So, how’s this strange new world treating you, fellow Wanderer? Or perhaps that should be un-Wanderer given recent restrictions. Are you living through days of stoic calm that are occasionally punctuated by moments of whatthefuckisgoingon terror? It’s okay. We’re all drinking from the same fountain nowadays.
In an alternate universe, this weekend should’ve been spent in a pub, among friends, watching the opening games of the 2020 CPL season. It should’ve been the chance to take a look at HFX Wanderers 2.0. And it should’ve ended in celebration as Akeem Garcia poked in a last minute winner away to York 9.
Instead, this has been the weekend that wasn't. A festival of Canadian football replaced by something unmistakably fucking awful - and it’d be remiss before we go any further to not acknowledge the awe and respect felt towards those on the frontline of this fucking awfulness who are performing daily miracles that most of us would never have the strength or selflessness to attempt.
It goes without saying that it's vitally important a realignment of priorities occurs after this is over, one where these members of society are valued at a socioeconomic level befitting the roles they play.
But aren’t we lucky then, the rest of us, that we have lives so privileged that we're able to feel sadness over the absence of football this weekend? The fact that we are able to lament this void of CanPL action reveals us to be the beneficiaries of some invisible, incomprehensible cosmic lottery. It also shows that we’re all a little bit emotionally stunted, but that’s a digression best saved for the psychiatrist’s couch.
Football, goes the oft-quoted Arrigo Sacchi aphorism, is the most important of the unimportant things. And he’s right, it is. It’s the great distraction; the deep breath at the end of the week as a sporting soap-opera plays out in front of us on a rectangle of green. How lucky we are to have a team in our city to experience this through. How intensely grateful we should be.
There’s a multitude of things I miss about Wanderers right now: the morning of home games, the quickening heartbeat within seconds of waking up, the legs swung excitedly out of bed, the coffee brewing as game day chatter buzzes around social media, the ‘what pub shall we meet at?’ texts, the walk downtown through a city peppered with navy blue Wanderers shirts, the buzz upon entering the bar, the back slaps, the handshakes, the overheard conversations about the team, the announcement of the starting XI an hour before kickoff, the debate that follows, the “okay, one more quick pint then we’ll go” lie we tell ourselves, the journey from pub to stadium, the music from the speakers getting louder and louder with each approaching step, the streets growing more congested, the fanzines being sold at the gates, the scanning of tickets, the smoky aroma of the food trucks, the weaving through a sea of bodies, the climbing up the bleacher steps, the day’s first breathtaking glimpse of that perfect green surface, the announcer counting down the minutes, the players emerging from the tunnel, and then finally, finally, the whistle blowing and the game beginning.
I’m desperate to know just how good Wanderers are going to be this season; to see whether the most optimistic portion of my brain is on the money, and that the 2020 incarnation of HFX Wanderers is a team that’s robust and physical in defense, dominating in midfield, creative and exciting on the flanks, and absolutely full of goals.
Word coming out of training during the first, and only, two weeks was overwhelmingly positive. This is a real group of players, I was told. These are winners. No-one’s resting on their laurels, no-one has a first-team spot nailed down. Few things guarantee the maintenance of high standards like an aggressive competition for places.
A quick scan of CPL talking heads suggests that Wanderers are being underestimated once again, which is understandable given last season’s standing in the table. Those who have seen these players up close disagree, though, and internally there’s a belief that this squad is absolutely capable of finding itself part of the championship conversation deep into the season.
Still, there’s a long way to go until we get to that point. To begin with there’s a schedule to rearrange - a rather difficult task to complete without a known start-date. Contingency plans depending on when the league receives the green light from health authorities will certainly be in place. It must be acknowledged that a schedule played in full appears to grow increasingly fanciful by the day, but there remains a hope that some kind of 2020 season can occur.
Even if it doesn’t though – and I happen to still think it will – there’s no need to feel too alarmed. There are some deep pockets in this operation, and the league’s value to CSA as 2026 approaches mustn’t be underestimated.
Regardless, a quick scan of social media reveals factions of fear mongering. It’s a curious fact of life that when things are normal and our thoughts should be preoccupied with appreciating the present, we do little but obsess over the past and worry about the future. But then, in the midst of a crisis, all we seem capable of doing is focusing on the scary, nightmarish present. Perspective is needed; there is an after. And in this after, this sport and this league will be more valuable than ever.
So, as sports leagues around the world scramble for solutions, the Canadian Premier League and its eight clubs must do the same without the benefit of a long history of know-how to fall back on. Patience from us all is vital right now. Allow mistakes. Forgive them, too.
In the coming weeks and months, as we draw pleasure from other pastimes that somehow always come up short when compared with football, comfort should be found in the knowledge that football and the CanPL will be back eventually.
Because this game, this silly, stupid, utterly absurd game… matters.
Most evenings recently, I’ve been taking long, sanity restoring walks around the neighborhood, and it’s during these that the memories of last year at the Wanderers Grounds come flooding back. Some are of things that happened on the pitch, but most are of what happened off of it: the shared experiences, the community, the people. Turning from Windsor St onto Willow last night, one appeared:
It’s May 4th, 2019 and Luis Alberto Perea has just scored to put HFX Wanderers 2-1 ahead in the home-opener. The Wanderers Grounds is in the midst of an explosion of joy. Blue smoke colours the sky and the electricity of the crowd pulses. There are 6,500 of us here; brothers and sisters from other mothers and misters, now forever connected by this wonderful, fleeting moment.
Next to me, Glen –one of two friends I have season tickets with- is taking it all in. He grew up in Cape Breton where professional football was always an ocean away. Now, though, it’s here in front of him, including him.
There’s a giddy smile on his face as the celebrating players make their way back to the centre circle for the game to resume. As the noise of the crowd settles into an excited hum he shakes his head in disbelief and takes a long, satisfying mouthful of beer.
“Man” he says, “it just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”
You can say that again, mate. You can say that again.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.