It’s not that sitting directly in the cold, blustery rain for hours precludes you from experiencing pain, but naively, it feels like it should be enough, that skirting close to the edge of your capacity for misery could diminish the potential for future injury. As it turns out, there is no limit to how much love can hurt. and so, instead of the edge defining our boundaries, it becomes the point from which they stretch and lay bare our ever-evolving ability to endure and overcome and willingly return to this kind of essentially meaningless, rupturing pain.
I am aware that it is entirely over-dramatic and painfully gauche to include this, but since the last Saturday of October and of British Summer Time, I have been thinking a lot about James Baldwin discussing literature in a 1963 interview with LIFE magazine. He famously states, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Quite simply, it is a tool to further diversify misery, to create drama where previously we may have seen only an innocuous coming together of limbs, or body parts.
It’s not that I believe the lows associated with supporting a team are unprecedented, or even unique, but I’m beginning to think their varieties are. The people organising and producing sports not just for our entertainment, but for the subsequential place-building that inevitably occurs, and the slightly more sinister myth-making that forms around the club, those responsible for all of it, have been able to create and sustain an unprecedented number of ways for us to encounter anguish in all its iterations. It makes more sense to think about VAR as another such iteration, rather than an innovation to make the game “fairer”. VAR was not brought in to redress catastrophic errors or to lessen the impact of fallible human judgment in high-pressure moments. Quite simply, it is a tool to further diversify misery, to create drama where previously we may have seen only an innocuous coming together of limbs, or body parts. VAR was introduced to professional football to explode all of the vacuums created by nothing, to amplify all the movements without meaning. and to push the threshold of our pain a little further out, making us feel, with its specificity, that this pain is unprecedented. Until it happens again.
There has never been a shortage of despair in football, or in our relationship to it, but it has rarely appeared in the absence of something in a way that feels so unique to VAR. We’re asked to anticipate not just what’s to come but also to reconfigure what we’ve seen; to, at once, grapple with all of the possibilities that can occupy an empty space. It is the accumulation of these possibilities that stretch our margins, showing us precisely how expansive heartbreak can really be.
Awarding Brighton a penalty after Michael Keane accidentally grazed Aaron Connolly’s foot with his own was expressly this, a gut punch—sudden and confusing. No one in the stadium was sure what happened yet something had happened all the same, and only VAR could fill the void created by our lack of knowledge. We waited for a goal kick but were gifted the aggressive purple announcement of a penalty review instead. Our eyes fixated on the screen at the far end, waiting to see the outcome of an incident we had barely registered, a brand new cruelty. Then, when it came, it felt inevitable, the length of the check directly proportional to our burgeoning doom. Brighton scored, and then they did so again. We left with nothing.
The Premier League moves fast. Before there is time to let a win, or more likely, a loss settle, we have to prepare to start again and to feel again. The calendar of games provides small and regular points of renewal, despite the obviously cumulative nature of the league. Joe Kennedy has written wonderfully about the glorious and fleeting nature of post-win ecstasy, applying Walter Benjamin’s love at last sight to the constant stream of fixtures for fans to contend with, “The moment at which victory is sealed is simultaneously the one at which it begins to recede into the past, to become memory.” In football, feelings of elation often pass soon as they arrive, wrapped in the possibility that they might never be repeated, that this peak will only be memorialised as the point from which we fell. The experience of losing is located on the other side of this—the nearness of the next game occupying the likelihood that the edge of misery will only be stretched further.
It took us over an hour to leave the vicinity of the stadium, to get on a train taking us back into Brighton, for the matchday experience to close and for us to reach the end of our edge, where the last sight of loss feels like the furthest point from the first sight of joy.
But of course, it doesn’t matter. It was just another loss to add to Everton’s six for the season so far, the second year I had made the journey to be near the sea only to be miserable, and the thirty-sixth year Everton left Brighton without a win. But none of this really matters, not in a season of 38 games, not in a lifetime of fandom, not in the many versions of a desperately adored sport.
It’s just that when you are sitting drenched in a stadium amongst the wrong fans, in a coat that helps you finally understand the practical difference between water-resistant and water-repellant (nothing, in that moment, is waterproof), it is also the only thing in your life that matters, the possibility of seeing something out of nothing, out of the collision of limbs and body parts, an empty space that is suddenly filled. You turn up knowing it is highly likely that all you’ll get is a new, exceptional way of that same misery, and stick around for the small chance that you won’t and it will just be the same unremarkable angst. There is nothing else that could make sitting in the cold, blustery rain for two hours worth it, only the hope that you might be able to hold the misery at bay, remaining in the place where it ended the week before.