The magic of a floodlit game at Villa Park. Picture Credit: Aston Villa FC; Clive Mason/Getty Images

All right on the night

The enchanted world of nocturnal football

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I was ten years old when I attended the first night match I can remember. I had been going to Villa Park for three years, but this was different. It was the first year I had a season ticket, I could stay up on a school night, it was 24 October 1990 and Villa were playing Inter Milan in the second round of the UEFA Cup.

Inter boasted the West German World Cup winners, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann, and other international stars like Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi and Nicola Berti. Villa had our own favourites — David Platt and an ageing Gordon Cowans — but the mismatch was almost total.

Night matches can freeze your toes and chill your bones

I remember it all so clearly. The excited anticipation among my school friends. The bus journey to the ground with my mother and brother. The cold air as we sat, wrapped up, in the Trinity Road Stand. Usually, we stood on the Holte End terrace — atop an old milk bottle crate — but Mom worried we would see little surrounded by adults in a packed crowd.

After fourteen minutes, Villa won a corner. The players went up to the Inter box and as the ball came loose, one of the centre halves, a Dane called Kent Nielsen, rifled the ball into the net from just outside the penalty area. If he had taken that same shot a hundred other times, he would surely have missed. But nobody cared. The excitement — no, delirium — erupted around the ground.

A second-half goal, scored more predictably by the talented Platt, meant Villa won 2-0. The next day at school we kids modestly asked, given that Villa had beaten the mighty Inter Milan, did that not make us the best team in the world?

The answer was unfortunately not, but regardless, the match will be seared on my brain forever, along with many other special evening matches. There were other European nights — tense games against Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao stand out, along with another victory against Inter on penalties in 1994 — but plenty of others too. League matches against Spurs and Manchester United, cup ties against Arsenal and local rivals Birmingham.

Not all of these games ended happily, but they stick in the memory because of the magic of the night match. For, somehow, football is not the same when it is played in the evening, under floodlights rather than in even wintery sun. The smells, the sounds, the cold, the anticipation, the atmosphere: it is all completely different.

It’ll be alight on the night: walking to Goodson Park. Picture Credit: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images.

And it is especially different when so many weekend matches are these days played as early as midday. Sometimes it is for television, sometimes for the police — who prefer derby games in particular to be played as early as possible, before fans have had the chance to drink in the pub for hours — but like a good steak, or a fine red wine, football is best enjoyed later in the day.

More puritanical readers might turn away at this point, but alcohol is, in fact, part of the explanation. It is no secret that many supporters loosen up in the pub before matches. We may lack the scientific proof to assert a causal link but if you ask any football fan they will agree: the wisdom of (football) crowds will tell you that there is a clear, direct relationship between the hours available to drink before a game, and the intensity of the atmosphere and volume of the singing once kick-off comes.

The magic of the night match is certain, even if the outcome is not

The cold might also be part of the explanation. For night matches can freeze your toes and chill your bones, and singing, or getting up and having a bloody good shout, is a useful way of keeping warm. And when you think about it, this argument is also nailed on. Why else would Newcastle supporters — surviving in the Premier League’s coldest city — enjoy such a reputation for singing given the dross they have had to watch for years?

But it is not just the atmosphere that is different with night matches. It is also the time we get to enjoy — if that is the word for the often anxious wait — the anticipation of the match. With night games, the tension builds, gradually, deliciously, through the day. At school, distracted kids talk of little else. At work, supporters talk and tease and argue and speculate and gamble. The importance of the game builds.

For away supporters, or for those of us who no longer live near their club’s home ground, there is also the long journey to get there. In the car with your family, on a coach with your mates, or on a train surrounded by hundreds of others wearing your club colours, you have already made yourself part of the collective. Your individuality still matters — think of the debates and rows about players, tactics and mistaken memories — but match day is a them-and-us situation. A long journey means your subsumption into the whole begins earlier.

And as part of that whole, a constituent of the collective, you watch, cheer and sing — lungs often opened at the expense of the liver — for your team. The magic of the night match is certain, even if the outcome is not, for football is nothing if not fickle. I might, as a ten-year-old boy, have witnessed Villa beat the mighty Inter 2-0, but two weeks later I had to endure, on television, the horror of the second-leg 3-0 defeat.

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