92 grounds. 92 haiku.
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Noun. Pronounced: hi-koo.
A form of verse, originating in Japan, written
in 17 syllables and divided into three lines –
in five, seven, five syllable structure.
Haiku should evoke sensory allusions and
emotive mental imagery. Like a last-minute
winner clonking in off the bar in front of
surging away-end limbs.
92 has always been the magic number in football.
92 tabs of pressed cardboard being moved religiously up and down league ladders every Sunday morning. 92 tribes praying for the magical rising intonation of their scoreline on TV or radio, a mere semitone making or breaking an entire week. 92 sets of turnstiles beeping and clacking their mechancial permission for eager supporters to congregate again.
You never forget the assault on your senses the first time you walk into a ground. The chatter and chants. The bovril and beer. The green and the grey, of pitch and terrace, and the club colours you’ve worn since a baby.
If, like me, it was love at first sight, you quickly become comfortable in your newfound footballing cathedral, familiarising yourself with the lucky turnstile, the best view, the spot where your number 9 takes in the goalscoring adulation.
And then, seemingly without warning, a second ground will hove into view. Maybe an away day, a pre-season friendly or a game grabbed on a weekend out of town. A new clunk, dissonant songs, a stand that cantilevers and rakes like an unfamiliar mathematical formula. On that concourse, you have something to compare. And your formative confirmation bias dictates that it can’t match the beatified patch of grass you call home.
Years later, you’ll make a fatal error. You will count how many grounds you’ve been to. Too late sucker, you’re on your way to an obsession, a membership you can’t tear up, an anger every time a league two part-timer moves into a new out-of-town identikit stadium and knocks one off your 92 total. I was in my 30s (grounds) and 40s (age) when I made this stupid mistake. Already travelling to most away games with my lifelong team, I started groundhopping as a neutral, poring over fixture lists whenever my game moved for TV and freed up a Saturday, and don’t get my wife started on how we were only taking holidays during international breaks.
Then one Friday night, I walked towards Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium several beers into an away day, and a thought formed. Would it be possible to distill the character of all 92 grounds into just 17 syllables at a time – in strict 5-7-5 formation? Curse you ale. I emerged from the underpass that reveals the St Mary’s symmetry. Six syllables. Dammit. Symmetry Mary. Five. We’re on.
That night, we lost, our manager got sacked and there were no trains home. Oh well, all the more material to work with. This introduction probably contains as many syllables as the rest of the book to come.
There’s just one disclaimer. Please remember, these are my own personal reflections. Sometimes of just one trip to your stadium, sometimes of many joyous victories, or that bogey ground that’s nothing but a painful chore. An infinite number of fans at infinite keyboards would generate an infinite number of haiku – all from the same 92 sources.
Stadia are subjective. Your cathedral might be my soccer slum. And vice versa.