Doncaster and Darlington were lovers. Or so he thought. But he wasn’t even 10 yet, and what did he know about love? Mysterious bonds with parents and siblings, a mix of emotions too deep to explore, and a passion for football, his local team. And a passion for collecting things – lollipop wrappers and bubblegum cards. And football programmes, chosen for him by a mail order firm. A lucky dip, and in the beginning there they were – Doncaster and Darlington, always together in the pile, always in the same division, so close they seemed to be chasing each other – and they always seemed to be playing each other. They weren’t married, obviously, because they were football teams and also places, up north somewhere. But they were always paired in the tables, hand in hand, promoted together and relegated together – and with a name like darling, they must be lovers, he thought.
Occasionally there was Derby, popping up in the pile to disrupt the sequence. But Derby was familiar – a bus-ride away – and Derby was bad news. A friend had told him that Derby fans had head-butted him just because he was wearing the wrong-coloured scarf. That’s why they’re called the Rams, he said. Didn’t you know? No, he said, he didn’t know, but the programme had a ram’s head on the cover, butting in between Doncaster and Darlington, like a spoiler at the wedding who objects to the couple's joining. But the joining continued regardless.
Years later, what had changed? He knew now that Doncaster was near Sheffield and Darlington near Newcastle. Miles apart, and a slim chance of playing each other because Doncaster was still bouncing up and down the divisions, while Darlington had drifted into non-league obscurity, and they'd only be playing each other in the beginning in the programmes that had been chosen for him, supposedly at random. But he'd grown up with a mental picture of the UK, moulded by those kick-off snapshots of 92 teams which were also places.
And somewhere in the picture, there was Doncaster and Darlington, still paired, and joined at the hip like Siamese twins. Or rather, like a loving couple, the Don and his Darling; the man of steel with his consort, who wears a Quaker’s hat. Those mysterious bonds, that mix of emotions too deep to explore – had anything changed? Decades had passed; yet Doncaster and Darlington were still coupled. So perhaps it was a marriage after all, even though they were football teams and also places. It was a marriage because certain beginnings are creative times, times spanning who knows how long when anything is possible, and chance comes along to tie things together – tied with a knot that’s impossible to unravel, and stored in a mental cupboard for evermore. Doncaster and Darlington were lovers, and that was a fact.