Your football team will break your heart, but you don’t know that at the beginning.
In April 1998, when I was six, I went to my first Norwich game; we played Huddersfield and won 5–0. Two weeks later, my dad took my sister and I back to Carrow Road, this time for Swindon Town; again, we won 5–0. That was enough for my sister, who never went again – but not for me.
It was a soaring start, but I didn’t know that then – I thought your team scoring five goals a game was just… football. Now I know that it came at the tail end of a lacklustre season in which we would eventually finish 15th; my first few years as a fledgling Canary were marked by that mid-table mediocrity.
Four years later, though, came a precious bright spot: the 2002 play-off final. All day I was giddy from the thrill of seeing my team on television, even giddier when Iwan scored the golden goal that never was – but then came the penalties. I couldn’t bear to watch and retreated upstairs; my mum had to come and break the news. I stayed in my room for a while, in tears.
The paradox is, of course, that heartbreak just makes you love harder. After that final in Cardiff, my fervour took on a new hue: I was all in. I got my first Norwich shirt, collected players’ signatures, programmes, ticket stubs; I followed matches, however you did it then, on the radio or Ceefax or waiting for the Look East report at six o’clock.
It wasn’t long before my steadfastness was repaid: two years later we were promoted as champions. I dragged my mum and sister to the parade in town, remember waving at the players as we were overtaken by the team bus on its way to City Hall. We claimed a spot by Castle Meadow, and I ran out of film in my disposable camera before the parade had even passed by.
The problem with such joy so early is that nothing since has matched it. I know there have been more recent highs, not least the Lambert years (God rest his soul), but it wasn’t the same – how could it ever be? I hadn’t even imagined that it could be better. Then came this season.
We all know how it began, but let’s remind ourselves where we were a year ago: on the final day of the season, after Wes’s perfect send-off the week earlier at Carrow Road, we were on the wrong end of a 5–1 thumping, a forbidding omen.
Over the summer, we lost Josh and Russ and James and Angus and brought in a handful of new, relatively unknown faces. Like clockwork, the hope crept in, as it always does – only for any rising expectations to be punctured by a string of early defeats. Shoulders fell; it was more of the same.
But then all of a sudden it wasn’t – or at least that’s how it felt. In September, we stabilised; in October, we acquired a useful knack of turning deficits into narrow victories, and by November we were starting to enjoy ourselves.
That month my dad, newly retired and thinking about buying a half-season ticket, went to his first match in years. It was against Millwall. You know the rest. I listened at home in London, heart racing, disbelieving. At full time we sent each other identical texts that must have crossed in the air: “What a game!!!” (He got the season ticket.)
Also in November, I got some bad news. For a long time it was all I could think about. But as the results kept going our way and the points started to stack up and we began – tentatively, quietly – to believe, just a little bit, I found relief in football.
In December, I managed to make three games: our last-gasp triumph over Bolton, the exhilarating draw with Forest, and the exasperating loss to Derby, a neat snapshot of our season; of the 18 goals I witnessed, only half of them were ours. In February I returned for Ipswich, 15 years after I last watched us play them at Carrow Road.
Each time, for 90 valuable minutes, my thoughts are confined entirely to the pitch. Even beyond match days, the effect lingers; slowly, my idle moments start to be dominated not by worry but by hope. The elation from one game carries me through to the next, each bringing further evidence that this is an enchanted team, and these are rarified times.
It feels like 2004 all over again, except this time I know all too well how good we have it. I know to make the most of this, a campaign that has everything: high drama, late twists, against-all-odds triumph, untold heroes, redemption, romance. However happy the ending, a part of me will feel it as a loss.
But as I learned from that Cardiff final, that’s what it is to be a fan. Win, lose or draw, one thing is guaranteed: you will suffer. That’s never been truer than in these last few games, but it’s been a useful exercise to remember what disappointment feels like, and besides, each hard-won point has been vital.
Did we ever really think a season so extraordinary would reach a straightforward conclusion? Now at least there is the possibility of the grandstand finish it deserves.
And here’s another truth, one that I was fortunate to discover earlier than most: eventually – maybe months later, maybe years, maybe decades – your suffering will be rewarded. Mine was, in 2004, and I didn’t think it’d happen again; cue this absurd, astonishing campaign, this year of magical thinking that I didn’t know I needed until it was already unfolding in front of me.
How do you say goodbye to a run like this, beyond showing up on Saturday, each making our own small pilgrimage to Carrow Road, or bearing witness from afar?
Well, this has been a gift in the truest sense of the word, something given freely and without expectation – so what else is there to say but thank you?
Except perhaps this: football can break your heart – we all know this by now. But stick with your team through it all, and they might just mend it, too. If you’re very, very lucky, it’ll be when you need it most.