Saturday night, 8 o'clock, and I am leaning on the bar of a crowded local pub watching the England-Austria game. And, although there is music on so you can't hear the commentary, enough people scattered around are taking an interest in proceedings to engender a sense of shared experience, and a few shouts of. ‘Come on!’, and ‘Give it wide Gerrard. Give it wide!’ can be heard above the general Saturday night hubbub. And England have cruised into a 2-0 lead and I am getting into the second pint of Guinness and beginning to enjoy myself, when into the vacant space beside me at the bar walks The Drunkest Man in Levenshulme. It is at this point that my night starts to take a turn for the worse.
I say he walks in. But really the The Drunkest Man in Levenshulme looks as though the whole one-foot-in-front-of-the-other manoeuvre has been beyond him for a good few hours now. What he in fact does is tack towards me quickly at an angle of 45 degrees, in the style of an Olympic racing yacht, dodging various groups of drinkers like so many strategically placed buoys, before coming to rest with a thump against the bar. He turns to his mate, a similarly-smartly dressed but thicker-set individual who looks like he has been slightly more able to handle the afternoon’s drinking, and says ‘gets us a beer in’, or some slurred approximation of these words. He then notices me standing beside him (well, he falls against me, straightens himself up against the bar and then notices me standing beside him), and we embark on the following conversation:
Man (waving arms in general direction of TV screen): 'So, daralar rallargh rallar darralla-ralla, the raller raller the match then?'
Me (hoping this is the correct answer): 'Aye, that would be right, mate'.
Man (gesticulating wildly at TV screen while shaking head): 'No, I said, darrallargh rallargh rallara darallagh rallagh the match then, ruagh!'
Me: 'Im sorry mate, but I really can't understand a word you're saying'
Man (shakes head sorrowfully; rocks dangerously on his heels; skittles backwards into a gaggle of middle-aged women, steadies himself and rocks back into view, comes to rest against the bar, takes a deep breath). 'Ah, darrallar? You don't fucking understand? Well do you understand this, rallarghhh- if you keep taking the piss I'll punch yer in the face daralllar-the-yer-bastard-auugh!!'
Me (turning to his mate, who has been looking on in amusement): 'Will you tell your mate I can't understand what he's saying?
Man’s mate (addressing companion at top of voice) 'You're taking the piss mate! You're fucked- aye, fucked. Arrrghhhh!'
Man 'Daralllagh rallerraller.'
At this point the two men apparently forget about my presence, and proceed to argue with each other for another couple of minutes, until the drunker one leans a bit too much to the right and finds himself careering sideways out onto the A6, where for all I know he is run over by a 192 bus. The slightly less inebriated one, wearing a look of mild curiosity, follows him out of the door. As they stagger off into the night, I let out a sigh of relief and look up at the TV screen to see that Austria have mounted a rousing comeback, and in the three minutes I have spent nearly getting into a fight have scored not once but twice. It seems we have a game on our hands, and I order a third Guinness to accompany the denoument.
The England game, which ends 2-2, is the second part of a double header, which starts earlier in the day when I attend Stockport County's Edgely Park ground to watch with 4000 or so other hardy (some may say foolhardy) souls, paying £16 a head for the privilege of watching the local team being thoroughly outclassed by another struggling Third Division outfit, the far-from mighty Torquay United. We leave the ground at 4:45, and all around me the regulars are grumbling, and more than one is faithfully promising that they're 'not coming back to watch that bloody shower in a hurry'. They will be back in two weeks' time- and full of hope again- of course. As will the seven-or-so-year old boy in front of me, tiny England shirt emblazoned with the name 'Beckham', who looks up at his dad on the way to the carpark and offers the following insight: 'What County need is Michael Owen, isn't it?'
Within a year or two the young boy will realise that the chances of Michael Owen, or any other world footballing superstar, coming to play for the hapless Stockport County are non-existent outside of the fantasy football management games on his bedroom computer. But by then it will be too late to change his allegiance to the real-life Owen's Real Madrid, because by the simple means of dragging him along to Edgeley Park every fortnight to watch 2-0 defeats by the likes of Torquay United, his well-meaning dad will have got him hooked on the cause of his local team. In due course the boy will grow into a world-weary man, and join the chorus of Cheadle End grumblers, telling anyone who will listen at the end of another dispiriting defeat that he’s 'had it for good with this bunch of pansies'- while knowing full well that he'll be back in two weeks' time, declaring that he 'can really see County starting to turn it around this afternoon'.
And I will probably be there with him. Although I sometimes think I am mad to keep on churning out £16 a time to sit in freezing rain and watch Third Division defenders hoof the ball over the stand when I could go to the pub and watch any amount of top-class football on Sky TV for the price of a couple of pints. But then, of course, I happen along to my local pub to take in a game, and am reminded why the pie and bovril option will always be my football experience of choice. Because, while you may well catch pneumonia sitting in the freezing stand, and you will almost certainly find yourself growing older, bitterer and more downright grumbly as thankless season succeeds thankless season, you are unlikely to have to attempt to give a satisfactory answer to the enquiry 'daraller rallagh raller, rallagh rallagh the match then?' or risk getting a smack in the face. And for such small mercies in these uncertain times, I count myself lucky.