There are many ways to experience a game of football.
It’s comforting, I’m sure, having that same portion of the pitch obstructed by a West Stand roof support, or returning to a cosy sofa groove to drink the same brand of lager each Saturday. But you get different kinds of joy watching another late Kemar Roofe winner roll in via the red button, or witnessing the madness unfold on BBC Sport, snatching glances at your phone on unsanctioned work breaks. There’s even pleasure in suspending your disbelief for as long as it takes for the picture to catch up with the commentary describing another goal conceded on an unreliable stream.
I’ll never forget watching Marcelo Bielsa’s last game while curled, foetus-like on the vestibule floor, outside a toilet on an over-crowded train on the way to my uncle’s 60th birthday party.
One of my cosiest defeats was the automatic promotion battle between Leeds and Sheffield United at the end of 2018/19. It was a game that changed things — Chris Basham’s winner meant the Blades leapfrogged Leeds into second place — but it was okay, then, as these things only seem dire in hindsight. At the time, I was innocent of the way Tyler Roberts hitting the post would come to characterise the end of that season and just chuffed to be watching the footie with my mate Elena, sitting on the bed of my third-year student flat with a really big bowl of chips between us.
A lifelong Everton fan, Elena was really rooting for Leeds at this time, largely because the football was amazing to watch but also as a good friend who wanted me to have a nice time. She made sympathetic noises during the Whites’ disheartening defeat to Brentford and patted my head after Derby.
Needless to say, with Leeds and Everton squaring up to their second relegation battle in as many seasons, Elena has withdrawn her services as my chief tear-mopper. The shift in dynamic in our footballing friendship has seldom been so stark as during her visit last weekend, when the Toffees and the Peacocks were playing at the same time, against Brentford and Brighton.
The simultaneous 3pm kick-offs presented us with the attractive opportunity to try streaming the games at home on separate screens, on separate sofas, my wifi groaning under the burden. But it had been enough of a mission getting Elena to the north amid a flurry of train cancellations, so it seemed a shame for the pinnacle of the weekend to be anxiously co-existing under blankets in the cold of my back-to-back living room. We decided to turn our backs on football for one Saturday afternoon and headed out to embrace the charm of Ilkley Moor, the snowy magnificence of the Cow and Calf rocks.
After my Nissan Micra seriously struggled at the first whiff of an incline, we abandoned plans to park at the top of the moor, dumping the car at the foot of a steep bank. The snow had erased the path, and we were trusting in footsteps. But like Bielsa’s Leeds in the Premier League, our choice of footwear was all too quickly found out. Amid slushy slopes and sticky mud, deeper patches of snow offered better grip, forcing us to hop quickly to minimise exposure of shins to melting flakes. There was no way of knowing what lay beneath the surface. It could be some nice spongey gorse or it could be a big boulder of sandstone.
We’d been walking for hardly any time at all when a cheer went up from behind me as Elena celebrated Dwight McNeil’s first minute opener for Everton. Pisstake. “Got a long time to hold on, though,” she said, tempering her expectations. I agreed. Then, I began to take more pleasure than I’d freely admit to, watching her gingerly progressing uphill in once-pristine white New Balance trainers with suede accents, which were unaccustomed to life beyond the short stretch of pavement between her flat and Ladbroke Grove tube station.
As we trekked through the cold, Elena dutifully updated me that Alexis Mac Allister had given Brighton the lead, that Patrick Bamford had equalised, and that all the while Everton were still winning. I took a keen interest in the stunning scenery. Brown shrubs peeping through the blanket of white gave the landscape a striking mottled appearance, and the higher we climbed, the more dramatic was this effect reflected on the other side of the valley. The beauty escaped my companion. Elena first learned of the concept of walking for pleasure when we lived together through lockdown but all it took was one man who looks like an accountant sticking the ball in the onion bag to make her forget all of that.
The final stretch, to mount Ilkley Moor’s infamous cow, was especially difficult to navigate. We made it through with the promise of checking BBC Sport at the top (like children) and, in a moment of unity, holding hands to prevent each other slipping. At the top, we went our separate ways to clamber over things and admire the view. After a while, I checked the score to find Leeds were losing to an own goal by Jack Harrison. I told Elena. Nodding silent acknowledgement, she already knew.
“That’s really big of you not to gloat,” I said. It really was. “You know, you shouldn’t be so scared of the Championship,” I told her. “It’s not really a big deal.”
I decided to put the whole sorry business from my mind and enjoy the moodiness of the moor. I didn’t have to try too hard. It looked spectacular and made me feel all reflective about stuff that had nowt to do with Leeds United.
With our 5pm table booking approaching, I sought out Elena to coax her off the rocks and down to the pub — usually a straight-forward task. But now the little bastard was sitting on the cow, hunched over, hands stuffed in her pockets, watching the final ten minutes of Everton’s game on her phone, balancing it precariously on her thigh. As I watched her, perching there, freezing, oblivious to my presence, set against a beautiful wintery backdrop, I wondered — are we mad?
I dragged her off the rock with me, painstakingly, and she followed me down ten paces behind, as inseparable from the game as my adolescent cousin from Roblox. The challenge of sliding down was no simpler — more difficult, even — than ascending. She fell over on this leg of the journey, but only confessed to this much later, too wrapped up in what was happening at Goodison to chuckle at her own idiocy.
I’m less keen on the idea of Everton getting relegated since they dispatched a trio of bellends in Anthony Gordon, Richarlison and Frank Lampard and brought in Sean Dyche, who doesn’t think he’s too important and knows the simple pleasure of a game of ‘lookie-likey’. What’s more, there’s that redemption arc that Marcelo Bielsa opted not to fulfil. Another loyal club servant was mercilessly dispatched, and Burnley went down anyway — now here’s Dyche again, back in the game, proving he can win at relegation and competing for a chance to fight the treacherous Clarets when they come up next season.
Conversely, I’m less horrified by the idea of Leeds’ relegation this time around. We have also lost a bellend but, this time last year, that bellend was merely the guardian of Bielsa’s legacy. Now all that Javi Gracia is doing is protecting a raft of mistakes that had nothing to do with anything beautiful.
But we knew better than to go into all that at the pub. Except for some minor shots fired to the tune of ‘why aren’t you over him yet?’, mine and Elena’s friendship survived as darkness and snow descended on the moor.
Unfortunately, my car didn’t and we silently agreed to resist alarm as our speed fell from 40mph to 30mph to 20mph in fourth gear, before accepting our fate and pulling over on the side of the A660 at Poole-in-Wharfedale. We bonded, I got my bare arse out for a piss in the snow, and we braced ourselves for a long wait in the cold, before a kind man from the AA named Andy came to tow us home.
It had been an ordeal of sorts but we made it back in one piece. Settling down with mugs of Yorkshire tea, the acrid scent of my burning clutch had hardly left my nostrils when the sound of Everton highlights sparked up from Elena’s phone.
“Could you give it a rest for one minute, mate?”
I could have enjoyed a point against Brighton had she stayed in Notting Hill. ⬢