And the lion will lie down with the lamb. Or, two venture into the lions’ den.

Just to kick off the football season, I thought I’d get away from witches, witchfinders and swordmakers, and write about the beautiful game. Now anyone who knows me will be a bit surprised, as my usual response to being asked whether I want to watch football is, ‘No thank you, I’d rather have my ovaries removed with hot spoons’. However, love will make you do strange things…

Back in the mists of time (well, the mid-nineties, if you must know) my boyfriend du jour suggested a jaunt to see his team, Derby County. We lived in Forest Gate at the time, in East London. Full of cold, I reluctantly agreed, cheered slightly by the prospect of pre-match drinks.

During said pre-match drinks, I learned that the match was against Millwall. And it was going to be played at the Lions’ Den. My knees trembled. I had something called a Rusty Nail to steady my nerves and fettle my flu. Then I learned that this match would determine which team went up into the Premier League. And that Sunderland had gone up the week before. Great.

But a few more Rusty Nails later, it all seemed like a grand idea. What could possibly go wrong?

We set off for the bus (Forest Gate being inconveniently situated nowhere near a Tube station). As we got onto the bus, a rather harassed-looking mother was trying to wrestle her infant out of the pushchair so she could fold it in half (pushchair, not infant – this was in the days before pushchair spaces on buses). Being helpful, and not nearly as drunk as I’ve led you to believe, I offered to help. The mother explained there was a special knack to collapsing the pushchair and gratefully passed me the baby.

At that point, the bus doors closed and the bus drove off down the Romford Road. Suddenly, I was no longer a reluctant football fan with a snotty nose. I was an unwitting kidnapper. Much frantic bell-ringing later, the oblivious bus driver pulled in at the next stop and we started walking back to the original bus stop while the frantic mother came haring towards us.

Once mother and baby were reunited, we realised it was too late to make our way to Millwall by public transport, so we opted for a taxi. Or, in London speak, a minicab (ie, not a London black cab). The driver advised us that he’d just come out of prison and that today was his first day. Still, he seemed nice. He didn’t know the way, and this was in the days before SatNav, but with some collective effort and much asking of directions, we made it to the general vicinity.

As we drew near, the driver became increasingly nervous, and quarter of a mile away, refused to take us any further. We got out of the minicab to find ourselves marooned in what looked like some kind of post-apocalyptic film set. Deserted, silent and scattered with bungalow-sized lumps of concrete that were maybe some kind of road block. I gulped. Everyone else had gone in. We snuck into the Derby end.

I remember very little of the match, except being cold, gripped by fear and alarmed by some of the football chants. I wasn’t especially comforted to learn that I was now part of something called the ‘sheep-shag army’. ‘Did lions eat sheep?’, I wondered more than once. I was possibly more horrified than the Millwall fans when Derby won. They were going up to the Premiership. Millwall… was not.

All the horror stories I’d ever heard about football-related violence mentioned Millwall fans in hushed, almost hallowed tones. I started to worry about who would feed the five cats (yes, Syd, Rufus, Corky, Megan and Mimi would be orphans). Still, I felt certain that the fans would be let out separately…

But the gates opened, and everyone flooded out together, with all the Derby fans wearing their hats and scarves, and proudly carrying inflatable sheep aloft. (Actually, I might have imagined that last bit – false memory syndrome, or wishful thinking, maybe.) As we walked to the station, I braced myself for a sudden outburst of ultraviolence, watching out for the flash of razor on unsuspecting flesh.

Suddenly, we were all on the train, Rams and Lions together; the former cheerful, the latter less so. And that was it. We trundled towards the nearest Tube station without so much as a harsh word, said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

So, after my first and last major football match, Derby went up, the five cats got fed, and I never drank another Rusty Nail from that day to this. (That was also the end of my kidnapping career.)

For those of you who enjoy footy, have a great season! (I expect the rest of us will be reading, or something.)

Best wishes, Helen

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