This feels good.
18th May: Match Day; the FA Cup final. I still can’t believe that I didn’t manage to get a ticket. This has been my dream for so long and I didn’t manage to get a fucking ticket. The second half should just be starting. 45 minutes to go. Not much time to do what I need to do. I drag my feet down the concrete path that winds endlessly up to the gates. Off to my left a tube rattles past, the clattering din almost overwhelmed by the sonorous roar emanating from the stadium. The sky is clear blue though the air weighs heavy. London air always weighs heavy.
Back when I was 16 I wrote a list of ’10 things to do before you die.’ It was for the school magazine. At No. 1 I put ‘Be pitchside at the F.A. Cup Final.’ Now, just a decade later and with a little luck, I am going to realise that dream.
Of course, the game’s not what it was back then. Nothing’s what it was back then.
I finger the money in my bulging pockets, nervously rolling and unrolling the wrinkled, dirty 10’s and 20’s. I’m going to have to bribe my way to the side of the pitch. I’ve got 1000 pounds in cash. I’ve no idea if that’s going to be enough. It better had be: it’s all the money I’ve got in the world.
Back when I was 16 I wrote a list of ’10 things to do before you die’. At No. 10 I put ‘Walk the length of the Grand Canyon’. I don’t know why. I didn’t even know how long the Grand Canyon was.
I still don’t.
What I do know is that inside that stadium, that arching structure that dominates the skyline, there is a capacity crowd of 90,000 people. Not just people, Fans. Fans: a whole seething, bellowing mass of yelling, sweating emotion. 90,000 fans, assorted security, ballboys, referees, coaches and players. 180,000 eyes focused intently on one small ball.
It’s like a portal to another world.
As I reach the gates I am presented with a young man in a hi-vis jacket marked ‘Steward’ moping around lazily. He seems bored and underpaid beneath his floppy blond hair. I approach him apprehensively. I’ve never bribed anyone before. It’s been a boring little life - why the fuck would I have needed to bribe anyone? I get close to him. He looks at me expectantly with his listless grey eyes.
‘Fuck it.’ I blurt out, ‘Look, man, I wanna get into the game. How much d’you want?’
He is taken aback. ‘You what?’
‘How much? 100 quid? You want 100 quid?’
I thrust 120 pounds into his hand and walk past him. He makes no effort to stop me, instead glancing around furtively and stuffing the greasy notes into his pocket, suddenly appearing much less bored and much less underpaid. I’m inside the stadium. I’m inside the stadium. That was as easy as it could have been but my heart is still racing wildly. Sweat dribbles down my legs. My legs always sweat when I’m nervous. I pass a couple more roaming stewards, two grey haired old coots. They give me an odd look; I mutter something about needing a piss. It seems to appease them.
I roam around the outer circle of the stadium. It’s there, crawling through the concrete: the baying crowd. The atmosphere is one of crude tension. You can smell it, touch it. Cut it with the proverbial knife. 180,000 eyes are watching, fixated. And with those eyes another 500 million watch worldwide; 500 million people in 160 different countries. 15 television cameras soaking up the action and siphoning it to 500 million people, transmitted through miles of cables, bounced between satellites, echoing across the globe. 500 million people cheering on in 160 different languages. Fixated. Passive. Enraptured. Escaping the daily grind.
I’m circling greatness.
10 minutes into the second half. 35 minutes of the game left. Not much time to do what I need to do. I need some kind of entrance to the player’s area. I need to get up the entrance tunnel, get to the dugouts, the coaches, the pitch. I need to get to the pitch. Wandering aimlessly, the ebb and swell of the crowd’s enthusiasm reverberating through me, dragging me onwards, I feel the minutes ticking away. Precious minutes.
A fan passes me, clad in a garish red shirt that matches the rancour of his face. I ask him the score.
“You fuckin’ jokin’?”
I insist that I’m not. He regards me as if he’s just discovered a new species.
‘3 – 2 to City.’ He gives me a confused, contemptuous glare and then walks off.
It’s a close match. An exciting match. All the better – more viewers, more passion, more involvement. All so alien to the everyday.
No. 5 on the list was originally ‘Fuck a French girl in the ass.’ I had a hard-on for Bridgette Bardot. I had to edit that severely for obvious reasons. I changed it to ‘Have a whirlwind romance in Paris’.
I never did either.
Eventually, after what feels like hours, I find a door that looks like it should lead into the player’s area. It is manned by an exceptionally burly looking security guard in a black tracksuit. He looks neither bored nor underpaid. On the contrary, he looks very professional and dedicated. I suddenly feel deeply unconfident. I have 880 pounds left. Who knows who I’m going to have to bribe after I get past this guy?
I approach him. He doesn’t acknowledge my approach until I’m standing directly in front of him, whereupon he glares at me with his cold little eyes. I cough.
“If…I gave you 250 pounds…”
He doesn’t respond, simply reaching down for his radio and calmly lifting it to his mouth. He doesn’t get a chance to issue whatever command or warning he was about to issue before I’m backing away and apologising profusely, bowing and placating and stumbling backwards and away in defeat. I’m defeated. As soon as he’s out of sight I start running, bitter failure streaking my face with tears. I stop by a pillar and hunch down on the ground. I can feel every second burning past me. Every precious moment. I can’t take any more disappointment.
When I was 16 I wrote a list of ’10 things to do before you die.’ I can’t remember what I put at No. 2. It could have been anything – fly in space, go to New York, eat a Panda. It doesn’t matter what I put – I didn’t do it, that’s for certain.
Maddened by desperation I bolt up a flight of stairs and onto the terraces. And I see it.
The pitch, 115 yards by 75 yards of verdant green grass criss-crossed with fresh white markings sits in the middle of the great bowl of Wembley Stadium, the players scattered across it in their bright blue kits, their bright red kits. The little black referee. The crowd hunched up above it all. The blue sky bearing down over it. The camera flashes. The noise.
I can feel it. There, behind the cacophonous cheering and the songs, it’s just there. Immortality. Legend. Sitting on the cusp of the stadium, in between the space between the ball and the goal, resonating between the players. All that potential.
In Ancient Greece and Rome battles were fought and won, great warriors became myth, became gods. In our time, our generals are ugly ignoble bureaucrats far removed from the inglorious combat of their troops. Instead of great battles we have Championships, Tournaments and Grand-Slams. Our players are our heroes. Legend lives in the space between the ball and the goal; even more, it lives in the space between the goal and the television camera.
I’m surrounded by chanting, swaying, cheering fans. Scarves and hats and banners and fancy dress. One man seems to be wearing nothing but body-paint. The air seizes tight as the ball pushes forwards dangerously, a chancing cross. A player in red lurches forwards, free in open space, unmarked. A clean, confident nod of the head, the net billows from the impact, the goalie standing futile. The crowd around me spasms frenetically, orgiastic. I’m grabbed by the shoulders and spun around, kissed on the cheek.
It’s 3 goals apiece. 20 minutes left. Not much time left to do what I need to do. Emboldened I stride back down the stairs to the security guard and the door. I walk straight up to him, staring him directly in the eye. I ignore the sweat pouring down my legs and the uncomfortable manner in which it pools in my crotch.
‘What?’ He regards me with a measured distaste.
Prick, I think looking into his tiny eyes, I bet you beat your kids. I take the remaining money out of my pocket, calm my nerves and pretend to be hard.
‘You know what. What’s it going to take?’
‘I don’t take bribes. Now fuck off.’
‘What about a grand?’ I might as well bid high, higher even than I have in my pocket. Nothing to lose. He blinks uncertainly.
‘What about a grand?’ He licks his thin lips, his eyes flicker. ‘Fuck man…hide it away.’
Everyone’s got a price. I wave the money about.
‘What do you mean what about a grand?’ I sneer in his anxious face.
‘Put it away. If someone sees you…fuck man…I’ll lose my fucking job.’
‘Only if you take it.’ I pause briefly, smiling. ‘I take it you are taking it?’
He makes an angry noise and grabs the money out of my hand, opening the door and ushering me in with a hostile shove. The door slams behind me and I sink back against it, victory rushing through my veins. I’m through. So close now. Though all my money is gone. Cleaned out. Still, it’ll be too late by the time he realises that I shorted him by a hundred quid. Dumb bastard.
A couple of drab grey corridors lead to the main tunnel. I peer round the corner, staring hungrily down at the proverbial light at the end of. I can see the green of the pitch and a couple of policemen framed in silhouette. How the fuck I’m going to get past them I’m not entirely sure. The game continues apace, the crowd continues to seethe above me. I can feel it drawing me on, feel it drawing me down the tunnel, the seconds trammelling by unmercifully.
A door behind me clicks, causing me to spin around. A startled looking physio stands in front of me, his toned body tense with surprise. His suspicions seem to be aroused by my concerted attempt to look innocuous.
‘Who…?’ He starts to ask. I throw my hands up in exasperation. Can nothing be straightforward? With no money left my options are sorely limited. I pull the gun from its hiding place in the small of my back and point it straight into his face, sympathising with the look of terror that blossoms across his features. I’m pointing a gun at a man. What the fuck am I doing? Edging him back towards the door I whimper in his face.
‘Quiet or…you’re…just shut…up. Please?’
He replies with a strangled noise that cuts off as I push the barrel into his forehead. Once safely inside the room, I hesitate for a moment whilst I contemplate my options. I’ve never even been in a fight and here I am pointing a gun at someone. After a couple of embarrassing seconds I make a decision, flip the gun round in my hand and pistol-whip the poor guy into unconsciousness, bringing the butt of the gun down into his face again and again and again. I’m pretty sure I feel his nose break. Maybe it was his cheekbone. Either way, his face is a horrible pulpy mess. I try to ignore the horrific shuddering noise he is making as he breathes. Wiping the gore off the gun, I return it to its proper place. Hell, at least he is breathing.
Smiling, I realise that this unfortunate’s loss is my gain: hanging on the walls are various items of staff clothing. This is a guaranteed pass to the edge of the pitch. I pick up a chunky official-looking puffer-jacket and a clipboard. I’m one of the team. Apologising to the prone body on the floor, I stride out of the room quickly and purposefully. A quick glance around confirms that no-one saw me leaving the room, and that no-one seems likely to be entering it any time soon. Though, any time soon will still be too late. I hurry down the tunnel and bustle past the policemen, out into the fresh sunlight, out to the edge of the pitch. The green grass radiates latent promise; the stark white lime of the centre line stretches out like a pathway. To my left and to my right coaches and second coaches are striding around in anxiety. It’s 3 apiece on the day of the FA Cup final and it’s in the 80th minute. Not much time left but time enough.
I wait patiently for a dead ball, hopping about incautiously by the side of the pitch. I can see it all, the possibilities stretching out before me. Behind me the coaches, before me the players, all around me the crowd. Beyond that, the sky and the viewing public. The air is heavy, unreal, palpating with the urgency of human excitement. In the streets outside the stadium it’s just another banal day, in here it’s like...it’s like a portal to another world.
And then it happens. A midfield ball runs astray and goes dead. And I can feel it calling to me – the moment. The Moment. I bolt from the dugout, out towards the centre spot. I ditch the physio’s puffer-jacket and sprint onwards, now pursued hotly by stewards. I can feel the eyes on me, the crowd’s eyes on me. Their noise pursues me: some cheering; some booing. The players are shouting at me but I can’t hear them. I can feel the cameras on me, gathering my image and echoing it around the world, passing from satellite to satellite, kaleidoscopic in tv screens, reflected in the bend of pint glasses, I am multiplied, I am multiple. I am legion.
As I near the centre spot I pull the gun from its hiding place in my waistband. The enthusiastic roar of the crowd chokes to a gasp. The stewards and policemen sprinting to intercept me falter in their approach. I thrust the muzzle into my mouth.
Not much time to do what I need to do.
In the distance a flash winks at me. I wink back.
I pull the trigger.
A brief instance of pain: my soul exits the back of my skull, exploding into folklore, and I feel myself ebbing away, channelled through the filters of the cameras. I feel the crowd’s eyes drinking me in; I feel the television screens pouring me out. I turn in ashen faces, I slacken in jaws. I slither down cables. I echo from satellite to satellite, in orbit, I reverberate and resonate. I see myself watching myself, mirrored in the curve of a million pint glasses, broadcast through the myriad reflective surfaces of the earth. Replicating, I welcome infinity. I dazzle spectacularly, framed in the spectacular.
I am legion.
I am the fucking highlights.