The new season. Even after being in the game as long as I have it still gets me excited. Butterflies in my stomach. Will this be the year? Whether the unexpected lows experienced last time can be overcome? What qualities will the new signings bring? Will they fit in? What will I be able to learn from them? What will they be able to learn from me? But mainly the excitement is about fresh starts. A fresh start for me. A fresh start for everyone. What those fresh starts may mean and bring to all involved.
On Game Day I like to arrive early before everyone else. When it is still quiet. When no one else is around. When it is still calm, no doubt because I’m looking for that calmness in myself. I go to the lounge and hydrate, sort my drinks out myself. One for now and two for the rest of the day. It is part of my ritual. It helps me to settle my nerves. I sit down and as I start sipping I start thinking of the game plan. I know it so well by now, but it helps to visualise it. My leg twitches. The right one always bounces up and down uncontrollably. I massage the top of it with my free hand, but it is no good it still keeps bouncing and I’m spilling my drink. I get up and look at the board.
Scanning the board I look for the messages that will be key today. Reminders of who I have to look out for. Reminders of tweaks to the game plan. Any last minute changes I might not be aware of. Placing my drink down I take some notes, making sure I have all the information I need. The sound of the door opening behind me makes me turn, almost knocking my drink over in the process. Still the nerves are there. It is a good thing.
Slowly the staff come in. Cleaning, kitchen, estates, ground and leadership. I’ve been here long enough to know them all. I start conversations with all I see, half being interested in what they have to say and half in the hope that it will distract me from my anxiety. I always talk to the ground staff about the state of the pitch. Any extra information I can glean will only help with my performance. The conversations with leadership are short if that. Perhaps an acknowledgement, a nod, a smile or a hand shake. A quick message of motivation that I suppose is given to help calm the nerves. Then off they go again, busy with their duties to get everybody and everything ready for Game Day.
I leave the lounge and slowly make my way to the changing rooms. I walk in and the smell that hits my nostrils is like an electric jolt. Bringing me out of living inside my head and grounds me in the real world. I suddenly can feel my own weight, the air on my skin, the sound of my own breathing. The smell is like home. The lemon from the disinfectant on the freshly washed tiles. The chlorine drifting in from the pool. The hint of Lynx and body odour that just never seems to leave because it has seeped into the fabric of the building.
I change for what is about to come, slowly and methodically. Checking I have everything I need. Double checking everything is tight, or laced right or neat. Old habits die hard, but it is part of my ritual now and changing it might bring me bad luck. Once changed I find my seat in the corner and wait for the rest of the team to arrive. We greet each other like we are friends who haven’t seen each other for years, even though it was only yesterday at preseason training. I watch them go through their rituals and preparation. To make sure they are in the zone. I drift away and start visualising what I need to do. The times I was successful doing them. The times I wasn’t and what I need to change.
Once all in our seats we face each other and we begin to talk. We remind each other of the game plan. Of our responsibilities. Of what needs to be done. We try to support and encourage each other. This becomes more difficult as the noise outside of the changing room is rising. Voices that are greeting, singing, shouting and chanting, can now be heard. Occasionally an individual we all know rises above the cacophony and we all smile at each other. It releases the tension that had been building during our talk. Final words are said. Final preparations are made. A bell rings. 5 minutes to go. We all walk out.
I’m last out. I’m last down the corridor. Some of us are making jokes to ease the tension. I drift back inside myself. As we walk on the noise gets louder. I can see the bright light at the end. The double doors propped open. It is always in this moment that I know that no matter what the year may bring, no matter how tough things get, I’m in this for the long haul. In whatever way I can be. That thought brings me the calmness I’ve been searching for. I walk through the double doors into the light and noise outside. The game begins….
“Morning George. How was your summer holiday? Would you mind tucking your shirt in for me.”