You Had To Be There

Paul Balm gives his own beautifully written interpretation of the Play-Off weekend

You’ve got to say it’s been a funny season. I don’t want to sound like an X Factor contestant but it’s been a real rollercoaster. Those troughs, peaks and inverted corkscrew loops have been so well documented elsewhere that I don’t want or need to go through them all again but the bad parts certainly drove me closer to walking away than I’ve ever been before and meant that I had to think about long and hard about whether or not I bought a ticket for the weekend. In the end I did and I’m glad I did because only buying a ticket to the play-offs for the ice hockey means you’re missing the point. I mean where else could fans of all the teams in the league come together, watch hockey, drink, dress as nuns, Shrek and Donkey or Spiderman?
There’s something odd about getting up at 8.30 on a Saturday morning knowing that you’re going to be going straight out of the house to the pub. Or at least there should be. You tell yourself it’s only once a year and that makes it alright but the last thing you did before you went to bed last night was finish off a bottle of Budvar and now you’re going to the pub at what you’d normally call breakfast time on a Saturday. Surely this can’t be good. But it is, Saturday morning/lunchtime is one of the favourite parts of the play-offs for me. Everyone’s full of the expectations that will be dashed for most come Sunday night but on Saturday morning all’s fine with the world. There always seems to be a thinly veiled layer of nervousness hanging in the air. You tell people that you’re not worried but deep down the thought of going out in the first game and having to watch the teams that you’ve competed against battle it out for a trophy in front of you for the rest of the weekend looms large. I’ve always felt sorry for the fans of the team that loses the first semi – the expectation turns to gloom so quickly.
Was I nervous? I’m not really sure, everything was going too quickly. It seemed like I’d no sooner got to the pub than I was leaving again. I know I wasn’t confident but then again I’m a Panthers fan and we’re never great on confidence.
Jono has summed up the games so well that I won’t go over it again but I’ve got to say our semi was amazing. No matter which way things went the losers could and should hold their heads high. The end of that semi brought its own problems. I was among a group fans that contained both Panthers and Steelers fans and in the past that’s caused its own problems. I’m not talking in a hostile manner, more in a childish bickering sort of way, the sort of way that makes you want to bang their heads together. If you don’t know what I mean watch this:  That’s what they’re like. So, all considered the walk up to the pub was a time of mixed emotions – elation and trepidation. I needn’t have worried, they were far more gracious than I suspect the odd one or two of the Panthers’ contingent might have been in a similar situation.
I want to apologise to the juggler who I disturbed on my way to the pub. They ended up dropping their balls which I suppose is quite appropriate really given what we’d just witnessed. I also want to apologise to the Belfast fan dressed as a clown for calling him Corey and to Corey for calling the clown Corey. Does that make sense?
I’m not going to mention the second semi-final because I’m not entirely sure anything actually happened but it wasn’t really until after the game that things started to sink in. As I sat in the chippy with the heat from the burners that stop the fat in the kebab meat congealing permanently baking the back of my neck, it slowly dawned on me that we were in the final. We’d been there before and all that but I don’t know, maybe the Jagermeister had dulled the senses or maybe it was just old age. We’d have to do it all over again.
I had another revelation in another strange place that night. There’s a beer garden at the back of The Castle. That’s not the revelation but I’d been drinking in there for years before I realized. Up there, in the cold we sat and drank and laughed the evening away. I’d tell the stories but I’m not sure I can remember them all now and they wouldn’t make much sense but through all this as I sat on a slightly damp picnic table bemoaning the way that cold April breezes cut straight through hockey shirts I realised that life can be good to a hockey fan from time to time. It was great but eventually the adrenaline surge starts to fade away and the effects of the Doom Bar set in and your liver tells you it’s time to go home.
If getting up and going to the pub feels odd on a Saturday then there’s no real way of describing doing it on a Sunday especially after the drinking the night before. Dragging yourself out of bed so you can get the tram into town so you can start all over again would sound like madness to any sane person. We’re not sane though, we’re hockey fans. OK, we didn’t go straight to the pub but does anyone know what the record for most unlimited soft drinks consumed during a single meal in a Pizza Hut is? However many it is we must have been close. Our waiter was Brad, an omen if ever I heard one.
It was following this that I witnessed possibly the scariest moment of the whole weekend as The Cat’s Whiskers’ editor/creator/chief short bloke invented a previously unseen phenomenon – referee bunnying. Tom Darnell was spotted minding his own business on his way for a coffee and Jono shot off like a greyhound after the hare to have a word with him. Perhaps this makes him a “drop the puck” bunny? Sorry.
Get a few hockey fans around the table and you’re going to get a conversation about ice hockey. That’s a given. Given enough time and beer and it’ll turn a touch raucous and that’s what we got after we’d dragged Jono away from Darnell. Memories of old rinks, bad rinks, players getting filled in. The stuff we all talk about and it was great. There’s no time to get nervous when you’re throwing stuff like that around but four o’clock rolled around and it was back to the rink. I felt the same as the day before not really nervous but less confidence.
I love Sheffield Steelers fans. They make me laugh. You’d have been hard pressed at times trying to work out who Panthers were playing on Sunday. Had it all been a dream? Were we playing Sheffield again? Cardiff scored and they erupted from their seats. I’m not saying all, having met one of their fans who’d rather support us than Brad Voth. I take my hat off to him, he had principle and wasn’t prepared to go against them just because it was us. I liked that. As ever the Steelers fans thought they could wind us up with their 1956 banners, if you can call a sheet of A4 a banner but what confused me was the bloke on the end of the row in block 4 with a t-shirt with 1971 across the front. Does he know something we don’t?
I didn’t want to be around anyone in the second interval. I just wanted to get away. The nerves and dread had got to me and I just wanted to be on my own for a while – not the easiest thing to do in a full arena. The few people that I saw that I did know looked as grim faced as me. A quick nod and a glance was enough to convey the way we were feeling. Worried. It didn’t feel like this is 2007, it was worse. I had people telling me I looked ill during the 2007 final and we were winning at that point.
Winning things is great, I love it and when you manage to do it without over time or penalty shots then it’s even better. I know where I was sitting when the hooter went but I’m not sure where I ended up. You end up hugging people which is a bit unusual for me. I’m not a particularly touchy feely person but suddenly everyone around you is your friend. By the time I’d left the building I’d been hugged by people I know, people I hardly know and people I’ve never met before. It was all quite nice really.
I’ve never really understood Sheffield’s love of having a party in the car park outside their arena but I sort of do now. I walk across Bolero Square quite frequently but it’ll never be the same again. The mass of people was amazing. Has a hand on a door handle ever created so much interest and anticipation before? The interviews meant nothing really, asking someone how they’re feeling after something like that always feels a bit redundant to me but it’s got to be done and they know we’ll cheer anything at that point. It did show something though Danny Meyers, ice hockey player, is far better with a microphone than Gary Moran, media type amongst other things. Makes you wonder really.
And so to the pub for one last time. I had a feeling of that’s it then as I walked to the pub and when we finally got in there it felt that way too for a while. I heard a Panthers fan sum it up perfectly – “we don’t really know any victory songs” and they were probably right. There wasn’t the raucous atmosphere of 2007, there wasn’t much singing. I think everyone was in shock. The place was full of Cardiff and Panthers fans, both stunned into silence for very different reasons. But, drink flowed, as it always will and over time the atmosphere got a bit more lively.
I love Jade Galbraith for one reason and one reason alone. OK, two but that was the Challenge Cup and we’re talking about the play-offs. Last time Panthers won the play-offs none of them came in The Castle. This time round Galbraith did and he did the rounds. At times he looked like a fly trying to get out of an open window and he could have got dressed, but he was there and I want to thank him for that. He liked my LNAH shirt as well… which was nice.
I don’t understand that Cardiff song but it doesn’t matter it’s as much a part of the play-offs the actual games. Its like unblocking a drain, as soon as they’ve got it out of the way more songs started and they kept going until well after midnight. OK, there were a bunch of Newcastle fans who wanted to moan that they’d got no money and hadn’t won anything or we’d got loads and had. I don’t really remember but I know I didn’t care, they were the only ones I saw show any bad grace all weekend and that’s their problem and their loss. We drank, we sang, Dave Simms ears burned. It was what this sport should be about.
Eventually the lights were flicked on and off and time was called. I don’t know why but the fact that we were almost last out of The Castle, our regular haunt seemed fitting in a way. More than 36 hours after it had started our weekend was over. It wasn’t the same in Bunkers Hill, the two Cardiff fans who’d been stood on a table in The Castle were up on the decidedly higher tables leading the chorus again and fair play to them. If getting up at 8:30 a.m. to go to the pub on a Saturday morning is a bit strange, going to bed at 1:30 a.m. on a Monday morning knowing there’s no work in the morning and you’ve just won the play-offs is the best feeling in the world.
I tried to explain why there was a bright pink, five eyed, plastic cat on the chest of drawers in our bedroom on Monday morning. I don’t think my wife really understood and eventually just said “I guess you had to be there” and you know what? She was right. You had to be there.


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