View from the Kingsland: being on the pitch not in the stands

View from the Kingsland: being on the pitch not in the stands

by Nick Mabey.

Almost exactly 12 hours after England’s sad exit from the World Cup I found myself inside St. Mary’s stadium with 800 other hardy (or is that foolhardy?) souls. We were lined up for the start of the inaugural Southampton FC 10k race, an event that started and finished pitch side at the home of the mighty Saints. It was billed as a fundraiser for Saints Foundation’s charities; but for me it was a chance to get fit and more importantly to run where my heroes ran; that sounds sadder as I write it than when I signed up!

These two events, different as they may seem – one a World Cup quarter final, the other an amateur fun run – got me thinking of the nature of participation. How do we participate in such things and why?    

The night before I, like millions of others, sat in front of a TV to cheer on my national side in their match against tournament favourites and current World Cup holders France.  It was billed as an evenly matched contest and certainly seemed that way.  France started the better, England seemed nervous and constrained.  However, despite conceding an early goal, they grew into the game, equalised and then for most of the second half looked the team most likely to win it.  You know how it ended, so I won’t go there.  

My feeling after was that this was a 50/50 match between two excellent sides; one team took their chances, one team didn’t. I think most of the participants on the pitch saw it that way but I didn’t wait to find out, ignoring news reports and social media for the next 36 hours (as is my habit when my team loses; a pretty regular occurrence as a Saints fan).  When I did check back in, the post-mortem was still ongoing and included character assassinations of the referee, hindsight-based masterclasses on what Southgate should and shouldn’t have done at a myriad of moments in the game, to say nothing of the various conspiracy theories that had emerged and some wonderfully English banter about Kane’s penalty miss. This is what participation looks like from the safety of the ‘stands’ (lounge or pub in most cases). 

The morning after the game I did not feel much like getting up for a run.  Start time was 9am prompt and the temperature was still minus something as I emerged from my pit. I had hundreds of ‘reasonable reasons’ in my head for not going, but still found myself making my way to the stadium. My attitude started to shift when I saw another person in running gear heading the same way. So it hadn’t been cancelled.  I quickly saw a second and a third, and my heart started to warm up.  By the time I got there the place was rocking.  Hundreds of runners dancing to warm-up music, some in fancy dress others in nowhere near enough clothing.  Loads of volunteer marshals in high-vis jackets with Christmas adornments. The stadium standing open and welcoming. Motivational speakers on microphones urging runners to keep warm as they prepared for the start.  This is what participation looks like from the ‘pitch’.

I’m not comparing these two events, and this is not a story about my run (331st place 55mins 39secs if you’re interested). It’s about enjoying the commitment and wholeheartedness of everyone who took part in both.  It’s about being inspired by others – professional footballers and amateur runners alike. It’s about appreciation of being joined with our fellow humans – virtually or physically – in a common act of participation.  It’s about gratitude for having these things in our lives and, in the case of the run, being especially grateful for those who give their time freely to make it all happen. 

And it’s about exploring the nature of participation and how we react to the various ways we take part. It’s easy to be down on Kane, Southgate and Sampaio (the referee) from the comfort of our sofas; as football supporters it’s sort of in the job description. But if we look hard enough we can also find inspiration, appreciation and gratitude. This what’s available when we ‘get on the pitch’. 

The Saints’ first team is facing into a new era. Nearly halfway through a season, after an unusual break, we sit in the relegation places with a new manager and support staff.  How might I be more ‘on the pitch’ in my support of the Saints?  How might I participate more wholeheartedly in being a fan?  How might I be more inspired, appreciative and grateful of what I am supporting?

Warning.  When I suggest being more ‘on the pitch’ I don’t actually mean getting on the pitch at St. Mary’s, as that will quickly earn you a lifetime ban.

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