The following is excerpted with permission from Saturday, 3PM: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football by Daniel Gray (Bloomsbury).
It’s coming your way, it’s coming your way, it’s coming your way! Oh, but it lands just short, a few rows down and five or six seats across. The supporter who catches it does so perfectly and casts it pitchwards with a meaty, assured throw. Those around him pat his back and cheer. You ponder that in any case the ball would probably have smashed into your face, and that you’re not even sure you can throw it that far.
The ball sails into the stands with the unpredictability of a comet. Being behind the goal during the warm-up increases your chances of receiving it but, in tandem, your chances of being concussed by it. When a wayward shot jolts into the stand during the match, there is just time for a jeer before it is parried around and returned, or in the odd away end concealed beneath a jumper until killjoy stewards retrieve it, luminous trading standards officers seizing counterfeit.
The finest specimen of the ball going into the crowd, though, is when a clearance – often by a goalkeeper – floats into a stand by the touchline. It allows a juvenile, communal thrill to build. For a moment, you are all back playing pass the parcel and feel that your turn is coming. In this instance there is, too, more time for the shared hope of contact to ferment, more time for reactions to be considered. When it reaches the stand, the lesser pace of the ball can mean clean catches and, on rare, golden occasions, headers. Cue chants of, “Sign him on, sign him on, sign him on.” There are caveats which are seductive distractions in themselves: when the ball rattles around empty seats, and a ball boy has to pogo the advertising hoarding to retrieve it, and when it leaves the stadium altogether. Making a leap of consciousness, the latter gives you time to reminisce of childhood hours wasted trying to retrieve footballs from impenetrable gardens, spiky conifers and low-hanging Volvo estate cars.
This phenomenon pokes a hole in football’s fourth wall. For a brief moment, the barrier between being part of the game and watching it tumbles. A full-back has to make eye contact with the child in the second row trying to return the ball, because he needs to take a throw and push his team towards an equalizer. Suddenly, the fan is a figment of the action and will remember those 15 seconds until grey and wistful.
Author and historian Daniel Gray is the author of Stramash and Homage to Caledonia. A Middlesbrough supporter, Daniel began attending football matches in 1988 and has never recovered.