On Saturday I will be making one of my infrequent but always miserably enjoyable visits to see Cambridge United play.
There is always something thunderous and muddy about a lower league match. Cambridge play in League Two, the ineptly named fourth tier of English football. They are currently vying for a spot in the end-of-season play offs, hoping for promotion. I am not optimistic, but overt optimism at the Abbey Stadium would be out of place.
Cambridge United play to smallish crowds – a few thousand fill the ground. On a late Saturday midwinter afternoon, however, as the floodlights kick in against the black sky and the team bleakly and maniacally chase down an equaliser, a point, a freak win, or merely some dignity and self-respect, it can be an atmospheric place. It may not be as edifying as the Fitzwilliam Museum, or as serene and iconic as King’s College chapel, but it offers something a bit different.
It is, more’s the pity, one of those corners of Cambridge which foreign language students, rarely seek out. I can’t really find it in my heart to recommend it – while it is an excellent resource for certain kinds of language (language of despair; language of frustration; language of sweariness etc.), it is not a place where you interact much. You sit with your arms folded, frowning into the gloom, while the bronze age spectacle of ritual battle and defeat plays out in front of you.
But as a cultural event, it is, I would venture, highly typical of a certain sort of Englishness. On Saturday, for example, Cambridge is hosting Mansfield. And I am willing to bet that Mansfield, beyond these shores, is the least well known town of 100,000 souls in the kingdom, whatever they might sing about themselves on the terraces. Two unknown teams, then, clashing in meaningless battle on a lost winter afternoon. This, perhaps, is how we learn, not only that winning is not everything, but that winning or losing are largely meaningless. Just turning up is a minor triumph of comity and defiance.