Extra Time: How sporting escapism (and a baby) saved me from crumby 2016

Melton Times sports editor Chris Harby at Regional Press Awards EMN-170401-160548002
Melton Times sports editor Chris Harby at Regional Press Awards EMN-170401-160548002

The promise of a new year for normal, well-adjusted folk must be what the anticipation of a new season feels is to a sports fan.

An irrational hope that the state of the world, as well as our own lives within it, will improve, or at least fail to be as bad.

But for followers of all sports, the kick-off of a new season is different to the turn of a year.

While the real world staggers bleary-eyed and blinking into New Year’s Day, dragging all of its unwanted baggage behind it, teams and their fans can always start completely afresh.

The damning statistics of last year’s failures are washed away, sent away to the spam folder of our mind, and we start again on the interminable cycle of seasons.

That shambolic display by your back four, the embarrassing batting collapse, the painful derby defeat.

There is nothing like the blind hope and groundless optimism that a pre-season league table, resplendent in zeroes, can deliver.

With all of this in mind, you have to feel a little sympathy for the non-believers who are left to face the world without an escape hatch to slip through when reality turns too grim to contemplate.

Yet there are times, especially as we grow older, with the assumed greater maturity this is supposed to bring, when an over-reliance on sport can be a bit, well, embarrassing.

It can leave the incumbent feeling a little one-dimensional in intelligent company, and leave your priorities looking way off-kilter.

Fretting about a meaningless result or latest score while surrounded by splendid natural beauty, or immersed in the company of friends and family is a glaring personal flaw of mine.

But over the last 12 months with Trump, Brexit, Putin, Syria, the dizzying loss of so many wonderfully creative icons – I could go on – there seemed little wonder that some of us choose this escapist alternative universe.

I was lucky that the woes of the world were offset by the joy of my firstborn - a future England cricket captain, lord help him.

For every other sporting fan, there was the incredible exploits of our Olympians, with Mo Farah’s incredible defence of his long-distance double a personal favourite.

You couldn’t help but feel your spirits soar at Danny Willett’s Masters triumph, and Andy Murray’s epic climb to world number one.

And yet even here in planet sport lurks the potential for happiness to come crashing down around the ears of your escape artist.

By putting all of your eggs in one basket of sporting chance you are, of course, leaving yourself vulnerable to disappointment and frustration, instead of the unbridled joy you had naively imagined would fill the void.

My football team has an annoying habit of saving their worst performances for miserable or fretful times, such as the last hours of annual leave, or impending dental surgery.

And the fact that the previous season’s sins will be washed away, also means success can also feel very temporary.

This is particularly so in football where even league champions will be savaged by pundits longing for a fall from the pedestal.

And in the last 12 months even the terrors of the real world and coarse cynicism of humanity at large have barged their way uninvited into our panic rooms.

The bastion of all that is holy in sport was sullied as the doping cat was unleashed among the Olympic pigeons.

The moral compass of professional football continued its steadfast journey south through further greed-fuelled corruption and the allegations of widespread child abuse.

And when accusations of match fixing in tennis and snooker emerge (snooker!), you know sport is in an odd place.

This new year, more than ever, perhaps sport should join the real world in its search for a clean slate and a fresh start.