Fixtures and results so far
Reserve team fixtures
Youth team fixtures
Al Wilkinson's poetry
The Meek that was
Stats and analysis
Man of the match awards
The season in pictures
Euro 2004 preview
What came before
Review previous campaigns covered by Cod Almighty
Outside looking in
18 February 2004
It was a masterstroke of charm and ruthless animal cunning. I really had to hand it to him.
My good friend Si - a die-hard Grimsby Town supporter - ingeniously persuaded me to watch a match against Barnsley at Oakwell, my first football game at the age of 28. I didn't support Grimsby Town, I'd never been to Grimsby, I used to live in Barnsley, and I utterly detested football. It was quite an achievement and he wasn't even trying.
There was no bullying or goading. I was invited and I gladly accepted. Choice somehow never entered the equation. Suddenly I was just there without realising how, waiting for kick-off.
It marked the end of a long, strange war of words. I used to feign a passing interest in the national sport, but something snapped. It happened on email, that awful medium: creator of misunderstandings, destroyer of friendships, perpetuator of paranoia.
I wrote a message spewing rabid screaming-ab-dabs bile about footie to Si and others. I apologised, but they seemed to like it, so I ranted more. And somehow my dislike of the game inflated from healthily passive to horrendously pathological. Nowadays they don't even say the word 'football' in my presence anymore. They call it The Round Ball Game.
I hate hating football. It's unnatural, like loathing air or gravity. You miss out on an entire common language and a brilliant warm tribalism. It must be so thrilling. Thousands of people thinking and wishing the same thing, like going to see your favourite band every week. It's lucky to love football. Cod Almighty, I envy you.
But this childish, acidic defiance creeps in. The game is irrelevant. You cannot believe something you don't like can be so ridiculously popular. If it wasn't, it wouldn't matter. Never let anyone tell you thousands of people can't be wrong. They can. Look at the success of Daniel Bedingfield.
I'd scoffed at the "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" argument before. I've never been stabbed, but I'm certain I'd loathe the ordeal. I've never had sex with Uma Thurman, but I'm sure I'd adore all 30 seconds of it. If I went along to a game, I thought, I'd just sit bored and confused, a mystified Vulcan gazing blankly at the crowds, wondering what the fuss was about. "Why are these humans shouting? It's illogical."
Still, I'm not immune to football's stranglehold on the country come World Cup. I felt piqued and deflated when England got knocked out last time (though I can't remember who by). So maybe there was hope.
Mates were quick to mock pre-match. "When one of the players kicks the round thing between the two posts with a net, that means the team has scored a point," one helpfully informed me, voice dripping with sarcasm. They are staggered by my lack of knowledge. I don't recognise any footballers. I have no idea why they take corners, free kicks or throw-ins, and I never want it explained. It's funnier to preserve the ignorance.
I agreed to go as a test, a challenge, an experiment and a laugh. Maybe I'd find I was wrong after all. I might discover my inner fan and emerge cleansed, shiny and new, touched for the very first time. It could happen.
I wish it had. I went in with an open mind, curiously excited at the novelty of it all. But sadly thoughts soon turned to the lyrics of a famously miserable song: "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here."
It was a crushing disappointment. I reacted precisely as I feared I might. I could not wait for it to end. No goals were scored. The players fannied about on the pitch while a group of blokes near me bellowed murderous chants wishing grim atrocities upon the people of Barnsley. I considered turning around and telling them to shut up, as if I were in a cinema. And it was cold. I fantasised about sitting in a warm pub, getting smashed. Could I slip out unnoticed? No, that would be wrong. Best see it through to the end.
The truth was stark and depressing. There was no voyage of discovery, no blinding epiphany. I simply did not like it.
Apparently the dull nil-nil draw was not the best initiation to the beautiful game. But if it had been an epic England-Germany clash ending with a nail-biting 5-4 victory in our favour, I truly believe I would have reacted in the same way. At least I tried.
The one consolation was a feeling of divided loyalty. When I lived in the town I had followed Barnsley's shambolic administration saga and part of me secretly hoped for the beleaguered team to win. I felt traitorous to my former home and its friendly folk sitting with the opposition's fans. Looking over at the home stands I wondered whether anyone I knew could see me.
It was over. I thanked Si for the experience, and felt guilty for not only failing to convert to the cause but adding insult by injury by rooting for the wrong side. In the end, there was only one lesson to learn. Know thissen, as they say in Barnsley.