In the first of our 'What football means to me' series, MARCO JACKSON tells us why any sport lover needs 'a John' in their life.
I met up with my friends over Christmas, the group of us together for the first time in nearly four years – given that ten years ago, that would have been a daily occurrence, we had some catching up to do.
Naturally, the conversation eventually turned to sport and, with him having been resident in Illinois when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I had something important to discuss with my friend Greg. Before I moved to Kent, I used to follow the Cubs big time. Baseball teams play 162 games a season and for three years I watched them all, online, as well as listening to all the minor league games that didn’t clash. Peoria, Iowa, Daytona, and even the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (don’t ask).
I talked about this, and Greg told me that nobody does it in America – they just have ‘a John’. John goes to all the games, knows all the gossip and puts in the hard yards, so people who have to work, or to look after children, or both, don’t have to.
I realise now, that for my consumption of football, I have a John. Happily, he is called John.
When I was younger, it was just me, my sister and my mum. I watched football, sure, but on the TV and listened on the radio. Perhaps that’s why I still like it on the radio; there was no other way a lot of the time. A lot of kids recorded the Top 40, and I did, but I had more recordings of football matches. I still bring snippets of it to mind at suitable points – long lost moments that nobody else has a hope in hell of knowing what I’m talking about.
John came into our family when I was nine or ten, and brought with him the possibility of attending football matches – not that I knew it straight away. He was just a nice man my mum spent some time with and we met on weekends.
At that stage, I was besotted with Roberto Baggio and Trevor Sinclair, so while we did go to a couple of Huddersfield away games, I remember being more excited about Loftus Road and QPR. Hell, I must have been a more annoying child than I am an adult.
Yet there’s something about John, something wonderful and enviable and warm – something that I didn’t appreciate then, but do more and more now. He is steeped in Huddersfield Town. His memories are intertwined with the team, of places he’s been to; watching them and of games he’s seen.
I’ve listened agog to his tales of seeing great Town teams of the past (and not so great ones, but we’ve both seen enough of those) and the days he had watching them. To his credit – and I don’t know if he’ll read this, but I mean it well – he never seems to have been too drunk at games to remember them, as I’ve found a fair few story-tellers are. There’s a respect for the sport in that, and it’s one I hold myself. If I’m going to a game, I’ll likely forget most of it anyway, I best not drink enough to forget the rest.
We’ve attended plenty of games together; stood on terraces at Stockport and Crewe; sat in run down ends at Doncaster and Rotherham; spent New Year’s afternoons and Boxing Days in preposterous parts of the country.
You get to a point, watching a middling team, that you can’t differentiate a lot of the games, just that you were there and a few of the more spectacular moments, either on or off the pitch. You share them, and they become part of your joint history.
As I became older we didn’t attend matches together, but we’d be sat in different parts of the same stadium watching the game and would have a lovely walk home picking it apart. At first, as a child, you don’t think your opinions are worth anything. How can you have seen something that this veteran of hundreds of games had seen differently? But John’s not like that; he seems to know that everyone sees a slightly different game, so from simple things like seeing if a ball bounced off a leg because you’re in a different position, to the deeper aspects of whether opinions of incidents are shaded by the reactions of those around you, it’s a great learning experience that immediate dissection of a game – what people thought of it, organically, before the internet has descended on it and passed judgement.
In days gone by, it would be the chat in the pub before the evening edition came out. There is no evening edition now, just a website update. I miss those conversations a great deal and on the rare occasions I see Town at home nowadays, even if I sit with friends or on my own, and it’s invariably one or the other, I always try to walk away from the game with John. It was the first time I ever felt like an adult in a conversation, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.
There’s even more. I’ve moved away now. I still love Huddersfield Town, more so than ever, maybe. And still now, I can rely on John – I know how he sees the games, and I trust how he sees the games, so I know what he is telling me is the truth; a truth filtered through myriad games and informed by them all. These are exciting times to be a Town fan, historic and wonderful times, maybe the best in anyone’s lifetime, but they’re not the only good times.
Perhaps the best part of it all, and I’m sure other people present might roll their eyes – roll away – is when I’m back visiting, how my mum will spend her time trying to keep up with my life, what we’re doing and how everything’s going, but John really comes to life when the conversation turns to football. Hours and hours can go by in a mixture of speculation, reminiscence and ideology.
It’ll come as no surprise that I’m a fantasist – I want my Town team to fill me with joy when I see them and maybe win. John is more of a realist. He watches them more often, and when you do that you accept that sometimes it’s a bit of a slog, but so long as you win that’s OK. I was that way once, I understand it, I’ve got the blessing of distance now. It means we never fully agree, but what football conversation is fun if you fully agree?
So, I know every week that my mum will be watching Town with John, and they know that I’d sort of like to be there, but am sort of glad that I’m not. They experience things differently in football, in a way that’s difficult to explain. I think the best way I can settle on is that my mum sees magic in a lot of other things, but John sees it in football. I can see both sides of that coin, it was that magic that made me fall in love with the game, but I love other things, and the magic in them, just as much nowadays.
This last summer was a strange one. My mum had an operation, so she was unable to travel much. Of course, it was quite an important point for Huddersfield Town; a Wembley play-off final to see if they’d make it to the Premier League. For the first time in an absolute age, I sat next to John for a game. I’d convinced myself I was there as a proxy for my mum, even if it wasn’t quite true and we all knew it. What is family for if not to allow you to lie to yourself a little? 90 minutes passed, then 120, then we got to penalties.
We were relatively calm throughout the shoot-out. Maybe the game had numbed us a little, maybe the realisation of what victory would mean was sitting a touch uneasy. There was, it turned out, nothing to worry about. Christopher Schindler had the coolest head in the stadium, and sent half of it into delirium. After twenty-five years of John teaching me about how wonderful it could be to be a Huddersfield fan, I got to see it for myself, and having him with me, so we could hug together and cry together (that might just have been me), and gradually realise that eventually we’d have to stop clapping and go home, was perfect. It was a wonderful afternoon; the best possible company to spend it in, and without a doubt the best lie I’ve ever told myself.
When Greg first told me about the idea of having a John, I thought there was something a little sad in the role, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel the opposite. These are people who know exactly who they are, and love sharing that with people – it’s the richness of the human experience writ large.
Maybe having a John is the same as having a compass. Whatever you’re doing, you know which way they’re facing, and you can rely on them. It’s a bloody good thing to have, and he’s a bloody good guy to know. What does football mean to me? It means John, and it means how I first got to know him, and later got to love him, without even realising any of it had happened.
FOLLOW MARCO ON TWITTER @Marco4J