DANNY LEWIS reminisces about the importance of the game to him growing up in the new entry to our ‘What Football Means To Me’ series.

When it comes to writing an article I’m normally pretty decisive, but I’ve thought of how to go about this one over and over again. Do I point out how vital split-second moments are in differentiating between football games after years of attending them, writing about the time I missed a penalty the same day Teddy Sheringham did for West Ham? Do I focus on how football helped me make friends and muse over the times that I spent at the back of Science lessons with mates that I probably never would have made if it wasn’t for football? Do I go into my thoughts and put the extent to which I miss playing real competitive football onto paper? Or do I bang on about how determined I am to make a living that revolves around my greatest passion?

After too many nights of deliberating over this, it’s finally dawned on me that it is impossible to focus on just one. My love for football didn’t begin when I went to university and started actively working on a day to day basis towards becoming a professional sport journalist and it certainly didn’t cease to exist when the full-time whistle blew to signal the end of my final game representing my sixth form’s football course.

As a child I lived for time spent with a ball at my feet. I was often found in the garden kicking a ball against the fence, at training doing the same old drills or doing my best to avoid uncontrolled tackles on a Saturday and putting the ball into the net. I will never forget my first ever hat-trick, the feeling when dad would come out into the garden to go in goal while I took shots at him and the buzz I got from successfully getting the ball down when my coach booted the ball as high as he could and shouted “How’s your touch?” When I was actually indoors I would normally either be playing FIFA, collecting newspaper clippings from the back pages, making up scenarios of football matches between characters from my favourite TV shows or filtering through my football cards and stickers. It was pure bliss.

It was during my early teenage years when – after years of dabbling in and out of it – I turned from a striker to a defender and my outlook on the sport was completely changed. Where before all I had really cared about was getting goals I now became the gobby captain of the team who would bark orders all game and lead from the back. Where before I’d been hurdling kicks, I was now the one taking out those out who were rushing towards me (though I always got the ball of course). During this time the sport became all-encompassing for me, with no long-term girlfriend or any real commitments to worry me, football was the main thing that I cared about.

This was the time that morphed how I look at the game now. Losses became enough to ruin entire weekends, the pursuit of perfection began, and my competitive streak truly kicked in. My best memories from the time were going on away days with the school as we got to the last 16 of the English Schools Cup, different West Ham games in the first few of my 11 years as a season ticket holder and going on football tours.

Those Upton Park trips were incredible. I’d play in the morning, come back for a bath and bacon sarnie prepared by mum before me and dad would trot off for our day out. The atmosphere never ceased to capture my imagination. I’m even getting goose bumps now when I think of the time spent in the Boleyn Ground’s stands: seeing the pitch for the first time, chicken Balti pies burning my mouth, the endless songs and the buzz that filled my entire being as soon as I saw the stadium. Just being there made me feel so alive.

As I went on to my last years of secondary school and sixth form my love for football morphed once again but maintained the same intensity. When I went to West Ham it was no longer just about being there. I’d moved from the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand to the Bobby Moore Upper and began to analyse the game, have heated debates with my dad about why we were playing so shit and more often than not ended up shouting down at the players. This was the time when I actually started having a laugh with the regulars around me as well. Outside of my own home I have never felt like I have belonged somewhere as much as I did in the Bobby Moore Upper.

On the pitch things changed for me as well. I had been part of a talented Hayes & Yeading United youth team but was let go, so went back to my not so great team from before. For months training sessions and match days would be filled with frustration for me, as I began to receive what seemed like payback for having the ambition to go to a better club. In the end they folded, and I went on a course at my sixth form that allowed me to train every day apart from Wednesdays when we’d play matches.

What a time that was! It was the closest I will ever get to living the life of a professional footballer and I fucking loved it. My A Levels took a lot out of me, but as soon as I got onto the turf nothing else mattered. Shouts of approval at last ditch tackles or a surprise goal from distance truly thrilled me. We went on tour to Holland and played against one of the best amateur youth sides in the country (we narrowly lost 2-1). I took a drop in standard in my final year to ensure I played every game and it’s up there with the best decisions I ever made. I was captain, penalty taker and the person the whole line up was built around.

It’s been a bit under three years since I left sixth form and I haven’t been on the pitch for a competitive game since. I play five-a-side but it really isn’t the same in my eyes. Nowadays my connection with football mainly comes from taking my nephew to the Olympic Stadium and seeing the buzz in his eyes, sipping tea and eating peanuts with my girlfriend at my local club at Uni and staying up to the early hours of the morning researching the stories of players that interest me.

Looking at it, maybe it’s the way that I miss my own moments as a player that causes me to have such a fascination with those of others. It is incredible to think how many times my relationship with football has morphed for me at just 22-years-old, but as I progress through my final year at university I am looking forward to seeing how it changes further.

I have put a lot into writing, so I am determined to make sure that I can make a career out of this. At the age of 15 I told myself that I would make a living from writing about football and I feel like I am finally getting close to being able to achieve that. In terms of playing, if my job allows me to, then despite having back problems since my early teens I will definitely look to get back into it, I can’t help but feel I’m too young to be reminiscing about times gone by.

You never know what’s going to happen in the 90 minutes of a football match. As I approach the end of my three years at university, the same can be said for my life outside of the student campus’ bubble. Football has always been intrinsic to my identity, it’s got me through some of my hardest times, helped me make some of my closest friends and provided me with many of my fondest memories. Amongst the uncertainty of my future, few aspects are definite, but one thing that is clear is that football will be a big part of it.

FOLLOW DANNY ON TWITTER @DannyLewis_95

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