The Sublime, the Farcical and the Ugly
Ball swept from right to left. Trapped with ease. Flicked around oncoming pressure. Flying down the wing with youthful abandonment. Whipped it. Low and hard. Wham.
While watching the first forty five minutes of the Bracknell game I felt a real swell of pride. Pride in the players, the managers, the coaches and the group of fans behind the goal.
I go and watch the first team train, usually twice a week. I feel I learn a lot while watching the sessions that the players are put through. Who are the men who pull on the black and white stripes every Saturday? How do the coaches communicate their ideas, values and patterns to the team? I get to observe the social dynamics between the players and see how the management team has processed the previous weekends game.
In the lead up to the Bracknell game a series of changes were made to how the team would line up, what shapes they would adopted and the patterns they would tried to play through. Partially in response to the previous match, partially with the forthcoming opposition in mind. More importantly though, to me at least, it was a move to play in the way that the management believes will serve the club best going forward, an approach that will allow the talent of the young squad to flourish.
Forty five minutes of fast paced, intricate and effective football later, Tooting & Mitcham were unlucky not to be more than 1-0 up. A missed penalty apart, the game had served as a testament to the hard work of the players and coaches throughout the week gone. Having seen this approach being introduced, fine-tuned and understood, I felt proud. Really felt it in my chest, that warm and satisfying feeling. The best half of football I had seen all season.
Light pressure. Movement not as urgent as previously. Turning back to goal, options back home open and ready to recycle. A moment too long taken, a touch too many. Possession surrendered. Now defending, attempting to delay, grappling to contain. Shins, toes clipping ankles and calves. Body hits the ground. Penalty. Clear as day. 1-1.
Many might say that the shape, the style, the approach that had served Tooting & Mitcham so well in the first half was the teams undoing in the second. I would disagree. Rather, what I saw, was a team who started to freestyle on the plan. Who suddenly, and inexplicably, lost confidence in the plan. A team rattled by the moment, rather than the method.
Rather than hitting the wide players, who should find themselves overloading the opposition full backs, players started to take an extra touch, overthinking the situation and ending up going nowhere. Rather than keeping calm and using the three deep outlets to recycle the ball and go again, passes where forced and misplaced, putting players under pressure they need not endure. Some flashes of brilliance from Sam Folarin, but the effectiveness of the whole unit was gone. A mistake, a howler and the final nail, a rash tackle. The game was gone.
I started following Tooting & Mitcham at the beginning of the season. A 0-0 at home to Marlow. I have found myself watching a lot of football at the club since, home and away, under 18s, under 23s, training sessions and even some under 16s matches. I seem obsessed, but I am fascinated by how learning takes place, and Tooting & Mitcham is an institution where opportunities to learn occur throughout. So I watch and observe everything I can. Something changed in my thinking during the second half of the Bracknell game. The performance, the turnaround in fortunes, the hard work undone, changed something inside of me. It triggered an embodied response, that made me realise something. That second half hurt. It hurt a lot. The disappointment, the empathy I felt for the coaches, the sadness that the contrast in halves brought out in me, it hurt. Right in the chest again. Pride pushed out by sorrow. The defeat changed me, changed me from an interested observer who cared for the community of the club and the opportunities to learn it offered me, into a fan. No question, I became a fan in that moment.
I might have flirted with the idea of calling myself a fan before that point and I am sure that to most I at least looked like a fan of the club. I own a Tooting & Mitcham scarf, I sing along with the chants, I keep up to date with the comings and goings of the teams, but I had not felt it, not like I did in that moment against Bracknell. Fuck. Its not something, from experience, that you can turn off either, so I guess I am in for the longhaul.