Maybe you're intrigued by what you've seen on Match of the Day. Maybe you've finished putting up that shed you've spent the last three years building and you're at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon1. Maybe you just want to see what all the fuss is about. It doesn't really matter what your reasons are; if you find yourself studying the fixture list in the morning papers and daydreaming about seeing the beautiful game in the flesh, there are a few things you should know.
Choosing Your Team
The chances are, you can skip this step and move on to getting hold of a ticket. But it's possible that, for some unfathomable reason, you want to go to the match and don't have a team to support. Don't worry - there's time for you to make your choice.
Family - This is probably your best bet, especially if you're young. Supporting the same team as your parents means you'll be able to go to matches with them, give them the sad eyes and get them to buy you a pie/scarf/Bovril/commemorative miner's lamp. Choosing a different team to your parents could well lead to you being disowned and living out your days as a street urchin.
Locale - It goes without saying that supporting your local team is generally a good thing. Your local side is a part of your community's identity, history and social life. It'll give you something to talk about in the pub, or with your neighbours, or at bus stops… Please note that this tends not to work if you're Cornish, as Cornwall seems to be unable to produce a professional football team.
Friends - Well, they're your friends probably because you have shared interests. So, share in their footballing interests and support the same team; it'll give you someone to sit next to at games, for starters.
Success - Pick a side that wins trophies - you glory hunting, pot collecting, plastic armchair low-life. Don't bother supporting your local side, or the side your family supports, or even the side your friends support. Just declare yourself a Manchester United/Arsenal/Chelsea/Liverpool2 fan and stop reading this now. Why go to a game when you can have prawn sandwiches in front of the TV? This works especially well if you live in Cheshire or Surrey3.
Now that's done, find out a little about your chosen side. The Football Association website is a good place to start. Once you've at least worked out where they play, it's time to start planning your afternoon at the match.
Choosing Your Match
There are a few things you need to take into account when you pick your match.
The Opposition - There's no better introduction to the excitement, atmosphere and tribalism of football than the local derby4. However, there's no easier time to find a ticket than when you're playing a team two leagues below you in the League Cup on a rainy Wednesday night.
The Price - Common sense dictates that the more glamorous the opposition or fixture, the more expensive your ticket will be. And more people will be trying to get their hands on them. When buying tickets to a football match, prices are commonly split into 'categories', meaning the better, more famous, or more local the opposition, the pricier the ticket. This means it’ll cost you more to see Manchester United visit your home ground than to see Rochdale. It'll also cost you more to go to Old Trafford every week and watch United's international superstars than watch the 'Dale hoof it around in the mud at Spotland. See, it's not all fun and games for pot collectors!
The Date - If you're supporting a local side, this isn't too much of an issue, as you should live and/or work within a few miles of the ground. If for any reason you live a fair distance from your 'home' ground, you may need to make special preparations for midweek games.
Right, now that you've picked your match, you need a ticket. Most teams operate an online ticketing service, but you may have to call or visit the ticket office to purchase a ticket before the game. If it doesn't look like the match is going to sell out, you can always take a risk and buy a ticket on the day. Generally, though, the earlier you get a ticket, the more choice you’ll have over where to sit. Tickets are usually released on general sale up to two months before the game, so some forward planning could be required.
The match kicks off in a few hours time. Have you got everything?
Ticket - If you aren’t buying a ticket on the day, you'd better not forget the one you’ve bought. Having to leg it home at 2.50pm is incredibly embarrassing, and the chances are you'll miss a decent chunk of the first half.
Transport - Whether you're walking, driving or using public transport, it's worth taking time to plan your route in advance. There's nothing worse than turning up five minutes late because you didn't get the right bus, only to find the single goal of the game has already been scored.
Clothing - Wear what you want to the game; there's no dress code. Whether you opt for a comfortable T-shirt and jeans combination, or a replica shirt, scarf, silly hat and cowbell, nobody will bat an eyelid. It's worth noting, though, that this is the only time in your adult life that you can wear a replica shirt without looking like a complete berk.
Inside the Ground
Right, you've gone through the turnstile, bought a drink, found your seat, sat down, stood up, looked around and checked your watch. What now?
Before the game - remember when we said football is a good talking point? Well, guess what? This applies double now you're in the ground. Most people sat around you will be more than willing to share their opinions on your team, the opposition, in-form players, tactics, the price of your pie and Pop Idol. Well, maybe not Pop Idol, but you get the idea. Then the teams come out, you clap, chant a bit, and then the referee blows the whistle. For the next 90 minutes, nothing else matters.
Right, the match is on. Have fun! Sing along, shout at the referee, question the parentage of opposition players, and remember to leap around like a madman when the ball crosses the line6. You need to make a decision, though: to stand or sit? You've got a seat but it’s in a stand - what do you do? As a rule of thumb, look at the person in front of you, and the one in front of them. If they're standing, you should stand; if they're sitting, you should sit. For those wondering 'why you’d want to stand when you've paid for a seat?' the answer is this: it's just the way things are done.
You should remember, though, that you're technically not allowed to stand in a seated area, and that the stewards will try to get you to sit down. You can use this to liven up a boring game. Every time they get the last person seated, you can leap to your feet yelling: 'Stand up, and sing for (the name of your team).’ Hopefully, your fellow supporters will join in, the stewards have to start all over again, and hilarity will ensue.
If you're used to watching games on TV, you'll notice a few things. First, you'll only have one angle, and everything happens once, in front of you, in real time. There aren't usually any slow motion replays, computerised simulations or close-up shots showing that, yes, the ball did rustle a hair on that player's little finger. The second thing you'll notice is that there's no commentary. No 'knowledgeable' ex-players7 are explaining what's going on, and nobody's yelling in your ear that that two-yard tap-in is 'the greatest sporting achievement in the whole of human history'.
If you're used to listening to games on the radio, you'll probably be stunned by just how bad your winger's haircut is. That's to be expected - his haircut is awful8.
With no visual or audio explanations or analysis, you'll have to start interacting with the people around you. The crowd can be bewildering, but people normally fall into at least one of the following broad categories:
The Stalwart Fan - Pay attention to this person. They'll know the words to most of the songs; they'll provide some of that analysis you're missing; and they'll be able to give a different point of view on any controversial decisions. That bolt-on penalty you're shouting for could be a dive in your neighbour's eyes.
The Old-Hand - They haven’t missed a match since 1967 and remember pretty much every player who’s worn the shirt. Anything you need to know about your team's history, you can find out from them. Just be prepared to find out that none of these wet blankets in the modern game would last five minutes in the borderline-fatal games of the 1970s.
Statto - Want to know the average height of your 1972 cup-winning team? They'll tell you. How many goals has your team scored between the 70th and 90th minutes in the past three seasons? They'll know. Just don't ask for relationship advice.
The Pillock - This person knows nothing about football, but won't shut up. Your 20-goals-a-season striker's having an off-day? Of course! All his goals have been flukes and he should never have been signed in the first place - or so the Pillock will tell you. Repeatedly. Until you find yourself swinging at a steward so you can be dragged away.
The Hysteric - Most hysterics are women, but not all women at the football are hysterics9. Usually under 20 years of age, the hysteric tends to be fixated on one player in particular, and screams loudly whenever he touches the ball. If you wear glasses, take care. If the love of the hysteric's life suffers so much as a broken nail from a late tackle, the resultant banshee wail has been known to shatter nearby windows.
The Cynic - If you think the Pillock is bad, you haven’t heard the Cynic. If your team are winning, the opposition were bribed. Losing? Well, the Cynic saw your centre half, goalkeeper and groundsman in the Dog and Duck last night, so they know they're hungover. With this in mind, you'd think they'd be quiet if the scores are level. Oh no, they'll be counting down the seconds until the inevitable last-minute goal that the opposition are bound to score.
The Convert - The opposite of the Old-Hand, they’ve spent the past 30 years either following your local rivals or putting in a spot of glory hunting - but now they’ve seen the light. Of course, the only way they can prove his loyalty is to only wear clothing bought from the club shop, have the club's name tattooed on their forehead, and spend the whole 90 minutes questioning the passion of the fans around them.
The Steward - A failed traffic warden, the Steward's job is to stop you from having fun. Fortunately, they have less authority than a school prefect. Unfortunately, they’ll make up a reason to have the police throw you out of the ground.
The Police - Remember how you can never find a policeman when someone's burning down that shed you just finished putting up? Well, you can remind yourself what they look like, because there'll be loads at the match.
After the Match
Right, there we go. The game's over. You could have won, you could have lost, or you could have drawn. Whatever the result, the chances are you that want to go again. So, go on, rinse and repeat! Watch more football! You might even want to go to an away game - but that's another story…