The first was, at its most basic, roadkill – specifically, an ex-weasel. (Or stoat, one of the two.) I don’t normally get too upset about dead animals on or by the road – if I did, I would never drive anywhere. The problem with this one, without implanting the same detailed mental image that I have on the rest of you, was that it wasn’t quite dead. It wasn’t going anywhere, but large parts of it hadn’t realised yet.
The second was a more human drama. On the M1 near Nottingham, a smallish family car was in the early stages of being destroyed by fire. The front left corner was well alight, and smoke was drifting across the carriageway. What affected me was the sight of the driver, standing two feet from the fire talking on his mobile phone, forlornly looking at the flames willing them to stop, to go away, to not burn his car to a shell.
In both cases my overwhelming feeling was of helplessness. There was nothing I could do for the dying animal or the unfortunate driver. Even if I had a fire extinguisher (and you can be absolutely sure that I will have one within two days, so I’m less likely to end up in the same position), it would have been ten minutes by the time I turned round at the next junction. I can only hope that a vehicle on the right carriageway – perhaps a truck or a bus – stopped to help. And that one on the right carriageway hit the weasel again to minimise the suffering.
I had one more experience of helplessness during the day, one that I’m slightly more used to. There’s not a single thing I can do, from my position fifteen rows back, to affect what happens on the football pitch when Middlesbrough are putting in a sub-par performance. I never used to believe that. Since the age of ten I’ve screamed, sung, cheered and screamed again with all the rest.
Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve become less and less “bothered”. I still enjoy watching football. I enjoy watching a good game, or a controversial one, or even a one-sided one. There’s things to appreciate in all of these: a moment of individual skill, a sustained period of dominance, a sense of outrage from one side or the other.
What I can’t do any more, it seems, is get overly excited about it. With 600m to go of the Olympic 5,000m race last week, my heart rate was up around 100. I was equally – no, more – helpless in terms of affecting the result, but I was excited to know what would happen, and sufficiently “supporting” of one of the participants to be emotionally involved. I get the same feeling in the last 3km of a sprint stage in a cycle race, and in the 30 seconds before the start of a Formula 1 race.
And the thing about today’s football was that it simply didn’t matter, even in football terms. Yes, OK, Boro’s position at the end of the season will be altered by the points they didn’t win today. But Jenson Button’s finishing position is affected by him missing a turn-in point on the fourth lap – it just doesn’t generate excitement beyond a raised eyebrow.
The attitude of the participants doesn’t help, either. Jonathan Woodgate demonstrated his mental ability by appearing to fail to understand the phrase “wait until I say go” three times in 20 seconds as he tried to take a free kick. Emmanuel Ledesma, who shares a nationality, a vague physical appearance and nothing else with Sergio Aguero, had to be lectured in the presence of his captain about his inclination to compete with Tom Daley for artistic merit scores on his way from vertical to horizontal. And Nicky Bailey, who in his old age will be the dead spit of Buster Merryfield, managed to apparently break every bone in both his legs yet be running after the ball ten seconds later when he realised the referee was ignoring him.
(As a side issue, it’s been notable for a while that Boro’s medical staff should be employed as referees. If Bailey or Joe Bennett ever acquire a genuine injury, they’ll have to wait for the St John’s Ambulance chaps, because the physio doesn’t even bother picking his bag up if they go down and start rolling around.)
The whole point of this post, as you’ve probably worked out, is to rationalise why I felt so alienated, so out of place, in a crowd of bug-eyed, frothing, alcohol-soaked football supporters this afternoon. It’s an environment I’ve known inside out for 26 years – and yet it’s one that I simply wanted to get away from as quickly as I could. I think it’s the first time I’ve headed for the exits early since I had to leave Oxford’s Manor Ground in 1992 to catch a bus.
It’s left me wondering if I should bother going to football. I enjoy going to F1, listening to cricket, writing, working (well, some of the time), travelling, learning. I go to football because it’s something I’ve always done. I had planned to go to Gillingham next week, because it’s a ground I’ve never been to before. But what if I don’t have to go with Boro? What if I can go any time I like, because I’m not tied to one club whose games I don’t really enjoy three-quarters of the time?
In the end, I suspect my point above about Jenson Button will be relevant. There’s no excitement in him a locking a wheel on lap four, but that doesn’t lessen the excitement of the battle for the lead in the last three laps, any more than Barnsley’s win today will lessen my interest if Boro are playing for promotion or relegation in April next year. What might change is the amount of the intervening season I engage with.
People often cite a brush with their own mortality as having given them a sense of perspective, so it seems a touch (OK, massively) pretentious to give the credit for mine to a suffering rodent. In fact, it’s something that’s been coming for a couple of years, and won’t be complete for a while yet. I’m already committed to a home game next week, for a start. But don’t expect me to get too excited.