When you first take your seat in a football stadium, you will have already made a huge commitment to experience the moment. Tickets, transport and refreshments are expensive. You’ll go to the toilet in a much less pleasant environment than you would normally consider acceptable. It will take you time to get to the ground and each extra minute you are away from your significant other might slightly erode their affection for you, especially if you’ve left them with the kids. So why would you leave early?
Unlike other forms of entertainment, like a West End show or a backstreet cockfight, there is little guarantee that your sacrifices will be rewarded with the rich experience and thrilling denouement which your efforts deserve. Football is chaotic, never the same twice and reviewable only after the event.
Going to a match requires a huge amount of faith. On that day you hand in your logic at the gates and happily slip into a fantasy world into which everyday humdrum banalities are denied entry. At least that’s what most fans do.
For there is this breed that will go through all the hard bits – the spending, travelling and wasting of time – but can’t quite lose themselves in the game itself. No matter how hard they try to slip into the trancelike state, at the back of their mind is a nagging thought: If I leave now, will I beat the traffic?
Leaving a match early is frowned upon by most fans. “We can see you sneaking out”, sing opposing supporters upon spotting significant numbers making for the exits. It never stops them flooding through the gates. These early-leavers are so focused in their desire to get out of the stadium before everyone else, that they become blind to the very thing that they came to see – the football match.
No matter what the stakes or the circumstances of the game, they are determined to experience the smug satisfaction that comes with beating the rush. Sometimes it is possible to see theirpoint. When your side is losing heavily in a game of little significance and it’s so cold that you have lost all sensation below the knees, the memories of the pub that you left pre-match, with its log fire, alluring bar staff and easy access to alcohol, burn bright. It’s the part of the day that you had most enjoyed and you could be back there again so easily. So easily.
In all probability, if you left you would miss nothing more than a dull performance meandering to its conclusion, but the fear of leaving comes from the knowledge that something special could happen. In the warped mind of a football fan the likelihood of that something occurring would increase exponentially the minute you walked out onto the street and every minute thereafter. You could miss the greatest solo strike of all time, or a funny own-goal, a fight between two teammates, or maybe a floodlight failure.
Your armchair friends would ring you after the match to get your unique take on the talking point and you would have to explain that you missed the whole thing because you only had enough change to pay for parking till 4.54 and were worried you wouldn’t make it back to the car on time. Their silence at the other end of the phone would speak volumes.
In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed the phenomenon of the early-leaver first-hand at games in which no amount of financial inducement could have tempted me from my vantage point. As a Spurs supporter I’m become used to thrilling comebacks provided exclusively by the opposition but this season has been different. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have scored late goals with regularity, rescuing games that seemed dead and buried.
So it was with incredulity that I looked upon hordes of Tottenham fans leaving White Hart Lane as their side chased an equaliser when merely 2-1 down against West Ham. When Harry Kane levelled in the last minute, I and a few other loyal stragglers had an entire row of seats in which to celebrate the entirely predictable climax to the match.
A week later at the Capital One Cup final the chances of a revival seemed less promising when 2-0 down against Chelsea. Despite the presence of a roof over our £72 seats at Wembley, we were getting soaked to the skin, with a poetic dark cloud seemingly hovering over our heads. Guess what happened next?
Once again they started to march through the exits. There was still half an hour left to play in a cup final – Tottenham’s first in six years – but their big day out was over. Practicalities such as keeping dry and getting home early had once again barged their way in where they had no business.
When did these fans become so blasé about going to the football that it became something that could be cut short with such nonchalance? When the final whistle blew and I trudged out of the stadium, I saw a young boy in tears being consoled by his father. The early-leavers would have been like him once, with the game meaning everything, but somewhere along the line life diluted things.
It seems a particularly British disease. On this small island we build journeys up in our minds beyond all proportion. We spend our lives queuing and will do anything to avoid the tedium. So don’t get angry when you’re next asked to move aside to let a fellow fan leave early, just feel sorry for them. The day we stop believing in magic is a sad one. They are the ones who have lost their faith.
You can follow Dan Fitch and tell him why you leave early if you like. He’s on Twitter. (@DJFitch)
Is Dan right, are these people the scum of the earth who don’t deserve nice things? Or is he unaware of precisely how difficult it is to get from the Emirates Stadium to the heartlands of Suffolk on a school night? Tell us. Email [email protected] or click this right now.