EXCLUSIVE Red Balloons extract: Swindon Supermarine

To mark Swindon Town's annual pre-season visit to Swindon Supermarine, we're publishing an exclusive extract from Liam Walsh's heartfelt and heartbreaking Red Balloons.

Dad hadn’t been at his best through the last summer, the extent of which became clear when he was less keen on attending pre-season friendlies. When he did, we joked that his characteristic "get up, your mum’s watching" calling card to injury feigning opponents seemed rustier than usual on its first summer outing, as we watched yet another brand new Town XI tentatively tiptoe through a friendly. Clearly, he wasn’t yet match fit.

Summer has a lot to be commended for. Not least, the countdown to the day in late June when the fixtures for the new season are released, and we can start to look forward to winter. The shape of the season will be cast before us, an almighty download of details and optimism and hope and some certainty. Whatever life throws at us, this time, Swindon will be at home to Cambridge on Boxing Day and finish the season at Macclesfield. As usual, the scheduling will be mean, and we’ll be on holiday for the first home game. Frankly, there’s not much buzz to be had out of a League Two schedule, more than anything it’s a sad indictment of how far we’ve fallen: you can only judge a boxer by the mediocrity of his opponents. Still, this is the time to muster some enthusiasm and hey, I can’t help but pondering … early season successive away games at Exeter, Cheltenham, Leyton Orient … decent and popular away days each, now if only the Town could get on a roll … mmm, this could be fun.

Before that though, there’s the pre-season friendlies, and we all know that pre-season starts at Swindon Supermarine. So, winter starts, more or less, in the first week of July. And each year, Patrick, Euan and I literally count down those days, hours, minutes, seconds to leaves falling, winter starting, big coats on and life starting all over again.

The journey to Supermarine itself is a rehearsal for the real thing. Witney to Burford, smiling at the beautiful view of the Windrush valley to the right: the gateway to the Cotswolds and its rich golden honey of gentle limestone undulations. To the left, a crumbling dry-stone wall untouched in generations. On past the golf course, where in time-honoured tradition, we offer our score predictions. Patrick will dutifully capture them on his phone, reminding us of the league table, picking out trends … Dad, you’ve said 1-1 four games on the trot. It’s a glimpse into our psychology, our expectations … and rationale. It’s semi-competitive and at the end of the season, Grampy wins. 

Now, do we do it for friendlies? 

We can’t remember but yeah, surely, we usually win this one comfortably enough.

Four? Five? New striker, who knows?

What about the trialists?

It’s turning to winter in our heads, but the good folk flocking to the glorious Thames at picture-postcard Lechlade still think it’s midsummer. We’ll crawl through, acknowledging the field of swans and campers next to them, and on towards Highworth, up on the hill before us. Another season has turned, and still no progress on the proposed training ground to our right. We’ll talk about Lee Power, Swindon’s owner, his racehorses and our mutual connection through him, uncle Maurice back home in Waterford, Ireland. Each year, we’ll marginally improve our impressions of him.

"Well Shawwwwn, listen, we ain’t got no bladdy manney but we’re gonna give it a roight go this year."

Power’s motives, methods and means have long been debated by Town fans. He was to come out less than favourably at a court judgement into long-standing and ongoing legal considerations regarding the clubs ownership structure in 2020. But there and then, in summer 2019, we just wanted him, old school Cockney accent or not, to help Richie Wellens put a decent team on the pitch.

Once we’re atop the hill and through the lights at Highworth, past the chippy we’ll stop at in the rush to make Tuesday night games, we’re virtually at Supermarine. It is pretty busy and I’ll end up doing some dodgy reversing onto a grass verge too close to a junction. It’s not the best location and I’ll look awkwardly at the car, possibly shuffle it to and fro some more, then leave it, just leave it Liam, and walk a few hundred yards to the turnstiles. 

There is always a peculiar mood and sound to that queue and it is a queue that knows this is the year: chirpy, relaxed and buoyant. This is no ordinary football queue. It moves quickly and there is a satisfying click through as we pay our cash, buy a programme, look at the beautiful field of dreams before us.

Our heroes are lower-league footballers and while their earnings are modest enough, the difference in physique compared to their very much part-time hosts is striking. Up close, this view we only get in preseason confirms they are finely tuned professional athletes. We pin our emotions and expectations recklessly and unrealistically upon them. For the next ten months, every mistake will be pilloried, every success exaggerated. We’ll forget there’s a man before the squad number, our own perceptions and dreams foisted and projected onto them. Is our season going to be in ruins if we only beat them by three today? It was six last time and we know how that turned out: rubbish. Yes, definitely. We’ll hypothesise and overthink and argue but jeez, we should be putting seven or eight past these.  

Dad will try out his familiar jest when an opposition player hits the deck a little too willingly. This year he sounds hoarse, and his timing is awry. Fair play though Dad, none of us are quite on it yet — I don’t even know who our number 11 is.

On the way home, there’s a sharp and serious appraisal of the trialists, the boys Googling in the back for added detail, updates, will they keep him? Who else might we get in before Tuesday? We’ll have different, precious, opinions. Sometimes, we’ll agree to disagree. Sometimes, we’ll just disagree. We’re a family and we’re talking to each other. It’s all pored over with care and meaning. We will offer no unanimity on that new away kit. I don’t even know what colour it’s supposed to be. 

“Dad, you couldn’t even park the car properly.”

“Can we go to the next game at Melksham Dad?”

Football is back.

This July though, is different.

I didn’t know anything was different. Because it wasn’t obvious. But it soon would be.

You can buy Red Balloons from us in paperback and hardback here.

A share of the proceeds from every copy of Red Balloons sold is being donated to SUDC UK.