Having spent the majority of my years as an armchair Premier League fan I was very much taken in by non league when I realised I could watch actual live football in a proper stadium (loose term) on a Saturday.
I started out watching Whitehawk in, well, Whitehawk largely due to my brother in law and a group of friends supporting them. It seemed a good idea to go with the crowd on this one, largely because being within a crowd was the entire aim.
I threw myself into the Hawks and the camaraderie offered by its ultras with unbridled enthusiasm but this did not last. I followed the team at an ever-decreasing rate across three seasons and eventually stopped going once my brother in law and the majority of my football-centric friendship group moved away. The bottom had fallen out of the community side of the equation and it proved fatal for my fanaticism.
Through my time in the din end of Whitehawk’s rickety old stadium I had grown increasingly annoyed by the cacophony of poorly-tuned instruments and the perplexing array of songs. That which had drawn me in became that which worn me down.
Having found a truly inclusive group of fans that prioritised togetherness, fun and large amounts of drinking I somehow found myself longing for the anonymity of armchair support and the passive action of gazing at a pub screen with glazed eyes, occasionally murmuring “should do better there”.
Enter stage left: Lewes.
Getting my first train from Brighton out to the town that time left behind was no great frontier adventure, nor was walking towards the hallowed ground of The Dripping Pan a seminal moment in my sporting life.
The former was long enough to whip through two cans of Red Stripe and the latter was well, it was walking 100 odd yards towards a small town non league stadium.
It wasn’t exactly Chariots of Fire but it was perfect.
I went into the normal queue as my friends scuttled off to the season ticket entrance and what followed was a textbook example of my lack of social grace.
Steeling myself for the turnstile transaction my time came and in one almighty breath I blurted: “Yeah one please, cheers, thank you, nice one mate, ta, great cool, yeah just push it yeah? Nice one cheers.” And I was in.
I took stock of all the old dears flogging raffle tickets, caught a whiff of piss from the gents and trudged off down poorly-spaced steps towards a bar that was still not accepting card payments.
Yet this was what I was looking for from my non league experience.
Having told myself for years that singing pop pastiches and shouting myself hoarse for 90 minutes was what I wanted, I finally accepted the truth.
All I truly wanted to do on a Saturday was stand in a sparsely populated crowd with my mates, chin a couple of pints and watch some shit football. I wanted the anonymity of just being another lad in a dark coat and jeans, I wanted to be left alone by everyone but my immediate group. I wanted football to be my time out from the unrelenting pressure of everyday life.
Singing and shouting and pounding away at drums is all very well and I commend anyone that has the energy to keep up with it all, but I had realised it was not for me.
As someone that has suffered from anxiety for, well, all my life (Having a stutter, bullying, etc) finally standing about in a crowd safe in the knowledge that not one person cared who I was or what I was doing was a wonderfully freeing experience.
There are of course songs at Lewes for those that wish to sing them but it seems to me that the largest part of the fan base is more interested in the pies and pints, much to the mockery of opposition fans.
It is madness to claim that an absence of vocalisation is tantamount to an absence of support and yet I feel the tide of social media-isation is attempting to make it so. The goal posts of support are seemingly being moved.
What was historically a way to spend a few hours on a Saturday blowing off some steam with your mates appears to have been co-opted by tribes competing for Instagram clout. Samba-clad bods all vying to be featured on The Away Days, gagging for the procession of cry laughter and okay fingers emojis that follow.
It is a series of competitions that is designed not to produce winners but to accrue retweets and I guess in 2020 that’s pretty much the same thing.
In a modern climate where everyday existence is a second-by-second fight against a wave of unrelenting awfulness sometimes just leaving your sofa to get to the ground is enough, surely.
At The Pan I found that you can be just as fanatical without flares, that you can be just as dedicated without drums.
I found that you can have a cracking Saturday just ripping through pints with your mates and watching your team lose 3-1 at home for the third week in a row, because football is class, no matter how loud you shout about it.
I miss it dearly and I pray for its return. Hopefully Lewes gets some better lagers in by then though.