A few weeks ago I did a blog and a vlog from a Keighley Cougars Rugby League match, where I was doing an article for the Times magazine.
The piece appears this morning, with some terrific photos, and I hope the club think I did justice to the wonderful access I had, and to the passion that keeps institutions like Keighley Cougars going.
They won the game I went to see, against Oldham, so the players’ pay for the week was £200. For a defeat, they get £50. They save a few quid on petrol by sharing cars to training. They don’t have a gym but they do have a deal with Fitness First. And when I was allowed into the dressing room for the pre-match team talk, the place was so crowded the only place I could find to stand was in a puddle in the entrance to the showers.
So that is one end of the sporting financial spectrum. The other comes this weekend with the Football League play-offs and in particular Burnley v Sheffield United to win the final promotion place to the Premiership.
Burnley have known a few hard times down the years. We were reigning League Champions when I first saw them aged four. Fifteen years later, in 1976, we were relegated from the top flight, and we’ve not been back since. Eleven years after that, in the old fourth division, we had to win the last match of the season to stay in the Football League. And now we are on the verge of the big time again.
Monday’s match at Wembley is reckoned to be the event with the single biggest financial prize in world sport, as the TV deal for promotion is worth a guaranteed £60million over the next two years. Sixty million quid. Yes, we can all roll our eyes and say there is too much money in football, but my God what a boost it will give to Burnley, the club and the town, if we land that prize.
Now you have to admit that since we beat Reading to get to Wembley almost two weeks ago, I have been pretty good in keeping this a politics-dominated space, even amid the horrible expenses revelations, when I could have indulged my obsession with football in general and Burnley in particular. Not for nothing are the colours of the site claret and blue.
I said after Reading that there is nothing like football for the passion that can be generated in victories like the one we secured there. And there is nothing like football for the slow, steady build up of nervous energy before the game actually comes.
When I said that to someone in Edinburgh yesterday, he said surely a general election is worse. But the thing with an election, if you’re directly involved in the campaign, is that you are busy, virtually every minute of the day. In sport, you have nothing to do but think about it, talk about it, text about it, fret about it, imagine all the various scenarios of victory and defeat, and have ridiculous ideas about how you might be able to influence it.
It is bad enough being a supporter. It must be worse being a coach or a player in these last couple of days when you just want the game to start.
But we have definitely unearthed a gem in manager Owen Coyle, who must take so much of the credit for getting us this far. I have done the profile/interview piece on him for the matchday programme, and I was impressed just how calm he was about the whole thing, and how clearly certain footballing principles drive him.
Like a lot of good managers, he comes from a very working class West of Scotland background. He is a practising Catholic who never drinks and, where I sit a few rows behind the benches at home games, I have never heard him swear, which must be something of a rarity in a football manager.
It also suggests he might be a little out of place in the Keighley Cougars dressing room, where the F-word seemed to be an important part of the motivation process.
Great clubs though, both of them, and both an important part of my life, Keighley being my birthplace and Burnley the team I have supported for almost half a century. I think there is something very fitting that the Keighley piece appeared on this of all great sporting weekends. And Monday is my 52nd birthday. It’s all coming together. I think we’ll do it. I really do.
You see what I mean about having ridiculous thoughts about how you can influence the outcome.
I must remember to tie my left shoelace first on Monday, and keep one of my sleeve buttons undone. That’s what I did for Reading, and it seemed to do the trick.