nowadays it is the boys in black of Saracens that have taken priority when it comes to watching live sport, with a growing tendency to embark on away trips having a serious impact on the amount of Chesham United games attended so far this season…even to the point where I missed the majority of the FA Cup run, just jumping on the bandwagon for the First Round trip to Peterborough United. Yes, you did read that right. The FA Cup First Round…AGAIN. The holy grail for clubs like Chesham United and we got there two years on the trot.

Whilst the FA Cup continues to dissipate at the latter stages, for Chesham United it is a fantastic opportunity to formulate incredible memories, generate unbelievable sums of money and attract, literally, hundreds of new fans to the club; even if it is only for a game or two, the publicity is invaluable.

As a former Chairman and Director there will always be a bit of me that thinks “why the bloody hell couldn’t we do that in my day!” Money, or cashflow, is fundamental to the running of a club, and with something like £90,000 in prize money over the last couple of seasons (that’s without the increased gate receipts and benefits that must push another £60,000) Chesham United have found themselves in a very favourable position compared to recent years. Oh if we had that sort of income when we were challenging Hemel Hempstead for the league title a few years back, putting everything on the line to try and fund a promotion push…

…I’ve just read back through an unpublished blog that I wrote just after I resigned as a Director, it brought all the memories flooding back of what we went through as a club at that time, and I have to take my hat off to those that have stuck with it in the face of adversity; perhaps the cup runs are the reward for sticking with the belief and continuing to take the “gambles”. And there are gambles involved. Blimey, we took one hell of a gamble back then and although we missed out on promotion, a 3,000 gate for the play-off final v St Albans and a near 800 gate for the semi-final v Stourbridge covered the risk…But it was not a situation I wanted to go through again!

After living and breathing the club for so many years, knowing every little thing that went on, and where every penny was being spent, who was doing what and who was getting what, I really thought it would be a struggle to give all that up and go back to being a supporter on the terrace. But I have, and probably all the happier for it. Things move on, I really don’t miss the day to day involvement, and the club doesn’t really miss me – Though again, a bonus un-budgeted £150,000 income over the past 18 months will make things feel a lot easier (let’s hope it is not just papering over cracks).

I am not going to lie, I don’t feel the same passion on the terrace as I have done for the past thirty years, and if totally honest with myself the sight of Jamie George powering over the try-line at the back of a maul at Allianz Park gives me a greater sense of joy than a 25-yard screamer from Sam Youngs in a Chesham shirt nowadays. It’s just the way things have changed, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the football…in particular another FA Cup away day.

I drove to Peterborough with my Dad, arriving in time to meet up with other Chesham fans in a floating bar on the river, a mere few hundred yards from the ground. The atmosphere on the boat was incredible as Chesham literally packed the place out and got the atmosphere going with some singing practice. By 2.00pm there were more Chesham fans in the Charters Bar than there would be at an average home game – The wonders of the FA Cup at this level.

By the time kick-off came around there was an astonishing 650-odd Chesham fans standing in their allocated seating area creating an incredible atmosphere. Thankfully the stewards made no effort to make everyone sit down, though they did at first try to get people to sit in the seats that matched their tickets, eventually giving up on that too once they realised there was no real likelihood of any trouble and fans were happy to mingle and find their own viewing spot – Ah, the world of non-league fans.

It has to be said, these big match occasions are fantastic for creating memories, but when it comes to watching football, give me a proper non-league ground any day. Despite the light-hearted banter there was always a sense that you were being watched by a hi-vis wearing steward, the food available was nothing short of complete, over-priced, crap and of course there is no chance of being within sniffing distance of a beer when the game is on. A big difference compared to rugby where a pint in the hand is part of the game, but that is not the only difference amongst supporters.

After a 2-3 year journey of conversion from primarily a football to rugby fan I have of course noticed all the stereotypical differences, but it is the changes in myself that are most alarming. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that in my time I was probably one of the noisiest when it came to chanting, taunting and a bit of foul-mouthed abuse. To be honest, I always believed getting on with the away fans was part of non-league football, but that didn’t mean you don’t have a slanging match whilst the game is on. It all seemed harmless fun, everyone must think that don’t they?

Well, probably not actually. Even compared to Bristol Rovers 12-months earlier I noticed a difference in my own passion, I was no longer part of the furniture at the club, not even a week-in week-out supporter anymore, the closest I have been to an outsider for over three decades – And it really was cringeworthy at times. Maybe it’s me getting old or even, dare I say, becoming a rugby toff, but I really struggled when the singing burst into simple chants of “F@xk off ‘Boro” or references to “Peterborough’s a shithole” or “We hate Boro”…when actually my only experiences of Peterborough had been pretty bloody good, in particular a very hospitable reception at the bar on a boat and the people encountered on the way to the game, am I over-thinking it? (You don’t even want to know about the suggestions for what the rabbit mascot should do with his large carrot!)

I was genuinely starting to think it was me that was the problem, until the kid in front of me, about the same age as my Ben, opened his mouth for a shout of “F@xk off you c@xt!” I kid you not. Now at rugby matches I’m regularly having a go at my Ben when he gets upset by a ref’s decision, or I cringe when he makes a humorous shout out (too many away days, he likes to be part of the banter!), but if I ever heard that sort of language come out of his mouth at a game it would have been a massive clip around the ear and straight to the car and home.

Despite the sometimes embarrassing chants, the support for Chesham at Peterborough was immense, incredible. Something to be very proud of and one of those days where you were so proud to support the team, and the players reacted with a superb performance that probably warranted a replay. As it happens the game was lost 2-1, but to have a League One club, over 90 places above us in the pyramid, taking the ball to the corner flag to run the clock down at the end, that is something everyone at the club will remember for a very, very long time.

Unlike last season, the cup run does not seem to have come at the expense of league form. As we head into the Christmas period Chesham still have games in hand on those above and the play-offs should remain a realistic target. If I were to be a cynic, I think the next few months will be interesting as the money in the bank from the cup runs starts to disappear and other income sources need stepping up, or everyone starts looking towards the owner for a cash injection to maintain the promotion push…a situation we have been in before, and probably didn’t handle all that well!

On the rugby front, Saracens continue to go from strength to strength and I am fully aware that our adoption of them as a team of choice has coincided with a time of unprecedented awesomeness on the field. In the rugby world they will have their critics for their style of play, the rumours surrounding salary caps in the past and, let’s face it, nobody likes to see a team winning all the time…but to a new fan, transferred over from the football community, Saracens are getting so much right, and being rewarded for it on the pitch.

To me, the Christmas period has always been a great time for watching football, live sport; and this year promises to be no different, especially as for once there are no Saracens and Chesham clashes as Sarries take on Newcastle at home on Christmas Eve, then Chesham v Kings Langley on Boxing Day. New Year then kicks-off with a trip to Leicester to watch another Saracens away game before a first visit to Slough Town’s new ground the following day. What a great few days ahead, and you know the best thing about it? I’ll be watching all four matches as nothing more than a supporter who passionately wants to see his team win – No politics, no worries about where the money is coming from and nothing to distract from the reasons I got into watching live sport in the first place.

On many levels 2016 has been pretty crap, but it also had some memorable days, especially the trip to Peterborough with Chesham, and the rugby trips to Lyon and Toulon will always be something very special…Something that is likely to keep the Saracens season ticket the priority throughout 2017 because whilst my son is wanting to come to games with me, frankly, I would much rather he was in the stands at the likes of Bath with the Sarries on Tour group than risk becoming one of those fans vilely abusing opposition players on the terraces at football.

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