Cambridge United’s goalkeeping hero Dimitar Mitov hoofs a goal kick straight out of play deep in the Newcastle United half. The five minutes of injury time are up. Kieran Trippier throws it infield to Jonjo Shelvey and receives it back – the 39-year-old Wes Hoolahan doing shuttle runs between the two. Finally, the referee blows the full-time whistle – after holding on for those agonising final 20 minutes or so, the U’s have secured perhaps their most famous victory. The camera focuses on the bemused-looking goalscorer Joe Ironside. He grins uncontrollably before being enveloped by his teammates.
I jump out of my chair, clench my fist and just manage to stop myself from emitting the involuntary full-volume “yesssssssssss come aaaaaaaaaaaaaan, fucking get in there” that coincides with any rare moment of Cambridge United success.
I’m alone in my living room 10,475 miles away. My heavily pregnant wife is the only person to celebrate with. It’s four in the morning, so waking her seems inadvisable. I sit down in silence and well up – thrilled, giddy and completely drained.
The camera pans up, further and further still – eventually training in on the 5,000 U’s fans up in the sky. A sea of delirious amber and black. And while the pride I have for the players and managers is overwhelming, I am gutted I’m not there in that noise. For the first time in the four months since leaving home, I feel out of place. It’s perhaps no surprise that at that moment of emotional weakness in the middle of the night I feel every one of those 10,475 miles.
It’s the first big Cambridge game I think I’ve ever missed. The Cup runs of 1990 and 91: Millwall, Ashton Gate, the 5-1 and the Lee Philpott volley. The Palace quarter-final. Middlesbrough, Wednesday, Arsenal at Highbury. Chesterfield in the play-offs. The LDV Vans humiliation in Cardiff. Lionel Pérez taking, and failing to score, that last-minute penalty. Sheffield Wednesday home and away in the Worthington Cup. Back from three down at the City Ground. The play-off finals to get back into the league – those desperate 10 minutes of added time against Gateshead. Manchester United at the Abbey and Old Trafford. Leyton Orient away on some bloke’s balcony overlooking Brisbane Road last year.
I’ve spent the game feverishly tweeting to try to feel involved. Social media might connect you like never before, but it shows you what you’re missing with unnerving immediacy. I wonder how fans who followed this path decades before managed to follow their team. News reaches me of a shout-out from Jeff Stelling: “I can hear him … and he’s in Australia,” he yells, Merse laughing in the background. My phone explodes with congratulatory messages – for the result, and the shout-out. I lie in bed staring at the ceiling. The following morning I blearily explain to my wife what it means for Cambridge United to be first on Match of the Day and I burst into tears.
Supporters of big sides will never understand the excitement of getting wall-to-wall national coverage after months or years in the wilderness – however fleeting. I inhale every radio interview over the next 24 hours. I do one of them – with the best right-back on the pitch, George Williams.
A week later and I’m still watching Cambridge United’s YouTube clip of the post-game celebrations on a loop, scrolling on Twitter to seek out every fan’s attempt to capture the VAR confirmation of the goal on their phone. I listen to Newcastle United podcasts to just hear them talk about our players. On the Sunday a mate sends me screengrabs of the back pages – but I’d do anything to sit in a cafe with every newspaper, to pore over the same picture of Ironside again and again, to read identical post-game quotes in a variety of different fonts.
For years growing up I remember the BBC radio commentators welcoming listeners to the World Service halfway through matches and thinking nothing of it. When I was 18 I moved to Berlin and I recall hearing it from the other side. Some bizarre documentary on the Scout movement in the Ukraine would cut off and be replaced by Mike Ingham, Alan Green and Jimmy Armfield live from Goodison Park. That 45-minute taste of home meant so much.
Anyone’s who moved country knows that most of the first few months are just an extended to-do list: an unstinting treadmill of un-Djokovic-like accurate form-filling, sitting on hold, living through the catch-22 of requiring a proof of residence to acquire the proof of residence you’re trying to obtain. Following that – new job, new house, new favourite cafe, new bin day – there hasn’t really been time to feel that yearn for home.
And it is clearly trite to mourn missing a football match, given how many people haven’t been able to get home for far more important reasons over these past two years. But it isn’t the game, more what it signifies – and a realisation of what football actually means: the friends I would have cajoled into travelling north, the geordie mates I’d have had a glorious pint with afterwards.
This season has been an interesting insight into perspective of the often maligned foreign fan. Held responsible for awkward kick-off times. Incorrectly portrayed as the main supporters of the failed super league. For those around the world who routinely set their alarm for a 2am kick-off and who might get to a game once in their life, perhaps the casual dismissal as “tourists” isn’t particularly fair. There’s an obsession with the definition of a “proper” football fan. The truth is there are many ways to be one.
It would border on madness for the Cup exploits of any lower-league side to dictate where you choose to live – most of us have other, more practical considerations. But last Saturday I was 10,475 miles away from where I should have been. Straight after I scanned for flights for the fourth-round weekend. Luton at home – maybe I’ll hold off till the fifth.