You didn’t need to have that extra glass of whisky last night but you did so anyway. It was the nice bottle, the Lagavulin, the one usually saved for birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries. But last night felt like an appropriately significant occasion: the eve of the return to the Wanderers Grounds. You poured a glass and toasted the badge.
Little wrong with that, but plenty wrong with the cavalier attitude you then took to drinking the rest of it. Instead of taking long, methodical sips to savour the taste, you got overexcited and morphed into a park-drinking teenager. This morning's dull, heavy headache is your penance.
But no matter. Nothing’s going to ruin today. You swing your legs out of bed, body a little sluggish but mood indisputably upbeat. Shower. Coffee. Bagel.
You have around four-hours until you meet people at the pub but there’s a lot of match-day adrenaline that needs to be channeled into something tangible before then, so you decide to walk across Halifax Common to the Wanderers Grounds for a nose at what’s happening.
Sprinkles of rain dot the path. You check the forecast. For several days now you’ve been keeping a vigil at the bedside of the weather report. You’ve seen its condition worsen from a 50% chance of rain at 3pm to 80%, then 90%, and now, hours before kick-off, 100%. No worries though, it’ll only be light drizzle. 0.1mm, maybe 0.2mm. You remember the first ever home game vs. Forge; 5°c, misty, a cold and wet affair. Today won’t be that bad, you're sure of that. You close the weather app, put your phone away, and decree that not a single fuck shall be given henceforth with regards to the weather. You’ve seldom been more wrong.
Approaching the grounds at 9am you see some of the same faces your saw at 9pm the night before, back at work again. Everything looks ready: the camera towers are built, flags are draped over every open space, chairs and tables for the premium seats wrap around the sidelines, and the grass is being mowed for the final time. You check your watch and head home.
Hours pass. Lunch is eaten. A jersey is selected. And the weather looks fine! Grey clouds, yes, but no sign of rain. Your cat jumps from the bed to the window sill and sniffs the air. She turns to you, concerned. Yes? you ask. She saunters away dismissively, all insolence and grace.
And then… the rain.
The 0.1mm per-hour that was forecast seems to fall in around ten minutes, and subsequently doesn’t let up for the next three hours. You leave your apartment and jog to the pub, rain peppering you the whole way.
James, Justin, Chris, and Danny are there already. Two of them you’ve met before, but two are new faces. You’re all in a Wanderers group chat, that’s how you know each other. You tend to talk every day - usually about Wanderers, but not always - and now you're all getting a beer before the game. Sport is great like that.
Where’s Denton? you ask. He was outside earlier, apparently. Dressed as a pirate, waving the flag, being the perfect public symbol of this club that he always is.
You take a seat. Order a beer. Tall Ship. Besides you a Global News reporter sets up her camera. We nominated you to do the talking someone tells me. Soon, Jerry - another member of the group chat - walks in with a big smile on his face. He spots the Global News camera. We nominated you to do the talking, you say, repeating the line spoken to you. Fortunately, he’s game.
In a beat a microphone is hooked to his jersey and the rest of you are told to act as natural as possible, okay? as questions are fired Jerry’s way. He answers them generously and confidently. His performance in front of the camera is sublime. Yours, on the other hand, is not. You sit there rigidly. You are not natural.
Thanks for being good sports the reporter tells us. Oland. Tall Ship. Propellor. Drink. Boudreau – the next group chat member to arrive – walks in with his family. The weather looks like it’s clearing up, he tells you. Minutes later Shep, one of the two guys you have a season ticket with, arrives, soaking wet. Perhaps it isn't.
You leave the pub at 1.50. It’s miserable out there, but you want to get to the ground early. It’s been too long. In the eye of the latest downpour, you begin your walk. Minutes later, turning onto Summer Street, the beat of music from the stadium speakers begins to be heard. Construction blocks your path but you’re able to negotiate a route to the stadium gates. Section D. You say goodbye to the others who are making a beeline for the Kitchen. You’re too boring for that bouncy, smoke machine lark. You like the view in 104. You’re a 75-year-old in the body of a 35-year-old. You’re relatively okay with this.
You find the beer tent for your section. Not many people are here yet so you don’t have to wait. The guy working the tent is shivering. Was just saying to my partner, he tells you, that anyone who turns up to this game today has gotta be crazy fanatical or crazy loaded! He hands you a beer. Soon you’ll be both.
You walk up the stairs to your section of the ground. You’ve thought about this moment a lot over the past few weeks. How it will feel to be there again, to see the pitch for the first time in 22 months. In none of those thought-experiments were you this wet.
The rain is torrential now. You walk up to your row, take it all in for a moment, then return to a safe, dry space below the bleachers. You hear a familiar accent close by. Leeds, perhaps? Sheffield? You always hear accents closer to your own at Wanderers games.
The players come out to warm up. You send a video of Alex Marshall warming up to a WhatsApp group chat with mates from back home. One of them, Chett, has taken to playing with Wanderers on Football Manager. He’s been asking about Marshall recently due to his performances for him. He’s left footed in real life?! is his incredulous response to the video, before adding that he’s put a bet on the game. What's the bet? you ask. Wanderers 2-1. Also fancy a Morelli double, he replies.
Kick-off is only a moment or two away now. You have a row of seats to yourself as Shep and Glen are running late. There was a part of you half an hour ago that worried the weather would keep people away, but from your vantage point at the top of the central bleacher, you see people pouring into the stadium, weather be damned.
The national anthem plays and some men around you remove their caps. Once the anthem stops, the energy level around the Grounds rises. The Kitchen does what the Kitchen does. Chants begin. Tops come off. The volume builds. Even your section, which is usually so quiet, starts to generate some noise.
Come on Wanderers! Come on you boys in blue!
You take a deep breath. You’re nervous now. The referee blows his whistle, and, as if by magic, Shep and Glen appear beside you, utterly drenched.
Sorry we’re late, Glen says, but my dog swallowed a tennis ball.
You were expecting a anxious start from Wanderers due to the size of the occasion but it doesn’t happen. They look confident. In control. The shape of the team – which is easy to see from your view point high up – is a kind of 4-1-4-1 with Marcelo Polisi shielding the back-four.
That Polisi looks like a player, Shep says. You and Glen agree.
It’s amazing how quickly it all feels normal again. Your eyes scan the length of the pitch, noticing things you don't see on TV; how all 20 outfield players can resemble a flock of migrating birds as they shift collectively across the pitch towards the ball; how the body language of certain players grows bigger, while for others it shrinks; how so much of a footballer’s job is done off the ball, not on it.
And then, against the run of play, a corner for Ottawa.
Ottawa is shit! Ottawa is shit! reigns down from the Kitchen. The ball is swung in and Ryan Telfer meets it with a downwards header to the right of Christian Oxner and into the back of the net. He looks up at the Kitchen and puts his finger to his lips: shhhhh.
You’d forgotten how much of a non-event the opposition scoring feels like at a live game. This goal is no different. It's greeted by eerie quiet. There are no replays. No histrionics from the commentary box. Just stone-cold silence and a trudge back towards the centre-circle.
It doesn’t take long for the crowd to recover though. Come on you Wanderers! screams a man two rows in front of you. Noise starts to circulate. There’s a lot of football left to play. Rain continues to hammer down.
Within four-minutes, Wanderers are level. A Ruby interception finds Doner, who finds Bent, who slides the ball across to Garcia for an open goal. The Trinidadian mishits his tap-in but to the relief of all the ball falls to Joao Morelli, who smashes it in with his left foot.
You lose your shit. Jumping onto the bleacher below, your foot slips on the wet surface, causing you to lose your balance and begin to fall. Shep, noticing the pickle you're in, grabs you by the hood and reigns you in like a clumsy, drunk horse. You punch the air. Mumble obscenities. It’s been a while.
Wanderers really start to pop now. Polisi and Andre Rampersad take control of the game. Sustained possession, which for two-years was so difficult for this side to achieve, suddenly comes easy. The technical level of the squad has taken a huge leap. This is the kind of football you enjoy.
Before long, Wanderers go in front.
Receiving the ball on the right, the excellent Cory Bent nutmegs his marker, sprints in behind, and plays a perfect ball to the feet of Morelli for his second goal, and Bent’s second assist.
And then, whoosh. Chaos. Noise. Smoke. A maelstrom of getttt innn theeeeerrrrreeeeee, spilt beer, and hugs. 104 starts to calm down, so you look left to the Kitchen. They're still going. Of course they're still going. The bouncy is bouncing and the blue smoke is smoking. What a party.
Morelli trots back to the centre-circle, gesturing COME ONNN with his arms to the crowd as he does so. You think you finally understand the Brazilian now. Not just as a player, but as a character too. He’s a performer. A personality that needs an audience. Give him one, and this is what you get. Strip him of that and make him play in front of empty stadiums for 18 months and you lose 50% of what makes him special. He’s going to fly now.
Half-time comes. The rain continues. Your shoes feel heavy with water and a sharp pain emanates from the back of both your ankles. You remember a book your brother had when you were kids about World War I, with descriptions and pictures so graphic they stayed with you for a long time afterwards. One chapter had a detailed account of trench foot, a condition that affected soldiers whose feet remained wet for too long. Is that what I have?! the most irrational part of your brain wonders out loud.
Later the evening, back at home, the culprit for the pain is revealed to be wet shoe fabric rubbing against thin ankle skin. Your shoes are bloodied, your socks ruined. But trench foot? Of course not, you absolute imbecile.
Lining up for the toilets at half-time, you bump into Chris, son of Wanderers Grounds celebrity and chef-to-the-squad, Mama Searl. You talk football, predict substitutions. He’s just as buzzing as you. As his time in the line comes to an end, you check your phone. Chett, your friend from back home who’d placed a bet on 2-1 Halifax with a double from Morelli, is finding it hilarious. Had one of the goals come after half-time instead of before it, he’d be £50 richer.
The rain starts to ease. It’s still steady but it’s not torrential; a small mercy. You return to your seat as the second-half kicks off and something you’ve never really experienced inside this stadium happens: Wanderers dominate the game. It’s an oddly stress-free 45 minutes. They keep the ball, they win their duels, they don’t give up any chances. They do what needs to be done to see it out.
When Ottawa gets a free-kick close to goal with five minutes to go, you’re surprised to realize that this is the first time you’ve felt uneasy all half. The cross is dealt with and Wanderers resume control, and that’s how it stays until the referee blows the final whistle and a huge cheer rises into the grey air. You watch on with a full heart as the players and coaching staff begin a joyful, redemptive lap of honour.
Wanderers are back, you think. Crowds, too. You are part of something bigger than yourself again and you've missed that. You look around at a sea of delighted faces. You’re delighted, too. You’re also completely, inescapably shit-faced.
That was so great, says Shep.
The best, you reply.
The filthy, relentless rain. The soaking clothes. The shoes filled with water. The hangover to come. All worth it.
And then, as the Wanderers players return to the changing room, and the last, soggy supporters exit the bleachers, a chasm of blue splits the grey sky in two and a warm sun spreads itself over the grounds in an exquisite demonstration of comic timing.
Your first thought as you look up at the now-clear sky: are you actually fucking kidding me?
Your second: there’s no place like home.
And you’re right, there isn’t.
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.