Middlesbrough fan ROB FLETCHER runs through the rituals and habits that characterised his Saturdays growing up for our ‘What football means to me’ series.

Saturday. For many, it is day of recovering from the previous night’s hangover at the end of the working week. For others, it is a day of retail therapy, spending the fruits of their labour. For a large portion of the population, Saturdays are about one thing and one thing only: football.

Whether playing or watching, rain or shine, rituals and habits are embedded in the fabric of the day. These seemingly minor customs combine to create a ceremonial experience.

As a fan, an avid fan, waking early on a Saturday morning, in preparation for the match, was an essential element of growing up. It provided all of the ammunition needed for the form room on a Monday morning. Not only that, it made weekends of homework and no money all the more bearable.

Selecting a shirt for the match is the first and hardest choice. We’re at home, so the home shirt seems an obvious choice. Although this season’s effort was a welcome gift, it’s not preferred. Last season’s it is then. Far from singling a fan out in the crowd, it will unify and bring a collective ambition: a home triumph.

After the days when football was saved for the young male adult, my time began in the early days of the Premier League, and our club had not long arrived on the scene. A forgotten team, a mere footnote in history, had risen from the grave years earlier; the same name, but a different goal. A goal to achieve success, to bring light to a town too often shrouded in darkness.

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Before joining in the collective procession to the ground a short pit stop was required. Local pubs and clubs were filled by noon. Inside, fans adorned with hats, scarves and replica shirts were ready for the big game. For the proprietor, guaranteed money in the till, and with a bit of luck, repeat custom on the way home. Despondent fans still spend their hard-earned cash in the same volume as fans that burst into jubilant song as they entered the bar.

Once everyone had shed their relatively few inhibitions, transport arrived. Never first class, but always reliable, it was hardly a picture of modernity: seat belts were a luxury. Despite the archaic nature of the vehicle, it could always be found in the right place at the right time, all the time. Same can’t be said for the passengers. Emptying the tank before the short journey meant there were always a few unruly stragglers, who would be heckled from the back without fail. As a kid, you pick up plenty of quips and put downs primed and ready to use in the playground.

Usually, the chat on the coach would involve pouring over minor details from previous games, as well as a few betting tips. Post-match plans often dropped into these conversations, but a young ear was oblivious to the names of these venues and the tall tales they would generate.

A child with a passion for football, to be surrounded by your elders who were wedded to the club and already experienced a multitude of highs and lows, was priceless. At the time, my focus was on the present; who plays where, how much did they cost, what was their goal record etc. Theirs was a focus on memories, moments, and men who had pulled on the shirt with pride and left a lifelong impression.

Comparing their past to my present created points for debate and discussion. These still rage on today in all facets of the beautiful game. No matter the club, the player or the achievements, there is always someone, somewhere who holds another victor in higher regard. It’s what makes the game alive and relevant to all.

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After shimmying into a makeshift parking space, we continue our journey on foot, through the once barren landscape, to our Mecca by the river, joined by the hordes who have abandoned their cars. It is a pilgrimage, a sacred journey shared by generations. Even more than seeing the stadium up ahead, we can see the nothingness that surrounds it. There is no shiny destination to distract from the main attraction, the stadium is the draw.

As we stepped across the well-trodden, but unmade dirt track, talk turned back to the match. Not just today’s match, but the previous one, two, three. For the game doesn’t exist in this one moment, it is an accumulation of time and experiences.

The speculation is a joy, free to express how we feel about our team. Football fandom is made on these opinions and regularly irrational thought processes. This matters not on the journey, for the ale has only fuelled the irrationality. Only the professionals behind closed doors have a semblance of normal, and even that is in the strange normal of the football world.

As we edged closer, fumes from petrol fuelled burger vans filled the air. Labouring behind the counter, the friendly faces meet, greet and indulged our carnivorous desires. Burgers named after our favourite players are irresistible to boozy tastebuds. We hand over a note and carry on moving, the size of the crowd growing as we march closer.

Talk turns to the team sheet, an A4 piece of paper with the game’s outcome written all over it. Invariably the system would be the same, tried and tested, despite the crowd basing their predictions on shiny new formations and systems. Everyone has their favourites.

In a time without social media and 24/7 football reporting, the announcement of the team was a reason to get to the ground early. That and the overpriced alcohol. As a kid, drinking a bottle of lemonade without the lid was not a valid reason to arrive early and stand inside the concrete jungle of the concourse. If there was a TV, that was a welcome bonus.

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After spinning through the turnstile with season ticket in hand, the holler of the programme seller, and his lottery ticket selling nemesis, drown out your thinking. Parting with loose change is the favourite occupation of dads at the match, and buying your son a programme was an easy way to do it.

Inside the concrete jungle, pleasantries are exchanged with old friends not party to these same conversations already shared on the bus journey. Often, the misery of work infiltrates the conversation, still hanging in the air, despite the escapism of the pitch being so close. As a kid, hearing this industrial chat first hand gave a stark reminder of the fact that completing homework was merely a chore and not a life sentence.

Before long, the pitch calls and, to be honest, the luxury of a seat, however cold and wet it may have been on the second row. Coupled with that, patience quickly wore out when surrounded by men talking about steel and electrics, using enough acronyms to send any sane adult hurrying for the exit.

Stepping out of the dull, grey concourse into a sea of red is a joy. The crowd is still thin, a smattering of twos and threes, heads deep in discussion, flicking through a programme or tucking into an overcooked greasy delight.

On the pitch, the players, selected after hard work on the training pitch, are now applying the finishing touches. Intricate dashes between cones, dodging an invisible opponent and firing the ball at the reserve goalkeeper characterised this preparation. It often seemed a light touch, and seemingly irrelevant to youthful eyes. Still, it served to create a buzz around the stadium, something to whet the fans appetite for the main event. From a seat close to the corner flag, in touching distance of the away fans, watching the heroes of the next ninety minutes and scoping out your opponents, was all part of the ritual.

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After guzzling the now flat lemonade, the last pints have been downed and the crowd is almost full to the brim. A whir of excitement and anticipation fizzes around the stadium. Watches are checked and final preparations made. Fans are ready. Waiting.

Seeing your dad appear, through the mass of security, primed and ready for trouble that never happened, was a great sight. Barely a minute remained before kick-off, but it was still enough time to debrief him on the finer details of the warm up. He had invariably forgotten the team as the players came onto the pitch, so a quick reminder was always forthcoming.

As the seconds ticked by, all eyes turned towards the tunnel. A pause, before the opening beats of the entrance music fired up. Rhythmic clapping builds.

Decked out in black, the officials and standard bearers enter the fray. Captains followed, leading out their team. Mascots gawp at the cavern of noise created by this all-encompassing sea of red, proud to be representing their parents, their school or their junior team.

After all of the build-up, the preparation and rituals, the professionals are ready. The fans, they’ve been ready all day, but now is the magic moment.

The referee puts his whistle to his lips.

FOLLOW ROB ON TWITTER @thewayweplay11 AND VIEW HIS BLOG HERE https://thewayweplayblog.wordpress.com/

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