I feel lucky. Despite not being able to see Norwich play at Carrow Road since February 2020, I’ve had the chance to go into the stadium, walk on the pitch, take a good, long look around and contemplate the events of the last year.
Like someone rescued from a desert grabbing a first drink of water, I gulped at the opportunity to drink in this return to much-missed surroundings.
It left me feeling a little drunk, to be honest. My equlibrium sent squiffy by being intoxicated with the return to a place that’s always been my life’s second home wherever I have lived. Carrow Road has been a huge part of my life since I saw my first game, way back in 1985, with my dearly departed Dad.
Picking up my sons from a Junior Canaries event, I stood on the turf a day after City had celebrated clinching the title at home against Reading. I had, like every home game, watched the match on my laptop. Like viewing the game through a pane of glass you can see everything, but you’re not there, not part of what’s going on. Detached.
All of this has lended an air of fiction to this season. Not being there makes it all feel unreal, like watching someone else play FIFA on a console.
My eldest son found, nestling in the grass, the metal cap from the top of one of the many Moet champagne bottles opened and sprayed by the players in title-winning jubilation.
Holding that in my hand and still being able to see the stud marks in the pitch from the game the day before suddenly made me realise life for professional players had moved on not just without me, but also without tens of thousands of supporters. All of us left with a football-shaped void in the middle of our lives that we’ve struggled to fill with televised games.
To many, it will sound a little pathetic and self-indulgent. How can anyone miss football in such a deeply emotional way that it feels like grief?
It’s like a partner you really, really loved splitting up with you. You didn’t want it to end, but they’ve left you and got on with life while you’ve been left behind. What makes it worse is that you can see them doing really well too… without you. And what the hell do they see in their new partner? They’re all fake crowd noise and empty stadiums. Pah.
It’s not about results, despite missing all those victories, either. I mean we all like to win matches and pick up the odd trophy (and to be honest, we’ve been blessed on this front over the last six years or so), but going to Carrow Road, or supporting any team at any stadium, is more than that.
It’s community. Friendship. Family. A shared experience with strangers and loved ones. Drama. Noise. Jubilation. Disaster. It’s life.
Carrow Road is a rock in a fast-running stream of time. It’s been there as the years flow around it, a constant presence to look to and look back at.
The current has strengthened due to the current situation, but it has not washed away our beloved club. Many of us will have felt overwhelmed by the force of the deluge we’ve had to endure over the last year. But we have had our club to cling on to. It’s helped us through. It’s sustained us.
Every time I set foot in that stadium, whether it’s full or, on this particular occasion, empty, I get a view on life that I can’t get anywhere else.
I can still see my Dad, feel him there, sitting alongside me in the 80s and 90s. I’m with my mates, jubilant, falling over seats in the Barclay, as Norwich trounce Ipswich 3-0 back in 1995. My father-in-law and I are both dumbfounded and devastated as Liverpool beat us 5-4 in 2016.
The future is clear too. I imagine celebrating with my son in 2022 as we get the result needed to stay in the Premier League for another season. (For a little added garnish I sometimes add the announcement of Ipswich getting relegated to League Two.)
All of these thoughts and memories charged at me at once as I stepped onto the pitch. The emotion almost overwhelmed me. What will it feel like when I’m shoulder to shoulder with other City fans, waiting for that first rendition of On The Ball City from a packed house for the best part of 18 months?
The noise will be familiar, but entirely different. It will be heartfelt. Passionate. Defiant. Full of love. Maybe even tinged with sadness. It will live with me forever, though I’m sure it will be difficult for me or anyone to effectively describe later what is felt in that moment.
The atmosphere, with honest, spontaneous reactions from the fans rather than noise generated synthetically, will be intoxicating and all consuming. We’ll be making a difference. We’ll be supporters again.
Life will be real. Barriers that have separated us from our friends, family and freedom will have been torn down. We’ll be reclaiming our game. Our lives. Making joyous new memories with the people we love around us. Also connecting with people we don’t know, the ones who we hugged every other Saturday pre-Covid when City score but don’t even know their names.
It will go beyond the first game of a new season. Beyond a return to the Premier League. It’ll mean so much to return to the ground. Even if the Carrrow Road bars and hospitality areas remain closed for the return, there will be thousands of people intoxicated by a unique cocktail of emotions and feelings that may never, ever, be served up again.